Types Of Tv Shows Essay Contest

"Reality TV" redirects here. For the channel formerly known as "Reality TV", see Zone Reality.

"Reality Show" redirects here. For other uses, see Reality Show (disambiguation).

Reality television is a genre of television programming that documents supposedly unscripted real-life situations, and often features an otherwise unknown cast of individuals who are typically not professional actors, although in some shows celebrities may participate. It differs from documentary television in that the focus tends to be on drama, personal conflict, and entertainment rather than educating viewers. An early term for the format was docu-soap.[1] The genre has various standard tropes, including "confessionals" (also called talking heads or interview segments) used by cast members to express their thoughts, which often double as the shows' narration. In competition-based reality shows, a notable subset, there are other common elements such as one participant being eliminated per episode, a panel of judges, and the concept of "immunity from elimination."

An early example of the genre was the 1991 Dutch series Nummer 28, which was the first show to bring together strangers and record their interactions.[2] It then exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the global success of the series Survivor, Idols, and Big Brother.[3] These shows and a number of others (usually also competition-based) became global franchises, spawning local versions in dozens of countries. Reality television as a whole has become a fixture of television programming. In the United States, various channels have retooled themselves to focus on reality programs, most famously MTV, which began in 1981 as a music video pioneer, before switching to a nearly all-reality format in the early 2000s.

There are grey areas around what is classified as reality television. Documentaries, television news, sports television, talk shows, and traditional game shows are not classified as reality television, even though they contain elements of the genre, such as unscripted situations and sometimes unknown participants. Other genres that predate the reality television boom have sometimes been retroactively grouped into reality TV, including hidden camera shows such as Candid Camera (1948), talent-search shows such as The Original Amateur Hour (1948), documentary series about ordinary people such as the Up Series (1964), high-concept game shows such as The Dating Game (1965), home improvement shows such as This Old House (1979), and court shows featuring real-life cases such as The People's Court (1981).

Reality television has faced significant criticism since its rise in popularity. Much of the criticism has centered on the use of the word "reality", and such shows' attempt to present themselves as a straightforward recounting of events that have occurred. Critics have argued that reality television shows do not accurately reflect reality, in ways both implicit (participants being placed in artificial situations), and deceptive or even fraudulent, such as misleading editing, participants being coached in what to say or how to behave, storylines generated ahead of time, and scenes being staged or re-staged for the cameras. Other criticisms of reality television shows include that they are intended to humiliate or exploit participants (particularly on competition shows); that they make stars out of either untalented people unworthy of fame, infamous personalities, or both; and that they glamorize vulgarity and materialism.

History[edit]

Television formats portraying ordinary people in unscripted situations are almost as old as the television medium itself. Producer-host Allen Funt's Candid Camera, in which unsuspecting people were confronted with funny, unusual situations and filmed with hidden cameras, first aired in 1948, and is often seen as a prototype of reality television programming.[4][5]

1940s–1950s[edit]

Precedents for television that portrayed people in unscripted situations began in the late 1940s. Queen for a Day (1945–1964) was an early example of reality-based television. The 1946 television game show Cash and Carry sometimes featured contestants performing stunts. Debuting in 1948, Allen Funt's hidden camera show Candid Camera (based on his previous 1947 radio show, Candid Microphone) broadcast unsuspecting ordinary people reacting to pranks.[6] In 1948, talent search shows Ted Mack'sOriginal Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts featured amateur competitors and audience voting. In the 1950s, game shows Beat the Clock and Truth or Consequences involved contestants in wacky competitions, stunts, and practical jokes. Confession was a crime/police show which aired from June 1958 to January 1959, with interviewer Jack Wyatt questioning criminals from assorted backgrounds.[7] The radio series Nightwatch (1951–1955) tape-recorded the daily activities of Culver City, California police officers. The series You Asked for It (1950–1959) incorporated audience involvement by basing episodes around requests sent in by postcard from viewers.

1960s–1970s[edit]

First broadcast in the United Kingdom in 1964, the Granada Television documentary Seven Up!, broadcast interviews with a dozen ordinary 7-year-olds from a broad cross-section of society and inquired about their reactions to everyday life. Every seven years, a film documented the life of the same individuals during the intervening period, titled the Up Series, episodes include "7 Plus Seven", "21 Up", etc.; it is still ongoing. The program was structured as a series of interviews with no element of plot. However, it did have the then-new effect of turning ordinary people into celebrities. The first reality show in the modern sense may have been the series The American Sportsman, which ran from 1965 to 1986 on ABC in the United States.[8][9] A typical episode featured one or more celebrities, and sometimes their family members, being accompanied by a camera crew on an outdoor adventure, such as hunting, fishing, hiking, scuba diving, rock climbing, wildlife photography, horseback riding, race car driving, and the like, with most of the resulting action and dialogue being unscripted, except for the narration.

Another precursor may be considered Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom which aired from 1963 through 1988. This show featured zoologist Marlin Perkins traveling across the globe and illustrating the wide variety of animal life on the planet. Though mostly a travelogue, it was popular in syndication and new episodes were produced through the eighties.[10] In the 1966 Direct Cinema film Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol filmed various acquaintances with no direction given; the Radio Times Guide to Film 2007 stated that the film was "to blame for reality television".[11]

The 12-part 1973 PBS series An American Family showed a nuclear family (filmed in 1971) going through a divorce; unlike many later reality shows, it was more or less documentary in purpose and style. In 1974 a counterpart program, The Family, was made in the UK, following the working class Wilkins family of Reading.[12] Other forerunners of modern reality television were the 1970s productions of Chuck Barris: The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, all of which featured participants who were eager to sacrifice some of their privacy and dignity in a televised competition.[13] In 1978, Living in the Past recreated life in an Iron Age English village.

1980s–1990s[edit]

Producer George Schlatter capitalized on the advent of videotape to create Real People, a surprise hit for NBC, which ran from 1979 to 1984. The success of Real People was quickly copied by ABC with That's Incredible, a stunt show co-hosted by Fran Tarkenton; CBS's entry into the genre was That's My Line, a series hosted by Bob Barker. The Canadian series Thrill of a Lifetime, a fantasies-fulfilled reality show, originally ran from 1982 to 1988 and was revived from 2001 to 2003. In 1985, underwater cinematographer Al Giddings teamed with former Miss UniverseShawn Weatherly on the NBC series Oceanquest, which chronicled Weatherly's adventures scuba diving in various exotic locales. Weatherly was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in informational programming.[14]COPS, which first aired in the spring of 1989 on Fox and came about partly due to the need for new programming during the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike,[15] showed police officers on duty apprehending criminals; it introduced the camcorder look and cinéma vérité feel of much of later reality television.

