Culture

A Genealogy of Reality TV and the Ensuing Horror of its Power

America — Birthplace of Reality Television

The United States of America, despite all the fanfare, should not be lauded as the home of liberty, or freedom, or individuality, but rather, as the glorious birthplace of reality television. The true American achievement has gone unrecognized for far too long. How should we commemorate the cultural figureheads of our era? What about Mount Rushmore? Who the hell even is Theodore Roosevelt? I suggest a new Mount Rushmore with faces that actually define our heroes: Kim Kardashian, Julie Chen, Tiffany Pollard, and Snooki. I am proud of the contributions my country has made to the world. No amount of Marshall Aid could ever rival the saving grace of American entertainment. 

But how did we get here? All of my conversations with friends are about “The Bachelor,” “Love Island,” and “Big Brother.” So much so, in fact, that I don’t remember what conversations were like before. Even as a child in the early 2000s, I was already hooked to the hijinks and misadventures of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in “The Simple Life.” Times were so simple back then. Our best television came from following two not-yet celebrities as they toured the continental United States begging for money and picking up odd jobs left and right. Reality TV felt a lot more “real”. When did it change?

An American Family, Cops, The Real World, and The Simple Life 

To begin tracing a history of reality television, it’s useful to establish a definition, or at least, narrow one down. For my purposes, a reality television show is any television program that is largely unscripted with minimal intervention from producers that at least attempts to depict the realities of certain people. Game shows like “The Dating Game or prank TV shows like “Punk’d” or “Candid Camera” won’t be included in this history, since those shows are not meant to capture people in their natural habitats as much as provoke certain responses or make them compete for money in the short-term. Other shows, like “Big Brother” or “Survivor,” though they are competition shows, will be counted as reality TV since their focus is both on the games and the real personalities or relationships of the people trying to win them. This also goes for shows like “American Idol” or “The Voice,” which still attempt to properly depict the real talents of average people. 

The first reality television show in the United States, and the world at large, was 1973’s “An American Family.” Created by Craig Gilbert, the 12-part PBS series followed seven months of the lives of a Santa Barbara family, the Louds. With minimal editing and narration, the show depicted the daily lives of the Louds and their five children, long silences and all. Gilbert’s goal was to prove that “there is considerable drama in the daily lives of ordinary citizens,” and he was quite successful in that respect. The show depicted the crumbling marriage of Bill and Pat Loud, catching on camera conversations Pat had with her brother and sister-in-law about Bill’s infidelity. Ten million Americans even got to watch Pat Loud quietly notify her husband of her desire to have him move out. There were no theatrics like we would expect in an Oscar-award contending drama, but a tired, numb, blank-faced wife ending her marriage of 21 years. There was also a fire that almost consumed the Loud home, as well as several scenes dedicated to the eldest son, Lance, as he lived his life in New York City, becoming one of the first openly gay men to appear on television. As one can imagine, in the early 70s, “An American Family” was like no previously conceived form of mass entertainment. 

The show captivated audiences as it engendered debates about the fraying of the family unit, the state of the country, and the gay rights movement. Many wondered if the show was edited to seem more dramatic or if people could even “act normal” in front of cameras at all. Though these questions become increasingly prescient as reality television develops, the nature of “An American Family” made it feel like a slice-of-life look into a random family, founding the concept of a reality television program. 

After “American Family,” the next big reality TV show was “Cops,” which just recently ended after a 31-year run. Beginning in 1989, “Cops” showed the real-life situations police officers find themselves in, everything from drug busts to car chases. Suddenly, intense, high-action sequences weren’t just in Bond movies, but on people’s TV sets, with real, red-blooded Americans at the epicenter of the narrative. In some ways, the reality of “Cops” was unquestionable; these were real officers pursuing real criminals who had committed real crimes. In this respect, it is as real as reality TV can get. But, with over 12,000 police stations in the United States, “Cops” could not possibly have depicted the objective realities of the average law enforcement officer. In fact, with the war on drugs in full swing, “Cops” served more as a propaganda machine that portrayed police officers as heroes ridding the country of foreign-looking criminals and drug dealers. Though the events of “Cops” are objectively real, the way they were framed painted police officers everywhere as patriotic saints, forming a popular identity that came incredibly handy during the LA Riots after the LAPD’s murder of Rodney King. Reality television is good at rendering the biases of the person behind the camera invisible. It convinces viewers that they understand every aspect of the filmed scenarios, not just those the producers chose to air. Already, you can see the exploitation of the medium to push a particular agenda. 

