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Image: "Survivor" and "Jersey Shore"
Just because they're reality shows doesn't make them all garbage! "Survivor," left, is nothing like "Jersey Shore"!
TODAY contributor
updated 11/2/2010 7:22:16 PM ET 2010-11-02T23:22:16

Reality television has been generating controversy ever since "An American Family" aired on PBS in 1973 and exposed a family's private life to the public. That controversy was echoed when MTV turned cameras on seven strangers for "The Real World" in 1992. Even now, 10 years after "Survivor's" big debut and reality programming became a staple on broadcast TV as well as a dominant force on cable, people still freak out about it.

"I don't watch reality TV," they say. "I hate reality shows. Reality television sucks."

Some reality TV absolutely sucks, but so do some movies. Heck, a lot of movies suck, even ones that people watch. And not every book is great literature. Some are so trashy and poorly written that they aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

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But no one ever says, "I don't read novels. I hate novels. Novels suck." Even people who aren't voracious fiction readers don't go around bragging about not reading novels because they realize how ignorant and stupid that sounds.

It's just as ignorant to dismiss an entire genre of television, one that ranges from utter trash to programs that are better produced and more engaging than scripted series.

In the closet
Often, people who dismiss reality TV are the very same people who contribute to a show's huge ratings. They watch, but are for some reason ashamed and don't want to admit it. There's certainly no reason to embrace or celebrate mediocrity, but spending an hour a week with a guilty pleasure television show is one of the least egregious things imaginable.

People who pretend they don't watch probably fear the judgment of others. Of course, those other people are probably watching reality TV shows too. It seems like a very American thing to judge and condemn something publicly and then do it secretly in private, so perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise. It doesn't make it any less ridiculous, though, for everyone to pretend that no one's watching, say, "American Idol," when it's the most popular TV show in the country.

Other people may not actually realize that they're watching a genre they profess to hate. "I don't watch reality TV," someone might say. "But I do love that 'American Idol.' And did you see 'Hoarders' last night?"

A big tent
It's easy to think of reality shows as those programs that fit into a very narrow definition. A "reality show" might be one that resembles "The Real World," MTV's groundbreaking series that established a lot of the genre's conventions.

The problem may just be with the term — "reality TV" implies a certain kind of low-quality, low-budget, low-brow series — but it's the term we have, and it's unfair to automatically assign those kinds of labels to it. Just try to apply the usual cliche arguments about reality to the final scene of the "Deadliest Catch" episode during which captain Phil Harris dies.

Reality TV is a big tent that includes all episodic, unscripted, nonfiction television shows, from Discovery's "Deadliest Catch" to MTV's "Jersey Shore" to Food Network's "Cupcake Wars," from ABC's "The Bachelor" to MTV's "Teen Mom" to Bravo's "Real Housewives" to NBC's "Apprentice."

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Some reality shows are competitions, some are docudramas and some are competitions that feel like a docudrama. Even within in a narrower subcategory such as competitions, there's an incredible range of options. How do you compare CBS' "Survivor" to Bravo's "Top Chef" or Fox's "American Idol"? Heck, how do you compare "Survivor" to "The Amazing Race"? It's tough to do — and the Emmys increasingly have a problem because the shows are so difficult to compare.

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Make a choice
That's the best part about reality TV, though: There's an incredible range and a surprising amount of diversity in subject matter, formats and approaches. Some shows are light, entertaining fun; some are dramatic and emotional; others teach you something about the world or its inhabitants.

There's so much that it's impossible to watch it all, and therefore we have the ability to choose. We can choose to watch only the best series, the ones where producers and networks have spent time and money to craft beautiful programming about real people.

We can choose to ignore the awful stuff — or we can watch the awful stuff and celebrate its awfulness, laughing about it with our friends and with fellow viewers. And yes, it's possible to choose to watch none of it at all.

But whatever that choice is, we shouldn't automatically dismiss an entire genre of television that's here to stay.

Andy Dehnartis a writer, TV critic and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebookand Twitter.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Explainer: Best reality shows you aren't watching

  • Image: Tony Danza on "Teach"
    If you haven't checked out Tony Danza on A&E's "Teach," you need to.

    Over the past decade, as reality TV has become more prevalent, cable has become the home of a lot of unscripted TV. Entire networks that used to focus on other kinds of programming (such as A&E or Bravo) have shifted their focus to producing original unscripted TV.