The series Nummer 28, which aired on Dutch television in 1991, originated the concept of putting strangers together in the same environment for an extended period of time and recording the drama that ensued. Nummer 28 also pioneered many of the stylistic conventions that have since become standard in reality television shows, including a heavy use of soundtrack music and the interspersing of events on screen with after-the-fact "confessionals" recorded by cast members, that serve as narration. One year later, the same concept was used by MTV in its new series The Real World. Nummer 28 creator Erik Latour has long claimed that The Real World was directly inspired by his show;[16] however, the producers of The Real World have stated that their direct inspiration was An American Family.[17] According to television commentator Charlie Brooker, this type of reality television was enabled by the advent of computer-based non-linear editing systems for video (such as produced by Avid Technology) in 1989. These systems made it easy to quickly edit hours of video footage into a usable form, something that had been very difficult to do before (film, which was easy to edit, was too expensive to shoot enough hours of footage with on a regular basis).[18]

The 1994–95 O.J. Simpson murder case, starting with 90 minutes of live network television of Simpson being chased by police, has been described as a seminal moment in reality television, with coverage of the true-life drama interrupting regular television programming for months and dominating ratings and the public conversation.[19][20] Many reality television stars of the 2000s and 2010s also have direct or indirect connections to people involved in the case, most notably defense attorney Robert Kardashian's daughter, Kim Kardashian, and several of her relatives and associates.[21][22]

The series Expedition Robinson, created by television producer Charlie Parsons, which first aired in 1997 in Sweden (and was later produced in a large number of other countries as Survivor), added to the Nummer 28/Real World template the idea of competition and elimination, in which cast members/contestants battled against each other and were removed from the show until only one winner remained (these shows are now sometimes called elimination shows). Changing Rooms, a program that began in 1996, showed couples redecorating each other's houses, and was the first[citation needed] reality show with a self-improvement or makeover theme. The dating reality show Streetmate premiered in the UK in 1998. Originally created by Gabe Sachs as Street Match, it was a flop in the United States; however, the show was revamped in the UK by Tiger Aspect Productions and became a cult hit. The production team from the original series went on to create popular reality shows Strictly Come Dancing, Location, Location, Location, and the revamped MasterChef, amongst others.[citation needed] The 1980s and 1990s were also a time when tabloid talk shows came to rise, many of which featured the same types of unusual or dysfunctional guests who would later become popular as cast members of reality shows.

2000s[edit]

Reality television saw an explosion of global popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the successes of the Big Brother and Survivor/Expedition Robinson franchises. In the United States, reality television programs experienced a temporary decline in viewership in 2001, leading some entertainment industry columnists[who?] to speculate that the genre was a temporary fad that had run its course.[citation needed] Reality shows that suffered from low ratings included The Amazing Race (although the show has since recovered and is in its 29th edition), Lost (unrelated to the better-known serial drama of the same name) and The Mole (which was successful in other countries).[23] However, this proved not to be the case for stronghold shows Survivor and American Idol, which both topped the U.S. season-average television ratings in the 2000s: Survivor led the ratings in 2001–02, and Idol has the longest hold on the No. 1 rank in the American television ratings, dominating over all other primetime programs and other television series in the overall viewership tallies for eight consecutive years, from the 2003–2004 to the 2010–2011 television seasons.

Internationally, a number of shows created in the late 1990s and 2000s have had massive global success. At least ten reality-television franchises created during that time have had over 30 international adaptations each: the singing competition franchises Idol,[24]Star Academy[25] and The X Factor, other competition franchises Survivor/Expedition Robinson, Big Brother, The Biggest Loser, Got Talent, Top Model, MasterChef, and Dancing with the Stars, and the investment franchise Dragons' Den. Several "reality game shows" from the same period have had even greater success, including Deal or No Deal, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and Weakest Link, with over 50 international adaptions each. (All but three of these franchises, Top Model, The Biggest Loser and Dragons' Den, were created by either British producers or the Dutch production company Endemol; and even Dragons' Den, which originated in Japan, has had most adaptations be based on the British version.) In India, the competition show Indian Idol was the most popular television program for its first six seasons.[26]

The 2000s saw the launches of three television channels devoted exclusively to reality television: Fox Reality in the United States, which existed from 2005 to 2010; Global Reality Channel in Canada, which lasted two years from 2010 to 2012; and Zone Reality in the United Kingdom, which operated from 2002 to 2009. In addition, several other cable channels, including Bravo, A&E, E!, TLC, History, VH1, and MTV, changed their programming to mostly comprise reality television series during the 2000s.[27]

During the early part of the 2000s, network executives expressed concern that reality-television programming was limited in its appeal for DVD reissue and syndication. DVDs for reality shows in fact sold briskly; Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, and America's Next Top Model all ranked in the top DVDs sold on Amazon.com, and in the mid-2000s, DVDs of The Simple Life outranked scripted shows like The O.C. and Desperate Housewives. Syndication, however, has indeed proven problematic; shows such as Fear Factor, COPS, and Wife Swap in which each episode is self-contained, can indeed be rerun fairly easily, but usually only on cable television or during the daytime (COPS and America's Funniest Home Videos being exceptions). Season-long competitions such as The Amazing Race, Survivor, and America's Next Top Model generally perform more poorly and usually must be rerun in marathons to draw the necessary viewers to make it worthwhile (even in these cases, it is not always successful: the first ten seasons of Dancing with the Stars were picked up by GSN in 2012 and was run in marathon format, but experienced very poor ratings). Another option is to create documentaries around series including extended interviews with the participants and outtakes not seen in the original airings; the syndicated series American Idol Rewind is an example of this strategy.

COPS has had huge success in syndication, direct response sales and DVD. A Fox staple since 1989, COPS has, as of 2013 (when it moved to cable channel Spike), outlasted all competing scripted police shows. Another series that has seen wide success is Cheaters, which has been running since 2000 in the U.S. and is syndicated in over 100 countries worldwide. In 2001, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences added the reality genre to the Emmy Awards in the category of Outstanding Reality Program. In 2003, to better differentiate between competition and informational reality programs, a second category, Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, was added. In 2008, a third category, Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program, was added. In 2007, the web seriesThe Next Internet Millionaire appeared; it was a competition show based in part on The Apprentice, and was billed as the world's first Internet reality show.

2010s[edit]

In 2010, The Tester became the first reality television show aired over a video game console.[28] By 2012, many of the long-running reality television show franchises in the United States, such as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor, had begun to see declining ratings.[29] However, reality television as a whole remained durable in the U.S., with hundreds of shows across many channels. In 2012, New York Magazine's Vulture blog published a humorous Venn diagram showing popular themes across American reality shows then running, including shows set in the U.S. states of Alaska, Louisiana and Texas, shows about cakes, weddings and pawnbrokers, and shows, usually competition-based, whose title includes the word "Wars".[30]The Voice, a singing competition franchise created by John de Mol that started in 2010, is the newest highly successful reality television franchise, with almost 50 international adaptations.

