The new season of American Idol began not long ago. As it has in the past, the show has dominated the Nielsen ratings. And, as usual, there have been numerous news stories about the talent competition. I am willing to bet in that a majority of those news stories, American Idol is described as a "reality show." It is on this point I must disagree with those news stories.
Granted, the term "reality show" is a rather broad one that has been used of a large number of different sorts of shows in the past. Candid Camera, which used hidden cameras to capture people's reactions to various pranks, was described as a reality show. So too was Art Linkletter's Kids Say the Darndest Things, in which the famous TV host simply interviewed youngster. At the same time, however, the term "reality show" has also been used of the cinema verite of Cops and the competition on Survivor.
It seems to me to determine what precisely is a reality show, then, we must look at what these shows have in common. In each case it seems to me that these shows present the relatively unscripted actions, reactions, or interactions of people to various situations, excluding sporting events, game shows, and news shows. For me, then, the emphasis in any reality show should be on the actions, reactions, or interactions of the individuals involved. This is why I do not consider game shows to be "reality shows," because the emphasis is on the game itself, not on the actions, reactions, or interactions of people. Of course, there are going to be cases in which the lines between reality shows and other genres are blurred. Given that it is essentially a competition, Survivor could be considered a game show. That having been said, it has always seemed to me that the emphasis not so much on the competition itself, but in the interactions between the competitors. In other words, Survivor is a reality show with aspects of a game show.
Now, in the case of American Idol, the emphasis of the show is entirely on the competition between the various singers. It is not on the interactions of the singers among themselves, their reactions to various situations, or their actions when they are not singing. American Idol is then not a reality show. As to what it really is, American Idol is simply a talent show. Talents shows have existed since The Original Amateur Hour debuted on radio in 1934. And they have been popular since the earliest days of television. The Original Amateur Hour made the transition to television in 1948 and lasted in some form until 1970. Star Search ran throughout the Eighties and into the Nineties, lasting a good twelve years. While it is not a reality show, American Idol is nothing new. Talent shows have been around for decades.
American Idol is as popular as ever. And I rather suspect, given the history of other talent shows, it will remain on the years for many more years. And, for better or worse, I suspect it will continue to be mislabelled a "reality show."