The History of Reality Television
We don’t usually question what it is we watch on television or why it is we enjoy it. All we know is that shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Flavor of Love” are sometimes the fluff pieces we need to watch after a really long and tiring day. More than just provide enough comic relief to keep us fixated on the screen, these shows “promise more drama, suspense, and laughter while pushing the envelope of what is morally and socially acceptable, funny, and, of course entertaining” (Frisby). And in doing so, these kinds of shows fit the definition of reality television. “Reality TV is the genre of programming in which the everyday routines of “real life” people (as opposed to fictional characters played by actors) are followed closely by the cameras”(Frisby). In this genre there are three major categories of shows: game shows, dating shows, and talent shows. The scope of reality television has increased steadily over the last couple of years, with shows like the “Bachelor” gaining millions views. With such a large following, its no wonder it seems impossible to escape reality television or to even question how it is these kinds of shows began to captivate audiences.
In comparison to other kinds of television shows, the history of reality television is quite short. The first show of its kind didn’t air until the 1970s, with “An American Family.” The show, or more specifically the twelve-hour documentary series, followed the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California for the span of seven months. Over the span of this twelve part series “viewers watched dramatic life events unfold, including Pat asking for a separation from her husband Bill, and the bohemian New York lifestyle of their gay son, Lance” (PBS website). The Loud family quickly captivated the hearts of America because it showed them a version of their own reality. The show was produced during a time of national turmoil regarding cultural, political, and economical issues. As a result, this show was a direct commentary of the issues troubling America at the time seeing as it “attacked bourgeois institutions like marriage, capitalism, and the American dream” (Taddeo and Dvorak 84). In a sense, all other reality television shows would attempt to do the same thing by producing a kind a similar reality for the masses. More than just set the stage for what reality television was to look like or even encompass, “An American Family” also helped reveal what the viewer truly wants—drama!
When you question why it is we watch the shows we do it isn’t for the social commentary—if there is any—it’s the drama that keeps us engaged. This is the aspect of entertainment that was further pushed and perfected in reality television with such shows like “The Dating Game.” The aim of the show was to match the contest with the perfect date. The contestant would ask three potential dates questions without being able to see them, so their decision was mainly based on how they responded to the questions. Contestants on the show varied from your average Jack and Jill to celebrities and even a future convicted murderer. While the first episode of “The Dating Game” aired in 1965—a couple of years before the first reality TV show—this show is included in this discussion of reality television because it was the first of the dating show genre. Regardless of the show’s original airdate, the show encompassed the aspect of “An American Family” that made it successful—the aspect of spectacle for the sake of entertainment—at whatever the cost.
The problem with the production of reality television is that the subjects of these kinds of shows are in capable of being quite boring. As a result, people need to be coached or their behavior is enhanced through the use of scripts and editing. “The end result [of this kind of manipulation] is called ‘enhanced reality”(Kitman). The problem with this is that even though the product created by reality TV producers is an “enhanced reality” this is not knowledge that is always given to the public. And it is no surprise that it isn’t. Audiences don’t want to watch fake, scripted events; people want to watch reality--its what captivates us. However, the danger with this is that it is possible for these shows to promote a false sense of reality in American society. Much like “An American Family” created a reality that spoke of taboo subjects like divorce and economic standing, shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Flavor of Love” are equally as capable of setting the social agenda.
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