Duck Dynasty, a hunting-themed reality series featuring the Robertson family that founded Duck Commander, in 2013 became the most popular reality series in U.S. cable television history. Its fourth-season premiere was viewed by nearly 12 million viewers in the United States, most of which were in rural markets. Its rural audience share has ranked in the 30s, an extremely high number for any series, broadcast or cable. In 2014, Entertainment Weekly and Variety again noted a stagnation in reality television programs' ratings in the U.S., which they attributed to "The diminishing returns of cable TV's sea of reality sameness". They noted that a number of networks that featured reality programming, including Bravo and E!, were launching their first scripted shows, and others, including AMC, were abandoning plans to launch further reality programs; though they clarified that the genre as a whole "isn't going anywhere."[31][32]

Subgenres[edit]

There have been various attempts to classify reality television shows into different subgenres:

  • A 2006 study proposed six subgenres: romance, crime, informational, reality-drama, competition/game, and talent.[33]
  • A 2007 study proposed five subgenres: infotainment, docusoap, lifestyle, reality game shows, and lifestyle experiment programs.[34]
  • A 2009 study proposed eight subgenres: "gamedocs", dating programs, makeover programs, docusoaps, talent contests, court programs, reality sitcoms, and celebrity variations of other programs.[35]

Another categorization divides reality television into two types: shows that purport to document real life, and shows that place participants in new circumstances. In a 2003 paper, theorists Elisabeth Klaus and Stephanie Lücke referred to the former category as "docusoaps", which consist of "narrative reality", and the latter category as "reality soaps", which consist of "performative reality".[36] Since 2014, the Primetime Emmy Awards have used a similar classification, with separate awards for "unstructured reality" and "structured reality" programs, as well as a third award for "reality-competition" programs.

Documentary-style[edit]

In many reality television programs, camera shooting and footage editing give the viewer the impression that they are passive observers following people going about their daily personal and professional activities; this style of filming is sometimes referred to as fly on the wall or factual television. Story "plots" are often constructed via editing or planned situations, with the results resembling soap operas – hence the terms docusoap and docudrama. Documentary-style programs give viewers a private look into the lives of the subjects.

Within documentary-style reality television are several subcategories or variants:

Soap-opera style[edit]

Although the term "docusoap" has been used for many documentary-style reality television shows, there have been shows that have deliberately tried to mimic the appearance and structure of soap operas. Such shows often focus on a close-knit group of people and their shifting friendships and romantic relationships. One highly influential such series was the American 2004–2006 series Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, which attempted to specifically mimic the primetime soap opera The O.C., which had begun airing in 2003. Laguna Beach had a more cinematic feel than any previous reality television show, through the use of higher-quality lighting and cameras, voice-over narration instead of on-screen "confessionals", and slower pacing.[37]Laguna Beach led to several spinoff series, most notably the 2006–2010 series The Hills. It also inspired various other series, including the highly successful British series The Only Way Is Essex and Made in Chelsea, and the Australian series Freshwater Blue.

Due to their cinematic feel, many of these shows have been accused of being pre-scripted, more so than other reality television shows have. The producers of The Only Way Is Essex and Made in Chelsea have admitted to coaching cast members on what to say in order to draw more emotion from each scene, although they insist that the underlying stories are real.[38]

Another highly successful group of soap-opera-style shows is the Real Housewives franchise, which began with The Real Housewives of Orange County in 2006 and has since spawned nearly twenty other series, in the U.S. and internationally. The franchise has an older cast and different personal dynamics than that of Laguna Beach and its imitators, as well as lower production values, but similarly is meant to resemble scripted soap operas – in this case, the television series Desperate Housewives and Peyton Place.

A notable subset of such series focus on a group of women who are romantically connected to male celebrities; these include Basketball Wives (2010), Love & Hip Hop (2011), Hollywood Exes (2012), Ex-Wives of Rock (2012) and WAGS (2015). Most of these shows have had spin-offs in multiple locations.

There are also fly-on-the-wall-style shows directly involving celebrities. Often these show a celebrity going about their everyday life: notable examples include The Anna Nicole Show, The Osbournes, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Hogan Knows Best. VH1 in the mid-2000s had an entire block of such shows, known as "Celebreality". Shows such as these are often created with the idea of promoting a celebrity product or upcoming project.

Subcultures[edit]

Some documentary-style shows shed light on cultures and lifestyles rarely seen otherwise by most of their viewers. One example is shows about people with disabilities[39] or people who have unusual physical circumstances, such as the American series Push Girls and Little People, Big World, and the British programmes Beyond Boundaries, Britain's Missing Top Model, The Undateables and Seven Dwarves.

Another example is shows that portray the lives of ethnic or religious minorities. Examples include All-American Muslim (Lebanese-AmericanMuslims), Shahs of Sunset (affluent Persian-Americans), Sister Wives (polygamists from a Mormon splinter group), Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia (the Amish), and Washington Heights (Dominican Americans).

The Real Housewives franchise offers a window into the lives of social-striving urban and suburban housewives. Many shows focus on wealth and conspicuous consumption, including Platinum Weddings, and My Super Sweet 16, which documented huge coming of age celebrations thrown by wealthy parents. Conversely, the highly successful Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty are set in poorer rural areas of the Southern United States.

Professional activities[edit]

Some documentary-style shows portray professionals either going about day-to-day business or performing an entire project over the course of a series. One early example (and the longest running reality show of any genre) is Cops,[40] which has been airing since 1989. Other such shows specifically relating to law enforcement include The First 48, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Police Stop!, Traffic Cops, Border Security and Motorway Patrol.[41]

Shows set at a specific place of business include American Chopper, Miami Ink and its spinoffs, Bikini Barbershop and Lizard Lick Towing.

Shows that show people working in the same non-business location include Airport and Bondi Rescue.

Shows that portray a set of people in the same line of work, occasionally competing with each other, include Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers and Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles and its spinoffs.

Financial transactions and appraisals[edit]

One notable subset of shows about professional activities are those in which the professionals haggle and engage in financial transactions, often over unique or rare items whose value must first be appraised. Two such shows, both of which have led to multiple spinoff shows, are Pawn Stars (about pawn shops) and American Pickers. Other shows, while based around such financial transactions, also show elements of its main cast members' personal and professional lives; these shows include Hardcore Pawn and Comic Book Men. Such shows have some antecedent in the British series Antiques Roadshow,[42] which began airing in 1979 and has since spawned numerous international versions, although that show includes only appraisals and does not include bargaining or other dramatic elements.

"Structured reality"[edit]

While for "documentary-style" shows it is implied that the events shown would still be taking place even if the cameras were not there, in other shows the events taking place are done overtly for the sake of the show. These shows differ from "reality competition" shows or "reality game shows" (see below) in that participants do not compete against one another.[citation needed]

Special living environment[edit]

Some documentary-style programs place cast members, who in most cases previously did not know each other, in artificial living environments; The Real World is the originator of this style. In almost every other such show, cast members are given specific challenges or obstacles to overcome. Road Rules, which started in 1995 as a spin-off of The Real World, started this pattern: the cast traveled across the country guided by clues and performing tasks.

Big Brother is probably the best known program of this type in the world, with around 50 international versions having been produced. Other shows in this category, such as The 1900 House, involve historical re-enactment, with cast members living and working as people of a specific time and place. 2001's Temptation Island achieved some notoriety by placing several couples on an island surrounded by single people in order to test the couples' commitment to each other. U8TV: The Lofters combined the "special living environment" format with the "professional activity" format noted earlier; in addition to living together in a loft, each member of the show's cast was hired to host a television program for a Canadian cable channel.