In the 90s, reality TV got a little less “real.” Though these shows still depicted real people having unscripted interactions, the format of these shows often provoked conflict or interesting developments so as to keep the plots fresh and intriguing. Although the situations were clearly ones the cast members would not normally find themselves in, their behaviors and relationships still felt genuine through the screen. The best example of this new age in reality television, is, ironically, MTV’s 1992 hit, “The Real World.” 

A predecessor to both “Big Brother and “Jersey Shore,” and inspired by “An American Family,” “The Real World” put seven strangers into a house to live and work together for three months so as to see their “real” selves. The modern conception of reality TV as low-brow, overblown drama finds its roots in “Real World” since the show pioneered the format for so many reality TV shows of today. It was reality, but amplified by all the clashes, romances, and friendships of the cast. Though there were some candle holder-related fights in the first season, audiences enjoyed how genuine the cast members all seemed. Originally meant to be a teen soap opera in the vein of “90210, “Real World” engineered the reality TV format out of a limited budget that could not have possibly paid for writers and real actors. During the early 90s, reality TV is still hinged by an element of reality, but the format of “The Real World” began a change in the production of reality TV that wasn’t fully realized for another decade. 

After these three revolutions in modern entertainment, reality TV boomed. The year 2000 brought with it the first seasons of “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” “The Amazing Race premiered in 2001, 2002 brought “The Bachelor,” followed by “The Bachelorette,” “The Simple Life,” and “America’s Next Top Model” in 2003. All of them, except for “The Simple Life,” are competition shows, prompting the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to add “Outstanding Competition Program” as a category in the Emmys in 2003. By the first few years of the 21st century, reality TV was already a staple of American entertainment, but as products of the age immediately before the Kardashians and influencer culture, one of these shows stands apart from the rest as prophetic of the reality TV that would come to dominate the 2010s — “The Simple Life.” 

When a 2001 sex tape of Paris Hilton leaked in 2003, the heiress to the Hilton fortune was catapulted into fame (which sounds eerily similar to another reality TV celebrity we know of). “The Simple Life” followed Paris Hilton and her best friend, Lionel Richie’s daughter Nicole Richie, on a month-long road trip across the United States, stopping in certain cities to pick up fun jobs as fast-food workers or dairy farmers, to name a few examples. In the first season, Hilton and Richie remained in one city, staying with one family, with each episode depicting them trying a new job which they, of course, fail at. The goal was to show two upper-class elites humbling themselves as they got to meet people who lived incredibly different lives. The show’s entertainment factor came from the incredibly apparent juxtaposition between the consumerist elitism of Hilton and Richie with the humble working-class simplicity of rural life. 

The first season honed in on the girls’ relationship with their host family, and viewers were able to see a softer side of Hilton and Richie as they grew to love their friends from a different world. It made for great television, but how real was this reality show? Paris Hilton has since remarked that the airhead blonde that Americans saw on the show was not actually her, but a character that producers wanted her to play. The show was never about the real lives of two young celebrities but was simply an attempt to maximize entertainment value for a greater return on investment. This marks a change in reality TV that goes far beyond just this particular show. 

The first season of “Big Brother,” for example, emphasized that the show’s premise was a “social experiment.” Many of the game elements that came to define the show later on — the Head of Household and Power of Veto competitions — were absent, but they suddenly appeared in the show’s subsequent seasons. The interest was no longer on the real lives or interactions of a bunch of strangers, but on the competitions and drama that provoked conflict between the houseguests. There was a similar development in “Survivor,” where the first season focused almost-exclusively on the survival aspect of being stranded on a deserted island, but later seasons focused on the strategy and conflict of the actual game. Even in “The Simple Life,” the second season had Hilton and Richie tour the United States in their car as opposed to staying with one family. This allowed for fewer meaningful human interactions and relationships, but more jokes and fun situations. 

