The Real History of Reality TV
Or, How Allen Funt Won the Cold War


Written by Charles B. Slocum, WGAW Assistant Executive Director
The manifest destiny of television technology is real-time viewing of all the places the audience is not. It's the ultimate peek into the neighbor's kitchen window. Or, the bedroom window. The entertainment conglomerates found a way to make televised life a business, so now there is a lot of it.

Reality-based television is not new, of course. Allen Funt, with his 1948 TV series Candid Camera is often credited as reality TV's first practitioner. In fact, he started a year earlier with Candid Microphone on radio. Truth or Consequences started in 1950 and frequently used secret cameras. Both of these two pioneering series created artificial realties to see how ordinary people would respond; the reality series of today borrow a lot from these precedents and differ mostly in scope and locale. A number of "who am I?" game shows accommodated the clunky nature of early TV technology by bringing real people into the studio. What's My Line premiered in 1950; I've Got a Secret in 1952; To Tell the Truth in 1956. These shows seem tame by today's standards, but were certainly cutting a new edge in the 1950s. The judge who married Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller appeared live on What's My Line within a week of performing the wedding. Even in the earliest days, the camera roamed out of the studio occasionally with film technology. You Asked For It took the viewer to amazing sights and spectacular phenomena as early as 1950.

Perhaps ahead of its time was An American Family on PBS in 1973. It was unusual in its focus on a seemingly mundane family named the Louds, who harbored sensational secrets. This series pushed the documentary genre beyond its traditional bounds. The daily lives of the Loud family were on display. The televised decision of the parents to divorce and the on-screen coming out of their gay son shocked audiences in the 1970s. Sociologist Margaret Mead noted to TV Guide that this no longer fit the documentary category and that we needed a new name for this type of television. We now call it reality TV. The Osbornes and Nick & Jessica now define the reality-soap genre pioneered with the Louds. Non-celebrities can have their own mini-show by auditioning for Supernanny. All of these series share a dominant characteristic of the reality-soap genre: they find compelling storylines in hundreds of hours of videotaped life and, through careful writing and editing, shape the real-life subjects into reality-show characters. Documentaries have always done that, but, as Margaret Mead observed, to engage the audience, this genre moves from observation to storytelling in a way traditional documentaries have not.

Extreme Wedding
Copyright © 2005 ABC
Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition  

Real People and That's Incredible in 1979 and 1980, respectively, took the camera fully out of the studio to capture people in their real-life settings. TV newsgathering had paved that path. The introduction of Sony's _-inch U-Matic videocassette format in 1970 and RCA's TK-76 camera by 1976 made portable video affordable for every television station. Westinghouse Broadcasting's Evening Magazine (syndicated as PM Magazine in non-Westinghouse cities) took full advantage of the new portability of video and the greater availability of editing technology in the fall of 1976. Westinghouse stood on the shoulders of Don Hewitt and adapted the free-ranging news style of 60 Minutes (begun in 1968) into the video-based magazine show form. The format survives today in Entertainment Tonight, Primetime Live, and Dateline NBC, among other shows. Sony's Betacam technology notched the possibilities up a few pegs higher in 1984. The first recognizable wave of reality-based series soon emerged. Unsolved Mysteries premiered in 1987, America's Most Wanted in 1988, and both Rescue 911 and Cops in 1989. America's Funniest Home Videos added a homemade variation in 1990. In just four years, with four distinct variations on the reality theme, the genre had become a staple of the broadcast schedules.

The Real World moved the format ahead by staging an environment in which "reality" could occur in 1992. That landmark series married the secret cameras and setups of Candid Camera, to the explorative impulse of You Asked For It, to the personal revelations of What's My Line, to the technology of Evening Magazine, to the voyeuristic appeal of An American Family and Cops. The combination of techniques resulted in a format that is more structured and crafted than any that had come before. The premise comes in the architecture and the choice of city; the character creation comes in the casting; the storyline creation comes in the confessional interviewing, the choice of who and what to tape and the editing. The wide range of reality television series that we recognize today followed. They often came by way of the UK or other foreign television markets, where the concepts were born. An import, Big Brother, and a startup, Survivor, would break open the genre of staged reality in 2000.

These staged reality shows increasingly borrowed from the concept of game shows, which have been a persistent television staple. From 21 and the $64,000 Question, we have come through dozens of game shows to the perennial Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. Along the way shows such as Truth or Consequences and Beat the Clock had used stunts. The Real World, Big Brother and, especially, Survivor took that idea to a much higher-concept level.

Talent shows were first popular on radio. Both Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts began on radio and appeared on television in 1948. The Original Amateur Hour started in 1934 (which is almost as early as any programming started) under the leadership of its creator, Major Edward Bowes. Mack had scouted for and directed for Bowes and succeeded him as host after his death. The pure talent show genre persisted in the form of Star Search (1983) and now American Idol (2002). Televised talent searches have had the same appeal throughout their entire history: seeing a star created before our eyes. Idol's Kelly, Ruben, and Fantasia have now joined Britney and Justin from Star Search, who followed the footprints of Gladys Knight and Pat Boone from the Ted Mack show.

