Photo Credit: Rolling Stone Archives
Believe it or not, reality television was given life prior to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Real Housewives and Jersey Shore. In fact, the progression of reality television has been increasingly dramatic over the years especially with the introduction of reality game shows, which began surfacing on networks nearly 20 years ago with shows such as Survivor and The Amazing Race.
Before taking a look at where reality television stands today, we’re rewinding to the early days of documented, unscripted shows that enticed millions of viewers.
In 1964, one of the first documentaries hit the airwaves through the British show, Seven Up! The series featured a handful of students in the U.K. who were attending school at the age of 7. The students were interviewed every seven years until they reached the ages of 49 – aka eight episodes over 49 years. 14 students voluntarily starred in the series which transformed their title depending on the year the show premiered, so Seven Up, then 14 Up, 21 Up, etc.
In enters the game show era, beginning in 1970 with shows like Dating Game, Newlywed Game and Gong Show bringing in the most viewers – all shows maintained similar elements like revealing secrets about their personal lives and relationships. These game shows also founded basic formats for future game shows that took the lead from these ‘70s hits.
Appearing in 1989, and still on today, Cops was one of the first television series which featured bad behavior in an entertaining light. Fans clung to the television just to see what would happen next. Cops could arguably be considered one of the first shows people grew addicted to, or binge watched.
Shortly after it became apparent people loved viewing embarrassing behavior on TV, MTV took a hint and debuted the first season of Real World in 1992. And the opening theme of the show says it all – “This it the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house… work together and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real.” Now 30 seasons later, Real World has stemmed into nearly a dozen spinoff shows and ultimately created the bad behavior culture of reality television.
After Real World, came Big Brother and Survivor, nearly simultaneously in the very beginning of the new millennium. Ironically, both shows exploded with viewership and were constantly tied for top of the ratings chart every week. Other similarities? The premise of both shows involved being isolated from the outside world –whether in a locked room or on the other side of the globe on an island. On the reality television timeline, this marks a point when audiences began choosing favorites on shows and rooting for cast members as if they were their own family.
What’s better than a group of friends/enemies behaving badly? Well, it’s families interacting and behaving badly. The Osbournes debuted in 2002 as the whacky family that no one could understand, but somehow still related to. Fans were drawn into the inaudible soundtrack of Ozzy Osbourne parenting his two children Jack and Kelly, and wifey Sharon came off as the surprisingly nurturing mother who balanced her household of rock ‘n roll and adolescent upbringing.
Although currently on the heels of its final season, American Idol successfully took off in 2004 as another game show formatted series, but with a twist – contestants were to sing their way into Hollywood. The show eventually took the route of urging audiences to watch cringe-worthy auditions, which were debatably the hook of the entire series.
Around 2005, reality television took off full force with nearly every network on your cable provider featuring different versions of reality – from the SciFi network and the History Channel to TLC and Bravo. NBC Universal's Bravo built an enormous franchise with The Real Housewives which premiered in 2005 and has since expanded into cities across the country (and Australia) and Keeping Up With The Kardashians as the newer, shinier (and much curvier) version of The Osbournes.
MTV has remained on their path of reality success with Punk’d, Teen Mom, Catfish, The Challenge, Jersey Shore and all the spinoffs that come along with their dozens of reality series.
It’s hard to tell when the reality phase will end, but as long as the secret recipe is there to make an addicting program, fans are likely to watch for as long as possible. The upside of reality television is there will always be a storyline somewhere, with someone – you just have to look a little deeper.