The Simple Life, Tommy Lee Goes to College and The Surreal Life are all shows in which celebrities are put into an unnatural environment.

Court shows[edit]

Main article: Court show

Main article: Reality legal programming

Originally, court shows were all dramatized and staged programs with actors playing the litigants, witnesses and lawyers. The cases were either reenactments of real-life cases or cases that were fictionalized altogether. Among examples of stage courtroom dramas are Famous Jury Trials, Your Witness, and the first two eras of Divorce Court. The People's Court revolutionized the genre by introducing the arbitration-based "reality" format in 1981, later adopted by the vast majority of court shows. The genre experienced a lull in programming after The People's Court was cancelled in 1993, but then soared after the emergence of Judge Judy in 1996. This led to the debuts of a slew of other reality court shows, such as Judge Mathis, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Alex, Judge Mills Lane and Judge Hatchett.

Though the litigants are legitimate, the "judges" in such shows are actually arbitrators, as these pseudo-judges are not actually presiding in a court of law. Typically, however, they are retired judges, or at least individuals who have had some legal experience.

Courtroom programs are typically daytime television shows that air on weekdays.

Investments[edit]

The globally syndicated format Dragons' Den shows a group of wealthy investors choosing whether or not to invest in a series of pitched startup companies and entrepreneurial ventures. The series Restaurant Startup similarly involves investors, but involves more of a game show element in which restaurant owners compete to prove their worth. The British series Show Me the Monet offers a twist in which artworks' artistic value, rather than their financial value, is appraised by a panel of judges, who determine whether each one will be featured at an exhibition.

Outdoor survival[edit]

Another subgenre places people in wild and challenging natural settings. This includes such shows as Survivorman, Man vs. Wild, Marooned with Ed Stafford and Naked and Afraid. The shows Survivor and Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls combine outdoor survival with a competition format, although in Survivor the competition also involves social dynamics.

Self-improvement/makeover[edit]

Some reality television shows cover a person or group of people improving their lives. Sometimes the same group of people are covered over an entire season (as in The Swan and Celebrity Fit Club), but usually there is a new target for improvement in each episode. Despite differences in the content, the format is usually the same: first the show introduces the subjects in their current, less-than-ideal environment. Then the subjects meet with a group of experts, who give the subjects instructions on how to improve things; they offer aid and encouragement along the way. Finally, the subjects are placed back in their environment and they, along with their friends and family and the experts, appraise the changes that have occurred. Other self-improvement or makeover shows include The Biggest Loser, Extreme Weight Loss and Fat March (which cover weight loss), Extreme Makeover (entire physical appearance), Queer Eye, What Not to Wear, How Do I Look?, Trinny & Susannah Undress... and Snog Marry Avoid? (style and grooming), Supernanny (child-rearing), Made (life transformation), Tool Academy (relationship building) and Charm School and From G's to Gents (self-improvement and manners).

The concept of self-improvement was taken to its extreme with the British show Life Laundry, in which people who had become hoarders, even living in squalor, were given professional assistance. The American television series Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive follow similar premises, presenting interventions in the lives of people who suffer from compulsive hoarding.

In one study, participants who admitted to watching more reality television were more likely to proceed with a desired plastic surgery than those who watched less.[43]

Renovation[edit]

Some shows make over part or all of a person's living space, work space, or vehicle. The American series This Old House, which debuted in 1979, features the start-to-finish renovation of different houses through a season; media critic Jeff Jarvis has speculated that it is "the original reality TV show."[44] The British show Changing Rooms, beginning in 1996 (later remade in the U.S. as Trading Spaces) was the first such renovation show that added a game show feel with different weekly contestants.[citation needed]

House renovation shows are a mainstay on the American/Canadian cable channel HGTV, whose renovation shows include the successful franchises Flip or Flop, Love It or List It and Property Brothers, as well as shows such as Debbie Travis' Facelift, Designed to Sell and Holmes on Homes. Non-HGTV shows in this category include Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and While You Were Out.

Pimp My Ride and Overhaulin' show vehicles being rebuilt in a customized way.

Some shows, such as Restaurant Makeover and Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, show both the decor and the menu of a failing restaurant being remade.

Social experiment[edit]

Another type of reality program is the social experiment that produces drama, conflict, and sometimes transformation. British TV series Wife Swap, which began in 2003, and has had many spinoffs in the UK and other countries, is a notable example. In the show, people with different values agree to live by each other's social rules for a brief period of time. Other shows in this category include Trading Spouses, Bad Girls Club and Holiday Showdown. Faking It was a series where people had to learn a new skill and pass themselves off as experts in that skill. Shattered was a controversial 2004 UK series in which contestants competed for how long they could go without sleep. Solitary was a controversial 2006-2010 Fox Reality series that isolated contestants for weeks in solitary confinement pods with limited sleep, food and information while competing in elimination challenges ended by a quit button, causing winners to go on for much longer than needed as a blind gamble to not be the first person to quit.

Hidden cameras[edit]

Another type of reality programming features hidden cameras rolling when random passers-by encounter a staged situation. Candid Camera, which first aired on television in 1948, pioneered the format. Modern variants of this type of production include Punk'd, Trigger Happy TV, Primetime: What Would You Do?, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Just for Laughs: Gags. The series Scare Tactics and Room 401 are hidden-camera programs in which the goal is to frighten contestants rather than just befuddle or amuse them. Not all hidden camera shows use strictly staged situations. For example, the syndicated program Cheaters purports to use hidden cameras to record suspected cheating partners, although the authenticity of the show has been questioned, and even refuted by some who have been featured on the series.[45] Once the evidence has been gathered, the accuser confronts the cheating partner with the assistance of the host. In many special-living documentary programs, hidden cameras are set up all over the residence in order to capture moments missed by the regular camera crew, or intimate bedroom footage.

Supernatural and paranormal[edit]

Further information: paranormal television

Supernatural and paranormal reality shows such as MTV's Fear, place participants into frightening situations which ostensibly involve paranormal phenomena such as ghosts, telekinesis or haunted houses. In series such as Celebrity Paranormal Project, the stated aim is investigation, and some series like Scariest Places on Earth challenge participants to survive the investigation; whereas others such as Paranormal State and Ghost Hunters use a recurring crew of paranormal researchers. In general, the shows follow similar stylized patterns of night vision, surveillance, and hand held camera footage; odd angles; subtitles establishing place and time; desaturated imagery; and non-melodic soundtracks. Noting the trend in reality shows that take the paranormal at face value, New York Times culture editor Mike Hale[46] characterized ghost hunting shows as "pure theater" and compared the genre to professional wrestling or softcore pornography for its formulaic, teasing approach.[47]

Hoaxes[edit]

In hoax reality shows, a false premise is presented to some of the series participants; the rest of the cast may contain actors who are in on the joke. These shows often served to parody the conventions of the reality television genre. The first such show was the 2003 American series The Joe Schmo Show. Other examples are My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss (modeled after The Apprentice), My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, Hell Date (modeled after Blind Date), Superstar USA (modeled after American Idol), Bedsitcom (modeled after Big Brother), Space Cadets (which convinced the hoax targets that they were being flown into space), Invasion Iowa (in which a town was convinced that William Shatner was filming a movie there) and Reality Hell[48] (which featured a different target and premise every episode). Other hoax shows are not intended for comedic effect and do not include actors. In some shows, a person of wealth or power has their identity disguised so that they can go among less-privileged people in order to see them in their natural state and judge their worthiness for largesse; the other participants are not told the true nature of the show during filming. Popular examples include Undercover Boss (though that show is also intended to let bosses see their business more accurately) and The Secret Millionaire. Other shows, though not hoax shows per se, have offered misleading information to some cast members in order to add a wrinkle to the competition. Examples include Boy Meets Boy and Joe Millionaire.