A close relative to the talent genre is the comedy/variety series. Ed Sullivan helped inaugurate this television staple, which migrated from vaudeville via radio. His Toast of the Town premiered in 1948 and took on his name as The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. Uncle Miltie and his Texaco Star Theater also started in 1948 and Milton Berle became so emblematic of the fledgling medium that he earned the nickname Mr. Television. Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar (1950), The Red Skelton Show (1951), and The Jackie Gleason Show (1952) ushered in a classic era for television comedy based on the most real of real entertainment settings–a comedian and an audience on live television. The comedy/variety series lived on in later decades with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967), Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1968), The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (1971), and Donnie & Marie (1975).

Hybrid genres have emerged over the years, as well. The Monkees (1966) and The Partridge Family (1970) look less like sitcoms and more like reality television in light of Making the Band (2000). All three attempted to create pop music acts from central casting; all three resulted in more spectacle than musical credibility.

In the commercial environment that governs almost all our television, the economics are too attractive to ignore. Reality makes for cheap TV. That economic reality drove television programmers outside the U.S. to look for more imaginative ways to make original television locally. As a result, the current genre of reality television was pioneered mostly outside the U.S. The U.S. is not leading the reality trend–it's playing catch up.

In virtually every line of the production budget, reality-based programming is cheaper than traditional programming. Not as much equipment is needed, and it's cheaper. There is a smaller crew. There are fewer paid performers. There are fewer sets. The economic role of reality-based programming is to permit a network to cost-average down the price of programming across the entire primetime schedule. A network can spend only about half of what it receives in ad revenue on the programming in which the ads run. The more it pays for ER and Friends, the less it can afford for other hours in the schedule.

While the high-priced shows typically receive more ad revenue, the renewals of the most successful series include the rationale that other shows on the schedule will perform better and can be promoted during the hit show. As a result, series such as Everybody Loves Raymond, and Frasier earn a substantial profit for the producer from just the network telecasts and can receive license fees in excess of the ad revenue the network receives for that time slot. The network, as a result, has to economize in other hours of the schedule. Repeats are one way the network spreads the programming cost out over more advertising; reality programs are another. Reality programs offer the temptation of programming that costs less than $500,000 for an hour or one-third of the cost of an hour of comedy or drama (if the series does not repeat).

Simple Life
Copyright © 2005 FoxThe Simple Life 

Reality producers know the value of their programs, of course. The most successful producers can sell their series as tent-pole series in their own right, and are no longer constrained by cost-averaging goals.

One strategy to offset the tension in the license fee negotiations is product integration. Survivor was given a product integration mandate from the start by CBS. The Apprentice found its opportunity in its second year when brand managers saw that Donald Trump won the tossup of whether the show would be seen as a joke or as a streetwise b-school. American Idol had Coke glasses and Ford cars lurking in the foreground from the start.

The operative assumption is that product placement and selling commercial ad time is not a zero sum game. Commercial appearances during the show do not reduce the number of minutes of ads, and, more importantly, do not reduce the price of the ads. So far, the audience has not defected from reality shows that integrate brands into the show. If we've become desensitized as viewers enough that the advertising in the show does not reduce our responsiveness to the ads that interrupt the show, then the networks and the reality series producers will continue to have enough money to go around.

Reality television may not be the sociological trifle many assume it is. The late Alen Funt asserted that his Candid Camera taught a subversive lesson: to resist unjust or ridiculous authority. Did three decades of Candid Camera help us question authority during the Watergate era? Did exporting it contribute to the fall of Communism? Dynasty and Dallas get credit for that; perhaps Allen Funt should, too.

There are other signs of positive contributions to the social landscape from reality television. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has as much or more heart as Truth or Consequences' military reunions did decades earlier. Amish in the Country made the city folk look silly. The PBS variation on Survivor brought us 1900 House in 2000 and Colonial House in 2004, with several other educational editions in between. America's Most Wanted has helped catch 842 actual criminals. Can reality television actually contribute, as well as tear down?

These are questions for sociologists and historians. Economics, not ideology, drove the decisions to schedule reality television. At the start of television, as now in its relative maturity, television networks needed lower-cost programs to balance higher cost drama and comedy. Reality-based programs marry low-cost production techniques from news with narrative storylines from drama and comedy.

The range of reality shows is wide. There have been innocent times–think of Art Linkletter and his House Party, with the "Kids Say the Darndest Things" feature. Or, think of Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Rosie, and Ellen for feel-good talk shows. There have been reality shows with more adult themes–think Taxicab Confessions and Real Sex. The confessional culture has persisted from Phil Donahue to Oprah.

The live remote can take us to Bagdhad or to the Big Brother house. We can watch Geraldo blow open Al Capone's vault or we can wait to see if O.J., Martha, Scott or Michael will be found guilty. The ambush has lived on from Candid Camera, 60 Minutes, and This is Your Life to Punk'd. The supernatural dimension has ripped into this plane through Crossing Over with Jonathan Edwards and the Pet Psychic. Animals grounded in this world are featured in Animal Precinct and Emergency Vet.

In all this diversity, reality TV has one appeal, which it shares with fiction–we as viewers hope, desperately, to find something relevant to our own lives. We seek any small hint about how to live our own lives just a bit better, to justify our hope, or to see that we are not alone in what we face in our life. The possibility that reality-based stories will reveal something real is so enticing that the televised society is just fine with us. Turn the camera on.

Organizing Reality TV