Five years ago, television changed.
On a Wednesday evening, the last day in May, 2000, 16 strangers were stranded in the South China Sea, led only by their instincts and a khaki-clad man who seemed capable only of reciting cheesy phrases such as “the tribe has spoken.” They began to form a new society, and started to play a thrilling new game.
By the time “Survivor” concluded, the series had become a phenomenon. More than 50 million tuned in to its finale, watching a middle-aged, overweight gay man named Richard Hatch win the game and $1 million. He was voted the victor by a jury of his “Survivor” peers, but his unapologetic conniving and Machiavellian game play had already earned him the attention of the nation and the media.
Other networks also paid attention, as CBS — previously best known as the network for old people ("Murder, She Wrote") and boring shows ("Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman") — brought in millions of viewers of all ages. During the summer, “Survivor” gained an odd little sibling “Big Brother,” which became a lesser kind of hit. Network television’s first accidentally interactive show imprisoned a group of strangers inside a house on CBS’ parking lot. But soon its viewers were actually paying for airplanes to fly over the house, conveying messages about the series, and about things they’d learned watching the houseguests 24 hours a day on live Internet feeds.
Together, “Big Brother” and “Survivor” showed that reality was a capable and viable genre, and other networks quickly got to work doing what they do best: copying and building on one another’s programming. In the fall of 2000, reality became a permanent member of primetime network television.
Living in "The Real World"
These two CBS shows were not the first network reality television programs, as ABC had debuted “Making the Band” in March of 2000, and FOX previously aired a much-discussed one-night reality special, “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire,” in February. Between the debuts of “Survivor” and “Big Brother” debut, PBS began broadcasting “The 1900 House,” a historical reality series from the United Kingdom. And long before those shows, MTV aired, to much acclaim, attention, and consternation, “The Real World” and “Road Rules.”
While reality TV shows have a long history on American television, it was “Survivor,” delivered in a package well-crafted by Mark Burnett, that hooked us. It changed the game by showing America that real people could be just as (or even more) fascinating than scripted characters.
Today, five years later, reality TV’s influence is everywhere. The genre has given people of all backgrounds the opportunity to become idols and apprentices, the opportunity to remodel their homes or their faces, and has offered teenagers and 20-somethings a new way to make a living other than actually working or going to school.
Reality television is the talk of the nation, filling airtime on television and radio, in print and online, giving birth to new groups of friends who gather around their keyboards to share their reactions. It’s the new rehab for celebrities whose careers have faded. The genre has also unleashed a whole new group of celebrities, known on a first-name basis, who now populate the covers of gossip and entertainment magazines and share media coverage with movie stars.
Reality TV has also taught us a lot about ourselves. The people viewers met on these shows have publicly done everything from lying to crying, and some have even died. The reactions people have in their everyday lives (on “Airline” or “Laguna Beach”), in artificial, alcohol-fueled environments (“Big Brother” or “Paradise Hotel”), or in foreign situations (“The Amazing Race” or “Survivor”) are instructive, fascinating, and, most significantly, entertaining.
Reality TV as whipping boy
Real people have been on television since the early days of television, and shows like “Cops” and “Candid Camera” proved that real people can be interesting, although they never really allowed us to get to know their stars. In 1973, however, long before “The Real World,” entertaining, episodic television featuring real people came to television. That’s when WNET and PBS aired “An American Family,” a dramatically edited nonfiction show about a real family. The show was both embraced and castigated, as the public and media reacted strongly to its participants and to this new type of programming. As Jeffrey Ruoff writes in his book “An American Family: A Televised Life,” “critics saw nonfiction TV as a dangerous, shadowy substitute for reality.”
Sound familiar? Even today, some critics deride reality television as the genre that shall not be named. And bashing reality TV has become the new whipping child for people desperate to prove their alleged intelligence and superiority. Certainly, some reality TV exists just for shock value, or as blatant ratings-whoring; other shows are produced so cheaply or incompetently that they insult viewers. This is nothing new; network television has frequently offered idiotic and inferior programming.
A lot of reality TV is obnoxious, reprehensible, or both. But every time someone sees a horribly bad movie, one that causes instant regret that they didn’t set fire to their $8.50 instead of buying a ticket, do they immediately dismiss all similar forms of entertainment? “Oh, those movies! Films suck so much.” Such unrelenting, categorical rejections of reality TV, a genre with many different subsets, is ridiculous and simple-minded.
The genre has suffered mostly from its name, which offers its critics a gigantic target. Reality TV is entertainment crafted from real people’s interactions in both real and artificial contexts. If reality shows were documentaries, we’d call them “documentaries” and fall asleep to them. Actual reality is what you see when you look at yourself in a mirror, and there’s a reason people turn on the TV instead of watching themselves for 44 minutes at a time. Unfiltered reality isn’t always that interesting.
Reality TV is incredibly fun to watch—and to destroy. We love to build people up and tear them down, and reality TV is our sandbox. That’s part of its appeal: Viewers are engaged and inspired, and aren’t just passive consumers. We feel like we’re a part of the entertainment we’re consumed by, which explains why many people find themselves more engaged with reality TV than with, say, politics or their actual lives.
As this latest wave of reality television turns five, the genre is really entering its teenage years. Although it will certainly evolve and change, ebb and surge, reality TV will certainly give us something to talk and think about.