Reality competition/game shows[edit]

See also: List of reality television game shows

Another subgenre of reality television is "reality competition", "reality playoffs", or so-called "reality game shows," which follow the format of non-tournament elimination contests. Typically, participants are filmed competing to win a prize, often while living together in a confined environment. In many cases, participants are removed until only one person or team remains, who is then declared the winner. Usually this is done by eliminating participants one at a time (or sometimes two at a time, as an episodic twist due to the number of contestants involved and the length of a given season), through either disapproval voting or by voting for the most popular to win. Voting is done by the viewing audience, the show's own participants, a panel of judges, or some combination of the three.

A well-known example of a reality-competition show is the globally syndicated Big Brother, in which cast members live together in the same house, with participants removed at regular intervals by either the viewing audience or, in the American version, by the participants themselves. There remains disagreement over whether talent-search shows such as the Idol series, the Got Talent series and the Dancing with the Stars series are truly reality television, or just newer incarnations of shows such as Star Search. Although the shows involve a traditional talent search, the shows follow the reality-competition conventions of removing one or more contestants in every episode, allowing the public to vote on who is removed, and interspersing performances with video clips showing the contestants' "back stories", their thoughts about the competition, their rehearsals and unguarded behind-the-scenes moments. Additionally, there is a good deal of unscripted interaction shown between contestants and judges. The American Primetime Emmy Awards have nominated both American Idol and Dancing with the Stars for the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program Emmy.

Game shows like Weakest Link, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, American Gladiators and Deal or No Deal, which were popular in the 2000s, also lie in a gray area: like traditional game shows (e.g., The Price Is Right, Jeopardy!), the action takes place in an enclosed television studio over a short period of time; however, they have higher production values, more dramatic background music, and higher stakes than traditional shows (done either through putting contestants into physical danger or offering large cash prizes). In addition, there is more interaction between contestants and hosts, and in some cases they feature reality-style contestant competition or elimination as well. These factors, as well as these shows' rise in global popularity at the same time as the arrival of the reality craze, have led to such shows often being grouped under both the reality television and game show umbrellas.[49] There have been various hybrid reality-competition shows, like the worldwide-syndicated Star Academy, which combines the Big Brother and Idol formats, The Biggest Loser, which combines competition with the self-improvement format, and American Inventor, which uses the Idol format for products instead of people. Some reality shows that aired mostly during the early 2000s, such as Popstars, Making the Band and Project Greenlight, devoted the first part of the season to selecting a winner, and the second part to showing that person or group of people working on a project.

Popular variants of the competition-based format include the following:

Dating-based competition[edit]

Dating-based competition shows follow a contestant choosing one out of a group of suitors. Over the course of either a single episode or an entire season, suitors are eliminated until only the contestant and the final suitor remains. In the early 2000s, this type of reality show dominated the other genres on the major U.S. networks. Shows that aired included The Bachelor, its spin-off The Bachelorette, as well as Temptation Island and Average Joe. In Married by America, contestants were chosen by viewer voting. More recent such shows include Flavor of Love (a dating show featuring rapper Flavor Flav that led directly and indirectly to over 10 spinoffs), The Cougar and Love in the Wild. This is one of the older variants of the format; shows such as The Dating Game that date to the 1960s had similar premises (though each episode was self-contained, and not the serial format of more modern shows).

Job search[edit]

In this category, the competition revolves around a skill that contestants were pre-screened for. Competitors perform a variety of tasks based on that skill, are judged, and are then kept or removed by a single expert or a panel of experts. The show is usually presented as a job search of some kind, in which the prize for the winner includes a contract to perform that kind of work and an undisclosed salary, although the award can simply be a sum of money and ancillary prizes, like a cover article in a magazine. The show also features judges who act as counselors, mediators and sometimes mentors to help contestants develop their skills further or perhaps decide their future position in the competition. Popstars, which debuted in 1999, may have been the first such show, while the Idol

There is a persistent dream that television will be more than it is: that it will not only sit in every home, but make a conduit for those homes to reach back to a shared fund of life.

The utopia of television nearly came within reach in 1992, on the day cable providers announced that cable boxes would expand to 500 channels. Back then, our utopian idea rested on assumptions both right and wrong. We assumed network-sized broadcasters could never afford new programming for so many active channels. That was right. We also assumed TV subscribers wouldn’t stand for 500 channels of identical fluff, network reruns, syndicated programs, second-run movies, infomercials, and home shopping. That was wrong.

We were sure the abundance of channels would bring on stations of pure environmental happiness, carrying into our homes the comforts everyone craves: the 24-hour Puppy Channel, the Sky Channel, the Ocean Channel, the Baby Channel—showing nothing but frolicsome puppies, placid sky, tumultuous ocean, and big-headed babies. It never happened. And yet cable TV did indeed get cut up for small pleasures, in the advertisement of more utilitarian interests, on the Food Network, the InStyle Network, and Home and Garden Television (HGTV).(Natural beauty took hold on cable only in the pious slideshows of the Christian channels, where Yosemite is subtitled by 1st Corinthians.)

The meaningful history of technology turns out to be a history of its fantasized uses as much as of the shapes it actually takes. Our cable-box dreams finally rested on one beautiful notion: the participatory broadcasting of real life. With such a ludicrous number of channels, companies would just have to give some of the dial over to the rest of us, the viewers—wouldn’t they? And we millions would flow into the vacuum of content. We’d manifest our nature on channels 401 to 499 as surely as do puppies, ocean, and sky. We’d do it marrying, arguing, staring at the wall, dining, studying our feet, holding contests, singing, sneezing. Hundreds of thousands of us had cameras. Well, we’d plug them in and leave the tape running for our real life.

In this underlying dream, we were neither exactly wrong nor right. The promise of the 500 channels went to waste. The techno-utopians’ fantasies shifted to the internet. Nothing like the paradise we hoped for came to fruition on TV, that’s for sure. Instead we got reality TV.


The assessment of reality television depends first on your notion of television; second, on your idea of political community.

Here is a standard misconception: since the noblest forms of artistic endeavor are fictional and dramatic (the novel, film, painting, plays), it can be assumed that the major, proper products of television will be its dramatic entertainments, the sitcom and the hour-long drama. I think this is wrong, and very possibly wrong for a whole number of reasons. Drama has a different meaning in a commercial medium where “programming” came into being as bacon to wrap the real morsels of steak, the 90-second advertisements. It means something different when it exists in a medium we switch on to see “what’s on TV” rather than to find a given single work; when the goal is more often to watch television than to watch a particular drama and then turn it off.

