Reality TV

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
"If reality TV has taught us anything, it's that you can't keep people with no shame down."
Liz Lemon30 Rock, "Subway Hero"

"Reality" television is a genre of television programming in which the (mis)fortunes of "real-life" people (as opposed to fictional characters played by actors) are followed. The native habitat of Reality TV Tropes, if you will.

There are three main types of reality TV. In the first, the viewer and the camera are passive observers following people going about their daily personal and professional activities. This style of filming is often referred to as "fly on the wall". The "plots" which are compiled for the program often resemble soap operas, hence the description "Docu Soap".

Though there were earlier precedents on radio and television, the Ur Example for this type of reality show was probably the PBS series An American Family. Twelve parts were broadcast in the United States in 1973. The series dealt with a nuclear family going through a divorce. The parents had several children and one of them, Lance Loud, was openly homosexual; he occasionally wore lipstick and women's clothes and, in the second episode, took his mother to a drag show. Scholars sometimes mention that Lance came out of the closet on TV, but this is technically incorrect—he was simply homosexual without announcement. His family confirmed that he had been out for some time. An American Family was controversial in its time and was excoriated by the press, particularly The New York Times, which published a piece criticizing the series and especially Lance Loud. However, this didn't stop it from achieving Ratings in the 10 million range, proving that there was an audience for reality TV as early as The Seventies.

In 1974, a counterpart programme, The Family, was made in the UK, following the working class Wilkins family of Reading. Australia saw Sylvania Waters in 1992, about the nouveau riche Baker-Donaher family of Sydney. Both attracted their share of controversy.

Perhaps responsible for inspiring the recent interest in reality television is MTV's The Real World, one of the first reality programs to gain mainstream popularity. A new subset of this type has recently emerged in which the daily lives of celebrities are portrayed, many of them Famous For Being Famous. Examples include The Anna Nicole Show, The Osbournes and Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

In the second type, hidden cameras are rolling when random passers-by encounter a staged situation. The reactions of the passers-by can be funny to watch, but also revealing to the truths about the human condition. Allen Funt, an American pioneer in reality entertainment, led the way in the development of this type of show. He created Candid Microphone, which debuted on the ABC Radio Network in 1947, and the internationally successful Candid Camera, which first aired on television in 1953. He later produced a feature-length reality-film in 1968 entitled What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?. The film was a hidden-camera study of sexuality and mores of the time. For example, in one staged situation, passers-by encountered an inter-racial couple.

In the third type, the so-called "reality game shows" (see Reality Show), participants are filmed intensively in an enclosed environment while competing to win a prize—thus they are game shows and discussed more thoroughly in that article. The reality game show genre has become pervasive enough to be parodied by Spike TV with The Joe Schmo Show.

One difference that makes these more like "reality television" than other game shows is that the viewing public and/or the contestants usually (but not always) play an active role in deciding the outcome. Usually this is by eliminating participants (disapproval voting, often one per week) or voting for the most popular choice to win (with some other voting system). Some popular reality-based game shows of this sort are Big Brother, Survivor, and American Idol. There is also a Spanish-language show taped for Latin American audiences, Protagonistas De La Musica, filmed in Miami by Telemundo USA.

However, given that producers can control the format of the show, as well as manipulate the outcome of some of them, it is questionable how "real" reality television actually is.

See also Reality Show, Reality TV Tropes, The Truman Show, EDtv

Examples of Reality TV include:

Documentary style

(Some of the shows in this section are arguably true documentaries, in which the producers make a good-faith effort to document their actual subject, not interfering with the events just to make a better story.)

Historical re-creation

  • The 1900 House (1999) (UK; living in historical conditions. Also shown on PBS)
  • The 1940s House (2001) (UK)
  • Churchill's Secret Agents: The New Recruits (2018) (UK-US; American version of British simulation of the World War II Special Operations Executive training course).
  • Colonial House (2004) (US; PBS show set in the American frontier of 1628)
  • Frontier House (2002) (US; PBS show set in the American frontier of 1883)
  • Klondike: The Quest for Gold (2003) (Canada)
  • Le Moyen 1903 (2003) (Switzerland/TSR)
  • Pioneer Quest: A Year in the Real West (2000) (Canada)
  • Quest for the Bay (2002) (Canada)
  • Regency House Party (2004) (UK) * The Edwardian Country House aka Manor House (2002)
  • The Ship (2002) (UK)
  • Warrior Challenge (2004) (US)


  • The 5th Wheel (2001)
  • Average (2003)
  • The Bachelor (2002)
  • The Bachelorette (2003)
  • Bachelorettes in Alaska (2002)
  • Blind Date (UK) (1985)
  • Blind Date (US) (1999)
  • Boy Meets Boy (2003)
  • Cupid (2003)
  • Daisy of Love (2009)
  • ElimiDATE (2002)
  • EX-treme Dating (2002)
  • Flavor of Love (2006)
  • For Love or Money (2003)
  • For the Love of Ray J (2009)
  • I Love New York (2007)
  • Joe Millionaire (2003) and The Next Joe Millionaire (later the same year)
  • Married by America (2003)
  • Megan Wants a Millionaire (2009)
  • Millionaire (2003)
  • Mr. Personality (2003)
  • My Antonio (2009)
  • My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé (2004)
  • Outback Jack (2004)
  • Playing It Straight (2004)
  • Real Chance of Love (2008)
  • Rock of Love (2007)
  • Streetmate (UK)
  • Temptation Island (2001)
  • Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? (2000)
  • Would Like To Meet (UK)

Law Enforcement/Military


Life Change

Docusoaps starring celebrities

Hidden camera

Reality game shows


Talent Searches

Fantasies Fulfilled


(Some of the shows in this section are arguably true documentaries, in which the producers make a good-faith effort to document their actual subject, not interfering with the events just to make a better story. Though some situations do seem staged or scripted. Individual episodes are deliberately set up.)