Reality TV began changing in the early 2000s to the type of TV we are more used to today, but why did the change happen, and what does that development say about reality TV viewers? 

Mirror and Engine: Reality TV Today

The critical reception to the first season of “Big Brother” was one of boredom. Jonathan Darman of Newsweek reviewed the show saying, “The cast is dull, the concept is lame and the house that Ikea built is cheap and creepy.” Critics and audiences alike weren’t interested in the show being an unfiltered look into people’s real lives, but in it being entertaining. The year 2000 was no longer the age of “An American Family.” Reality had less novelty for Y2K audiences, so when reality TV became less “real”, it reflected the tastes of viewers more so than those of TV studios. 

Of course, appealing to an audience through heightened drama isn’t a bad thing. Personally, why would I want to watch a group of random strangers just mill about for an entire season? The form of reality TV our generation inherited is definitely more exciting than the social experiment of “An American Family,” but it is the change in intention that feels more troubling. 

In 2007, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” premiered on the E! Network to 898,000 viewers. It wasn’t exactly the first reality TV show of its kind; it’s closest comparison at the time was 2002’s “The Osbournes” and 2006’s “Real Housewives of Orange County,” but the difference between “The Simple Life” and shows like these was a loss of an objective. Instead of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie trying to get jobs and tour the U.S., these shows just depicted upper-class elites existing in their lavish homes. In this respect, we doubled back to the format of “An American Family,” but the intention was no longer to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the struggles of an average family. Rather, the objective was to give famous people a platform that could renew or help set up their careers. 

When “Keeping Up” first premiered, the most famous member of the family was not Kim or Kylie, but Robert Kardashian, the celebrity lawyer that represented OJ Simpson during his infamous murder trial. Throughout the show’s run, Kim and the rest of her sisters rose to fame, becoming giant influencers in the worlds of fashion, makeup, and entertainment. Their apparent relatability, as well as the allure of a luxurious lifestyle such as theirs, made viewers fall in love with the Kardashian clan. Essentially, by constructing personas that audiences could laugh at or relate to, the show helped propel the Kardashians’ fame as well as their businesses. By 2015, it was clear that the project had been successful. Kim Kardashian’s “Kimojis,” which were creepy emojis of Kim’s face and symbols from her life that users could download to look more relatable to their friends, earned her $1,000,000 a minute by December 2015. Ironically, four years later, she was sued for not sharing any of the profits with the actual developers of the product. 

In fact, Kim Kardashian openly admits that the main reason the clan first decided to start the show was to “bring attention to our stores.” Before the show, Kim and her sisters opened a boutique in Calabasas called DASH, and when the opportunity for the show came around, they found it to be a great marketing tool. Other than DASH and Kimojis, the show helped propel Kim’s shapewear brand SKIMS, Khloe’s activewear brand Good American, and of course, Kylie Jenner’s infamous makeup brand, Kylie Cosmetics, which made her the youngest billionaire ever. Not only do viewers of the show enjoy spending money on the family’s products, they sometimes even wish to replicate their behaviors. When Kylie Jenner admitted to having used lip fillers, UK cosmetic skin clinics reported huge increases in inquiries about the procedure, with one reporting a 70% jump. Evidently, when the sisters aren’t fighting or needlessly inciting drama, they’re promoting things, whether it be clothes, makeup, or medical procedures. 

Ever since the early 2000s, this has become the nature of reality television. Not a raw look into the lives of people, but an extended marketing ploy. This doesn’t mean that every second of these shows are milked for their potential market value, but boosting products has definitely taken more screen time in these shows. In 2008, NBC even began producing a reality show about “America’s Favorite Mom” in collaboration with the advertiser Teleflora so as to better integrate advertising into these programs. Why advertise through commercials nobody wants to watch when you can subliminally make viewers aware of your products by forcing them into the shows you know they’re watching? 

NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” has a list of sponsors that include Subway and Planet Fitness whose brands are integrated into the main program. There is even an episode where contestants have to come up with their own version of a Subway sandwich. Season Three of “Big Brother Canada saw a partnership with the Canadian snack cracker brand Twistos, which sponsored the season’s “#TwistoTwists,” offering a $10,000 trip to anywhere in the world for the houseguests. Even fans of American Big Brother became angry at all the commercials and imbedded advertising for CBS’s newest reality TV offering, “Love Island.” Maybe the most infamous example of advertising in reality TV were the iconic Coca-Cola cups next to the “American Idol” judges. Though Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the show ended in 2014, they spent $49.1 million on the program in 2012. At one point, subliminal advertising took up 60% of the show’s airtime. Even back in 2003 with “The Simple Life,” Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were constantly wearing Juicy Couture tracksuits, helping launch the brand into the cultural behemoth it became during the early 2000s. The goal is no longer to show viewers reality, but to promote more and more consumption: of products, clothing, or even other shows. Advertising in shows that purport to depict reality works concerningly well, and not only in our pocketbooks, either. 

Reality TV shows no longer depict reality, but actively create one, and so many viewers, especially younger ones, buy into it. A few hours before Kim Kardashian gave birth to North West, she delayed the delivery so she could get a new coat of paint on her nails. Making sure her hair and makeup were perfect, she cemented the expectation that women must always look immaculate, even during the painful trials of childbirth. Applying TV magic and denying its presence creates an artificial reality that most viewers could not possibly compare to, and the effects can be seriously damaging. 

Ahead of last year’s premiere of “Love Island,” the show was criticized for its unrealistic casting that damaged the body images of viewers. The carefully selected cast of beautiful people was misrepresented as a group of regular people, leading “Love Island” viewers to see themselves as somehow worse for not looking like members of the glamourized world on screen. The creative director for ITV, Richard Cowles, has remarked that “Clearly the contestants are extremely attractive – they have to be for the format to work – but we’re not saying the whole world looks like that. It is an aspirational show. We’re not trying to pretend this is reality,” yet this fact is completely omitted from the program. In fact, one out of four people aged 18-25 believe reality television makes them worried about their bodies, with a quarter of those surveyed saying they have had suicidal thoughts over their negative body image. The unrealistic insistence on sex, body image, beauty, and consumerism in reality TV today is actively damaging the mental health of viewers. 

Reality television is a cultural barometer since it changes based on what viewers want the show to be, but it’s also an engine that perpetuates and deepens the very same behaviors and worldviews that lead us to consume it in the first place. It doesn’t matter if reality TV shows are no longer real since the realities they do present are obviously convincing enough to affect the real world.

Conclusion

So, what’s the solution? Is it time we angrily call up the networks demanding they cancel all reality TV programming?

No.

Despite its many flaws, the entertainment factor and integrated advertising of reality TV bring networks way too much money to take them off the air. Plus, as a die-hard fan of “Big Brother,” I wouldn’t know what to do if we all collectively decided to kill reality TV. Although, what we can do is change our relationship to reality television. If we distance ourselves from the many false realities on our TV screens, we can consume them without being overly influenced. 

The Chads and Stacys of “Love Island” or the uber-rich elites of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” are not models of behavior but foils to the average American’s experience. These shows reflect a societal obsession with sex and beauty, but the realization that these realities are doctored marketing ploys should allow us to consume from a distance. Creating this necessary distance isn’t simple, either. Though I already know this, watching “Big Brother” still makes me want to stir up some drama in my own household. Awareness does not guarantee immunity from the influence of these shows; however, what we must avoid is comparing ourselves against those images on the screen.

We are far from the age of “An American Family” or “Cops.” Reality TV is no longer fresh and revolutionary, but the status quo in modern entertainment. It’s useless to advise giving it up entirely, especially to a generation raised on it, living in a world where its influence is everywhere: social media, cultural developments, and our own body images and wallets. Instead, we must step back with some objectivity and realize that America’s shining contribution to the world is more an intoxicating curse than an innocuous blessing.

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