From its beginnings in the early 1950s, TV has been blamed for encouraging overindividualism, for hastening consumer suckerdom, for spurring passivity and couch-potatoness, and for making up the sensational bread-and-circuses of mass-culture tyranny. That pretty much covers it. And yet when opponents tried to divide the wretched things flickering inside the idiot-box into categories, they made excuses for quite unnecessary forms that they felt they recognized (highbrow TV dramas) while deriding unique and far more important items that didn’t suit their vision of dramatic art (game shows, local news, now reality shows).

The real principled problem ought to be with drama. The modern form of the longstanding Western philosophical argument against placing drama at the center of a republic was articulated twenty years beforethe American Revolution. Rousseau insisted in his Letter to M. D’Alembert that a republic (in his case Geneva, circa 1758) was correct to keep a theater out of its public life. To Rousseau, a republic is a political community in which each person is equal and sovereign—as it should be to us, today, living in the American republic. The citizen is not sovereign alone, but sovereign through his activity in a community of peers. The drama, when it was given too much power, crowded out the true entertainments of any republican political community— entertainments whose delights must be rooted in that self-regard and free judgment in daily activity which strengthens the bonds of citizen to citizen. (Bear in mind that Rousseau, in ancien régime Paris, loved the theater: “Racine charms me and I have never willingly missed a performance of Molière.” A corrupt order, of nobility and monarchy, could hardly be made worse by drama and might be made better. But the philosopher loved a republic more.)

Rousseau expected that a republic’s civic entertainments would be displays of what people already do. Singing, building, decorating, beauty, athletics, and dancing gave pleasure and “entertainment” because the participants not only accomplished the acts but became spectacles to themselves—and to others, their equals and fellow-citizens, who had done just the same activities. Republican entertainments might often take the form of the contest or the demonstration. But they might also be the special celebration of ordinary living itself—the “festival”:

Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of a square; gather the people together there, and you will have a festival. Do better yet; let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; let them become actors themselves; do it so each sees and loves himself in the others so that all will be better united.

“Let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves”: a part of TV has always done this. It has meant, at different times, local programming, Huntley and Brinkley, the national news at 6 and local news at 11, talk shows and talent shows, This is Your Life and the regional tours of Wheel of Fortune. Accept, though, that television’s most important function might always have been to let citizens see each other and be seen in their representatives—in our only truly national universal medium—and you’re left to ask what will accomplish it best today. Reality television may furnish its dark apotheosis—a form for an era in which local TV has been consolidated out of existence, regional differences are said to be diminishing (or anyway are less frequently represented), and news, increasingly at the service of sales departments, has forfeited its authority to represent the polity.


We need myths, not only of our ideal, and our average, but of our fallen extreme. Since the establishment of informed-consent rules in the 1970s, the golden age of social psychology is gone. No more Stanley Milgram’s proof that ordinary citizens will push the voltage to the red zone while the electrocuted actor screams—so long as a lab-coated tester is there to give the orders. No more Philip Zimbardo’s proof that fake guards will brutalize fake prisoners if you arbitrarily split Stanford students into two groups, lock them in a basement, and leave them to their own devices. No more Harold Garfinkel’s demonstrations that testers can drive strangers berserk if they stare at other riders on the elevator or if children refuse to recognize their parents. Today we are reliant on Elimidate, Punk’d, and Survivor. Watching reality television is like walking one long hallway of an unscrupulous and peculiarly indefatigable psychology department.

The first ideal-type of reality TV is the show of the pure event. Cops represents one end of its spectrum, the low-budget dating shows (Blind Date, Elimidate, Fifth Wheel, Xtreme Dating) the other. You discern patterns in each—the effect on the watchful viewer is of a patterned repetition of wholly singular encounters. In the endless scenes of arrests, traffic stops, drive-by warnings (“OK, you ain’t going to do it again”), domestic disturbances, and interviews with complainants (“Calm down, ma’am, just tell me what happened”), it becomes clear that justice, at the level of the arrest, has less to do than you might have thought with the code of law. Between cop and civilian, everything is determined by personality; each word is a step in a negotiation; the tools each side possesses seem arbitrary and confused, in the wheedling or vagueness of the suspect, the mock-authoritativeness and lack of information of the cop. So you make notes to your criminal self: never voluntarily submit to a search. But it doesn’t take long to realize that, in the situation, you wouldn’t remember all you’d learned watching Cops; politeness and hustling would take over. In the immediate interaction between two people, each staring into the other’s eyes and trying to persuade him toward escape or incrimination, drugged by fear when not hazy with narcotics, you see the hidden face-to-face interactions of your countrymen.

And on Blind Date and Xtreme Dating and Fifth Wheel, with wary daters eyeing each other over pasta dinners, leglessly drunk in a hundred indistinguishable neon dives and, afterwards, on the best dates, mumbling vulgar blandishments in hot tubs, you see that romance is not angelic recognition nor simple animal lust but a negotiation—the same as in the Cops arrest. The blind date and the traffic stop become on late-night TV the two paradigmatic experiences of American encounters between strangers. Homogenous America is instantly disproved by bizarre America. It is reassuring to watch this openness and fumbling. Finally you see without intermediary dramatization the landscape of tanning salons and restaurants and aikido studios in every corner of the country, the still-distinct accents but universalized, television-influenced behaviors, the dilemma of what to say and which personality to project, as if the social relation were being rebuilt, in a cutaway scale model of our society—a great televised Ark of a changing civilization—two by two.

So even though evidently all women look for “sense of humor” and all men want someone “I can have fun with,” even though all good girls say they are “wild” and all good boys avow that they are “players,” this has only an equivocal effect on individuals’ relentlessly erroneous attempts to approximate trends and manners learned from TV, which seems to be what’s really going on. Yoyoing modesty and immodesty (“I’m a bad girl. I mean, I’m mostly bad in bed”); frank talk about penis size and boob jobs but wildly variable estimates on the morality of kissing on a first date; shy clumsiness masked under pornographic aspirations (“Have you ever had a threesome?” “No, that’s more like, a goal of mine”)—this, the cameras prove, is the current American performing-reality. Everyone tries to play someone else on TV, but still feels so many tethering strings from the prosaic, deficient, and plain polite that conformity becomes chaotic and imitation idiosyncratic.


