Reality television exploded in the early 2000s with franchises like The Bachelor, Big Brother, and Survivor, and it wasn’t long before fame and fortune took on a greater focus with The Real Housewives shows and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. But, before all that, reality TV had quite a fascinating history in the twentieth century.
The genre began far earlier than people might realize, and it got its start with the hidden camera style, then moving into the pursuit of the real American family. Then and now, reality television is marked by its diverse subgenres, including popular competition shows as well as family-focused domestic explorations.
Updated on October 28th, 2021, by Lynn Gibbs: For TV junkies who wonder, “What was the first reality show?” they’re in for a real treat because reality TV may have gotten popular in the late ’90s, but it dates all the way back to the 1940s. The first reality TV show is nothing like the shows that reality TV lovers are familiar with today but it opened the doors for endless possibilities of what could be shown on someone’s TV. And as invasive as reality TV can be, it’s also a fascinating experiment of sorts where people can watch other people live their lives.
11 Candid Camera (1948)
• Available on Classix
Candid Camera is the oldest reality show with a creative concept from the start. It actually began on the radio in 1947. According to Guinness World Records, the radio show was called Candid Microphone “and became so popular that it spawned a series of movie shorts using film cameras in place of concealed mikes. The TV version began in 1948 with the title Candid Mike” and switched to Candid Camera the next year.
By 1960, the show was a mainstay on CBS, hosted by Allen Funt. The program has been revived several times through the decades, most recently in 2014 when it was hosted by Peter Funt and Mayim Bialik.
10 The American Sportsman (1965)
• Not available for streaming
There are plenty of sports movies out there and they could have The American Sportsman to thank. It was one of the first reality TV shows and it followed TV hosts Joe Foss, Grits Gresham, and Curt Gowdy. Each episode followed a host and a celebrity as they participated in activities in the great outdoors.
They did everything from mountain climbing to kayaking and showed some gorgeous places around America. Due to some of the celebrity guests the show had, it became a popular show for sports and nature enthusiasts.
9 An American Family (1973)
An American Family is widely credited for birthing the reality TV genre, and Variety reported on it before its 1973 launch: Producer Craig Gilbert “set out to capture the living patterns and mentality of a fairly typical middle-America household but instead recorded the drama of a family in the process of coming apart.” The PBS series aired twelve hour-long episodes and focused entirely on the Loud family.
An American Family captured marital problems, a son coming out as gay, and “a business crisis.” Ten years after the show, curiosity about the burgeoning reality genre led to a follow-up special called An American Family Revisited: The Louds 10 Years Later. It was an original version of Modern Family. 2003 brought a subsequent special, Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family. The program inspired HBO’s 2011 TV movie Cinema Verite.
8 Real People (1979)
• Available on Hoopla and Plex
Just like it sounds, Real People was a reality program that captured the triumphs and challenges of real individuals. Subjects opened up to the camera crew about their toughest endeavors, from flying war planes to running across Canada. It was a family-friendly show for everyone.
The series ran for six seasons from 1979 to 1984 and was produced by George Schlatter, who called it a “theater of reality,” according to YouTube. There’s no doubt that the NBC series was an early seed of the “real people” stories that would inundate TV listings for decades to come.
7 Cops (1989)
• Available for purchase on Amazon
Beginning in 1989, Cops spent 32 seasons on the air and depicted the routine duties of police officers. It was filmed in cinéma vérité style, eschewing incidental music and sound effects, narration, and scripted dialogue.
Though Cops continues production for international markets, the series was canceled in the US in May 2020 following the tragic killings of Black individuals involving police officers across the nation. Due to its long run, Cops is one of the best police-themed TV shows.
6 The Real World (1992)
• Available on Paramount+, Hoopla, and MTV
The Real World premiered in 1992 and is MTV’s original reality series. The official MTV history timeline calls the show “a reality-based soap opera.” The program put together a group of young adults, who did not previously know one other, and followed their interactions under one roof. The series has 33 seasons to its name with some of the best seasons being the early ones.
The iconic, long-running series is in its latest incarnation on Paramount+ as The Real World: Homecoming: New York, which centers on the original cast.
5 Eco-Challenge (1995)
Eco-Challenge was the ’90s genesis of the now-ubiquitous adventure reality genre. It shared tough races to see who could come out on top. The show first ran from 1995 to 2002 and was revived in 2019 for Amazon Prime.
The original series was created and hosted by Mark Burnett, who went on to helm Survivor, and it organized small teams to compete in a race. Day in and day out, teams trekked through a 300-mile course and completed the full gamut of endurance challenges.
4 Road Rules (1995)
A sister show to the Real World, Road Rules premiered in 1995 on MTV and ended in 2007. With no money, young adults lived together in an RV and moved from one place to another, collecting clues and completing missions along the way.
The concept came from a road trip on The Real World, and the series established reality personas and archetypes that would surface on plenty of other shows, like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
3 A Baby Story (1998)
• Available on Philo
A Baby Story premiered in 1998 and aired its last episodes in 2010. The reality show examined couples in the last weeks of pregnancy as they prepared to welcome their new additions. The camera crew would then dive into the delivery room and see each couple through their baby’s “first weeks of a new life,” according to TLC.
This series was important to TLC because it ushered in the birthing and family genre with shows like Birth Moms, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, 19 Kids and Counting, Sweet Home Sextuplets, and Doubling Down with the Derricos.
2 The Challenge (1998)
• Available on Netflix, Paramount+, MTV, Hulu, and Roku
The Challenge is one of the longest-running reality shows ever, debuting in 1998 and continuing into 2021. The show is an interesting mash-up of MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules; it even included those shows’ names in its title in the early years.
In this competition series, the challenges and team members vary from season to season, but there are different missions contestants can complete to advance and win prizes. The individual confessionals and the group drama on this show likely inspired later series to retain those qualities.
1 FANatic (1998)
FANatic aired on MTV from 1998 to 2000. Normal people were tricked into arriving at designated places to meet their celebrity idols. According to Bustle, participants were chosen from submission tapes, and the lucky guests got to interview their favorite celebs after the big reveal.
Icons like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Brandy, and Whitney Houston were included, along with hot groups like*NSYNC, the Spice Girls, and the Backstreet Boys. Even in the social media age, the premise of this series is still thrilling for superfans.
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