    The result is sometimes a lot of garbage, but there are some outstanding reality series, ones that get ignored when the junky shows make headlines or just because bigger shows on broadcast TV get higher ratings. Here are a few of the best unscripted series that are airing now.

  • 'Teach' on A&E

    Starring Tony Danza; Fridays at 10 p.m.

    If you heard last year that Tony Danza was teaching high school for a reality show, you probably laughed and lamented how ridiculous reality TV has become. The really funny thing, though, is that the series that came out of his experience actually teaching high school for a year is great television.

    Danza is a compelling character, and even though he has an easier job than most first-year teachers do (he just has one class, among other things), his struggles are real. The consequences are real, too, which his students constantly remind us of, and the show is a fantastic snapshot of America's educational system.

  • 'Hoarders' on A&E

    Mondays at 10 p.m.

    Like A&E's "Intervention," "Hoarders" profiles people with mental illness. Here, though, you can actually see the product of their illness, whether it's piles of useless junk, dead animal carcasses or bags of human feces.

    The show's therapists, organizers and workers help people with hoarding — an anxiety spectrum disorder — and they often have to fight hard to get the person to realize they have a problem. The result is both compelling TV and a reality show that makes a difference: Producers even help the subjects after the cameras leave, paying for therapy and additional help from organizers.

  • 'Circus' on PBS

    Premieres Wednesday, Nov. 11

    It's not quite cable, but PBS isn't generally thought of as a destination for compelling episodic entertainment, but with shows such as "Circus," it should be.

    Last year, the network aired "Carrier," a series that followed the lives of people on a military aircraft carrier for a year. This year, the filmmakers who produced that show followed the Big Apple Circus. The result feels more like a documentary than a reality TV show, with beautiful cinematography and fascinating characters. But because it unfolds over six hours across three weeks, we stay with the characters — from twin jugglers to the circus' retiring artistic director — and get to know them over a period of time.

    Watch the full episode. See more Circus.

  • 'Top Chef: Just Desserts' on Bravo

    Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

    Making desserts has often been the part of "Top Chef" that trips up its cast of savory chefs, so an entire competition based on the sweet course seemed inevitable. As usual, the show's producers challenge their chefs in ways that both test the contestants' skills and entertain viewers.

    The new judges — Johnny Iuzzini, Hubert Keller and Dannielle Kyrillos — are great and don't make us miss the regular panel, and Gail Simmons has done a decent job hosting. The most surprising part is that pastry chefs are a lot more dramatic than the regular chefs, so it's not just about dessert.

  • 'Dirty Jobs' on Discovery

    Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

    After shadowing people on more than 150 jobs, host Mike Rowe continues to be the most compelling reason to watch this series. While he profiles and celebrates people who do messy and otherwise unusual jobs in each episode, he's a fantastic stand-in for viewers, really helping folks understand how difficult, challenging or disgusting a job really is. Because these are jobs people usually take for granted or may not even know exist, he ends up educating while entertaining, and that's the best kind of reality TV.

  • 'Chopped' on Food Network

    Tuesdays at 10 p.m.

    Ted Allen hosts this food competition, which has a new cast of chefs each episode. Four chefs have 20 minutes to make an appetizer out of mystery ingredients — ones that range from processed foods to exotic meats and produce — and the chef with the worst dish gets sent home — in other words, chopped. The remaining three make an entree out of a new basket in 30 minutes, and then the final two make dessert out of whatever ingredients the producers have selected to be in that round's mystery basket.

    It's a simple formula and derivative of a "Top Chef" quickfire challenge, but it works: Their creativity and ingenuity under pressure is impressive and fun to watch.

  • Shows currently on hiatus

    Several shows that air during the summer are worth a look when they return:

    • "Top Shot" on History Channel is a shooting competition hosted by "Survivor" Colby Donaldson. It has familiar elements but manages to be original.
    • "Whale Wars" is Animal Planet's stunningly dramatic and exciting series that follows environmental activists facing off in increasingly violent confrontations with Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean.
    • "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew" on VH1 treats addiction seriously, and offers insight into treatment even while we see quasi-celebrities at their most vulnerable.
    • "The Great Food Truck Race" combined "The Amazing Race" with cooking competitions, and gave Food Network its best competition since "The Next Food Network Star," which is always worth watching every summer.


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