“Voyeurism” was never the right word for what it means to watch these shows. You feel some identification with the participants, and even more sympathy with the situation. “And if I were pulled over—and if I were set up on a blind date—how would I fare?” But primarily, and this is the more important thing to say about reality TV, there is always judgment. You can’t know the deeds your countrymen will do until you see them; and once these deeds are seen, you won’t fail to judge and retell them. Reality TV is related in this respect to the demimonde of The People’s Court, Divorce Court, Judge Hatchett,and Judge Judy. Classy critics hate these shows too, or claim to. I think that’s a mistake. The way in which all reality TV—and much of daytime TV—can be “real” across social classes is in its capacity for judgment. The “friends” on Friends were an ideological group, propagandists for a bland class of the rich in a sibling-incest sitcom. The show didn’t allow you to take their idiocy to task, nor ever to question the details of how they paid their rent or their hairdresser’s bill, or how they acted on the “outside.” If only Judge Judy could sit in judgment of them, once! If only Cops would break down their door and throw them against the wall! Monica, you ignorant Skeletor, eat a sandwich! Ross, you vainglorious paleontologist, read a book! You mortuary creep! Truly, the judge shows have a vengeful appeal: they gather every inept, chiseling, weaseling, self-focused sort of person you meet in your daily life and, counting on each one’s stupidity and vanity to get him up into the dock, they yell at him.

This is one way to come to terms with your fellow citizens. Much reality TV, by contrast, communicates a relative openness of judgment, though judgment is its one constant—and does so also by its wider identity of situation between the viewer and those before the cameras. (Nearly everybody has dated, and, from rich to poor, nearly everybody fears the police when driving and will call on them when threatened.) Reality TV’s judgment falls on “another oneself,” however much one retains the right to disown and ridicule this nitwitted fellow-citizen. Nowadays, at every level of our society, there is a hunger for judgment. Often this becomes summary judgment—not so much the wish to know the truth, but the brutal decisionism that would rather be wrong than stay in suspension. This is the will not to deliberate but to sentence. In the political realm, it has influenced the shape of the current disaster. Its soft manifestations own the therapeutic talk shows, in the sniffling and nose wiping of a Dr. Phil, where the expert is never at a loss. He will not say: “No, your situation is too messed up for me to advise you; I have a similar problem; think for yourself.” Whereas the cheapest and rawest reality TV offers you a chance to judge people like you, people who do lots of the same things you do. It is cheap, it is amoral, it has no veneer of virtue, it is widely censured and a guilty pleasure, and it can be more educational and truthful and American than most anything else, very suitable for our great republic.


Until, that is, one began to see what the capital-rich networks would make of it. For they got into the act, like dinosaurs in an inland sea, and they made the waters heave. They developed the grandiose second ideal-type of filmed reality, courtesy of bigger budgets and serial episodes: the show of the group microcosm.

The microcosms were large-scale endeavors, financed by FOX, MTV, NBC, ABC, CBS, and the WB. (The other shows had been cheaply made and served up to UHF and low-budget cable stations by syndication, or, like Cops, run in the early barebones years of FOX and retained.) MTV’s The Real World, which put teens in a group house with cameras, was the earliest and most incomplete example. The pun in its “real world” title meant both that you would see how non-actors interacted (initially fascinating) and that this was, for many of the children on the show, their first foray away from home (pretty boring, after the umpteenth homesick phone call). MTV’s goal was to make up a “generation,” not a society, as MTV is the most aggressive promoter of one version of youth as a wholesale replacement of adult life.

Subsequently the broadcast networks converted the dating “event” show into sagas of thirty suitors, peeling them away one by one until only the chosen bride or groom remained. Big Brother turned the house show, too, into a competition. An even more triumphant microcosm was Survivor—followed, in time, by The Amazing Race. The newer shows that defined the microcosmic reality and blended it with competition adopted the same basic forms of social discovery that had animated the birth of the English novel: the desert-island Robinsonade of Survivor, the at-the-ends-of-the-earth-bedragons imperialist travelogue and quest romance of The Amazing Race, even, perhaps, the sentimental seductions of The Bachelor, where so many willing Clarissas rode in limousines squealing to a manor house to hand their hearts to Lovelace.

Yet Survivor never took up the society-from-nothing isolation of the desert island, which had motivated the original Robinson Crusoe. The Amazing Race didn’t care about the Englishman-in-Lilliput foreignness of Swift or the chance meetings of picaresque or even the travelers’ tall tales in Hakluyt. The shows had no interest in starting civilization from scratch. Nor for that matter were they much interested in travel—on The Amazing Race, you glimpse the blurred locals out the windows of speeding cars. These shows were about the spectacularization of a microcosmic America—about the reduction of society to a cross-section of our countrymen—still so very American, never “going native.”

The shows put together sociable Americans, so they would have nothing left but their group interactions, their social negotiations, to keep them going. Nobody let them starve, nothing endangered them. Nominally structured as a contest of skill, skill mattered little and “alliances” much on Survivor. The sniping and soothing in couples and trios—forming and reforming, betraying and sticking together—were the main things of interest on that show and on The Amazing Race, where it was hard to tell if we were supposed to care, really, that one pair ran faster than another. How do Americans talk and how do they arrange things, in a completely minimal setting, a little like the office and a little like the home but not totally unlike a sequestered jury? So many of the contestants brought the workplace with them, and they were meant to, since they were identified at every subtitle of their names with their stateside jobs: Actor/Model, Computer Programmer, Fireman. This was our festival. Let’s see if the alliance can hold between the Stock Trader, the Carpenter, and the Actress. Who will emerge as the “Survivor”? Let’s race the Midget and her Cousin, so lovable, against the Bad Couple Who Should Not Marry. Let’s see who our true representatives are.

The structure of each of the shows that “voted people off the island,” requiring the microcosm to draw itself down each week, echoed, with static, the old idea of a republic of political equals, who despite unequal skills and endowments one by one would recuse themselves from activity to leave a single best representative behind to speak in public for their interests. If we truly all are equals in America, this would be a picture, in ideal form, of how we choose aldermen and selectmen and Congressmen—using our sovereignty to withdraw our sovereignty, that is to say, to focus it in the hands, for two or four years, of individuals who act for us. By this means the microcosm programs resembled political allegories.

And yet many of the reality shows of the microcosmic community were quite deliberately, self-consciously implanted, sometimes by the rules, sometimes by the informal instructions given to players, with an original sin. That sin was the will to power by trickery, the will to deception, which puts the power-mad ahead of the natural leader. And the players did not rebel—they accepted this, knowing it too well from home, from what they would call their “real life.” “That’s how you play the game,” each aspiring survivor explained, with the resignation of a trapped bear chewing off its leg, “you have to fool people, you can only be loyal to yourself.” They had the republican ideal in their hands, and didn’t use it. It got confused with the economic or Darwinian model of competition, in which anti-representative stratagems are justified because one wins in the defeat and eradication of all others to gain a single jackpot. This, too, was an aspect of the realness of “reality” for Americans: we knew we were witnessing republics of voting or shared excellence competing, or perhaps blending, with another force in our lives.


As deception and power-hunger are the sins built into the microcosm, so the fixed norm is the flaw introduced into shows of pure judgment. It produces the third ideal type of reality TV: the show of the industry standard.

