I have heard that this coming fall TV season there will be a record number of reality shows debuing. I also have to admit that I will be very happy when the reality show cycle comes to an end. I figure that reality shows must be the lowest form of entertainment. Okay, maybe not as bad as the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome, but still a low point for television nonetheless.
Of course, as I see it, many of the shows called "reality shows" aren't really reality shows in my eyes. American Idol and Star Search are often counted as reality shows, but I would consider them just another variation of talent shows--a genre that goes all the way back to 1934 when Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour debuted on radio. To me The Bachelor and Average Joe aren't reality shows either. While they have some elements of the reality shows, I think in truth they are just variations of dating shows typified by The Dating Game. These shows have a long history too, dating back to Blind Date with Arlene Francis in 1949.
Of course, even discounting the talent shows and dating shows, the reality genre has a fairly long history. I don't know if anyone can say what the first reality show was, but one of the earliest was probably People Are Funny. It was produced and written by John Guedel and hosted by Art Linkletter. It was more or less a game show, in which contestants were asked to do outrageous things. It debuted on radio in 1942 In 1954 it moved to television where it ran for many years. In 1944 another early reality show hosted by Art Linkletter debuted on radio, House Party. House Party featured segments in which Linkletter interviewed celebrity guests and segments in which he would he pull someone from the audience and put them in an embarrassing situation. Perhaps the most famous segment was "Kids Say the Darnedest Things," in which Linkletter interviewed children, often playing their straight man. The show moved to television in 1952 and ran until 1969.
Of course, many consider the first true reality show to be Candid Microphone. The show debuted in 1947, the creation of Allen Funt. Funt would use hidden microphones to catch people in ludicrous situations contrived by himself and his writers. The show moved to television in 1948 where it was swiftly renamed Candid Camera. It has ran on television on and off almost ever since.
I must admit that as a child I enjoyed People are Funny, House Party, and Candid Camera. To this day Art Linkletter is one of my favourite people. But People are Funny, House Party, and Candid Camera still seem to me to be innocent, good, clean fun. They were like April Fools pranks on film. Today's reality shows either possess a mean streak or appeal to the baser aspects of human nature. The whole point of Survivor seems to be to see people backstab each other. Extreme Makeover sends the message that appearance is all important. Fear Factor is just plain sadistic. In the Fifties there were critics who complained about the violence in TV Westerns. But those TV Westerns usually featured heroes who were good and had a strong sense of morality. The whole point of reality shows seems to be to de-humanise human beings. If ever there was a sign of moral bankruptcy on television, I would say it came with the debut of The Real World on MTV (didn't they used to show music videos?). As far as I am concerned, the reality show cycle can't end soon enough.