It was latent in the grand-scale dating shows, these contests that brought in the single judge and red roses and arbitrary rules and an image of romantic love from somewhere in the minds of Hallmark: but who knows, maybe this was close enough to the values of dreamy romance to form some people’s preexisting reality. In American Idol, though, you see the strong beginning of the reality show of the third type. American Idol was the best, and the most insinuating, of the industry shows because it took one of the basic categories of common endeavor, that Rousseau loved well—a singing contest, the commonplace sibling of a beauty or dancing or athletic contest. Everyone sings, if only in the shower—and the footage of the worst contestants made clear that the contest did include all of us, that the equivalent of singing in the shower was being considered, too, on the way to the final idol. The show had “America” judge, by casting the final votes, en masse. Yet it used professional judges in the meantime, a panel of allegorical experts, Simon Cowell (rhymes with “scowl”; the Stern Judge; George III), Paula Abdul (the Universal Sexy Mommy; Betsy Ross), and Randy Jackson (the Spirit of Diversity). Allegorically, America would free itself from the tyranny of the English King, having learned his wisdom, pay due homage to its own diversity, and enjoy the independence to make its own choice—which the hands-tied Englishman’s production company would have to live with, and distribute to record stores. Poor George III! What one really learned was that, unlike a singing contest in the high school gym, the concern of the recording industry was not just, or no longer, whether someone could sing. It was whether a contestant was fitted to the industry, malleable enough to meet the norms of music marketing. The curtain was pulled away from the Great Oz, and the public invited to examine his cockpit and vote which lever or switch to pull next. As it turns out, it is really no less pleasant to choose a winner to suit the norms of music marketing, than to choose on individual talent. One was still choosing, and the idol would still be ours. An idol of the marketplace, to be sure, but still our representative American idol.

The major new successes of the past few years have taught (or pretended to teach) the norms of other industries. The Apprentice, a show in which one tries to learn skill in business, teaches the arbitrariness of contemporary success in relation to skill. The winners are conditioned to meet a certain kind of norm, not really familiar from anywhere else in life, which corresponds to “the values of business” as interpreted by Trump. America’s Next Top Model shows how a beauty contest ceases to be about beauty. The real fascination of the show is learning, first, how the norms of the fashion industry don’t correspond to ordinary ideas of beauty (you knew it abstractly, here’s proof!), but to requirements of the display of clothes and shilling for cosmetics; second, how the show will, in the name of these norms, seek something quite different in its contestants—a psychological adhesiveness, a willingness to be remade and obey. The Starlet suggests the distance between the norms of TV acting and the craft of acting—and yet again, in the name of “how it’s done in the industry,” which provides one kind of interest, the contestants are recast psychologically, which provides the other. And on it goes, with “how to become a chef” (Hell’s Kitchen) and “how to be a clothing designer’s minion” (The Cut), et cetera.1

All this is interesting and revealing in its way. But the final stage is all too familiar: that is, the flow back of norms justified by industry into norms for inner spaces—first the mind, which accepts insane instructions and modifications, then the spaces that have nothing to do with either public life or work, and should offer safety from their demands. I am thinking of the home and the integral body, underneath the skin.

For a final, baroque range of reality shows has emerged in the last two years: The Swan, Extreme Makeover, and, when these turned out to be slightly more than viewers could bear, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and its copycat shows. The Swan and Extreme Makeover also drew on the most basic of all spectacles-of-excellence, the beauty contest or “pageant”—which once formed a way of seeing or understanding the country, as in the Miss America contests (when you would root for your state while admiring the flowers of the other forty-nine). And the new shows advanced a new kind of norm by recreating it surgically, by literally rebuilding people’s faces and bodies to suit, not beauty, but a kind of televisual glamour. Ordinary unattractive people, given nose jobs, boob jobs, liposuction, lip collagen, tummy tucks, and chin pulls—plus fifty minutes of therapy—looked like wax mannequins when, alone and imprisoned in a Gothic mansion, the naturally lovely host pulled the velvet drapes back from the mirror, and the rebuilt women, inevitably, began to weep, shocked. Then the host spoke: “You’re crying because you’ve never seen yourself so beautiful. You’re crying because you’ve been transformed,” intoning these words until the weeping speechless victim nodded. If this looked like brainwashing, you hardly knew the horror of it until the camera cut to a boardroom of the delighted surgical experts who had done the work—each one of them equally off-kilter and monstrous because of surgical modifications made to his own face or teeth or eyes or hair. (Flashback to one of the famous Rod Serling-written Twilight Zone episodes, this one from 1960: an ordinary woman is called “ugly” and pressured into damaging facial surgery that we can’t understand—until the camera pulls back to show us that everyone in her world is hideously disfigured! Yee-ikes!)

The point of these shows was not just how people would be altered, but that they could be altered. As the Six Million Dollar Man introduction used to say, “We have the technology . . .” but what was needed was the rationale. When this transdermal insertion of the norm into average people came to seem suspect, the networks increasingly devoted episodes to already hideously ugly and disfigured people, so that the norm could be disguised as charity or medical necessity. But the greater success proved to be the subtle turn, with charitable aspect intact, to demolishing and rebuilding people’s homes rather than their faces, in the adjunct called Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which supersized existing home-decorating reality shows like Trading Spaces (on which two neighbors agree to redecorate one room in each other’s home). Extreme Makeover would get at privacy in one way or another; if not through the body then through the private space that shelters it. A team of experts came in to wreck your shabby domicile and rebuild it. The dwellings that resulted were no longer homes, but theme houses; instead of luxuries, the designers filled rooms with stage sets keyed to their ten-minute assessments of the residents’ personalities: “Little Timmy wants to be a fireman, so we made his room look like it’s on fire!” As long as the homeowners were poor or handicapped enough, anything was a step up. The show has been an enormous hit.

Whatever can be done in the name of charity or medicine or health will allow the reinsertion of the norm into further spheres of privacy. Fox is said to be planning Who Wants to Live Forever?, a “program that predicts when participants will die and then helps them extend their lifespan through dieting, exercise, [and] breaking bad habits.” The circle is closed, and “reality” here no longer lets us observe our real life, but its modifications in the name of a statistical life to come. The private matters we can’t, or shouldn’t, see flow in to replace our public witnessing of each other. And the festival is no longer of ourselves, but of phantasms projected by industries of health, beauty, home, all industries requiring our obedience; worse than the monsters of drama, because they don’t admit their degree of fiction.


The reality of reality television is that it is the one place that, first, shows our fellow citizens to us and, then, shows that they have been changed by television. This reality is the unacknowledged truth that drama cannot, and will not, show you. A problem of dramatic television, separate from what the corrupt characters say and do, is that it shows people who live as if they were not being shaped by television. On this point it profoundly fails to capture our reality. (The novel, in contrast, was always obsessed with the way consciousness was shaped and ruined by reading novels.) And this is consistent with the way in which television, more than other media, has a willingness to do the work of shaping life, and subservience to advertising and industry, even when its creators do not understand what they’re up to. Drama says: this is harmless, fictional. In fact it pushes certain ways of life. But wherever industrial norms repenetrate the televised rendition of reality, they can directly push certain ways of life, no longer even needing to use the mediation of “harmless” fiction and drama.

One can sometimes fight corruption with corruption: Blind Date to counter Friends. So what in our television experience, against Extreme Makeover, will show the ways in which homes and faces cannot be remade? Who will make the reality to counter “reality”?

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