Thursday, September 2, 2010

Defining Reality Television

Earlier this week among the big news reported about the Emmy Awards was that Top Chef won   in what many claimed was an upset. Two thoughts went through my mind upon seeing such headlines. First, that this was not really news given what I saw as upsets in other, more prominent categories. Second, I thought, as I always do, that the whole category "Reality-Competition Programme" is rather nonsensical. To Top Chef is not a reality show. It is a talent show where the talent is cooking. Similarly, other shows nominated in this so called category are not reality shows either--they are either game shows (The Amazing Race) or talent shows (American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, Project Runway).

Quite simply, I think in the past ten years the terms "reality show," "reality series," "reality programme," and "reality television" have been misused to the point that they no longer have meaning. Indeed, they have been misused to the point that almost any unscripted programme is now called a "reality show." Such loose usage of the term "reality show" and related words is hardly borne out by the long history of the genre. While the term "reality show" would not be coined until the late Seventies, when it was used of such shows as Real People and That's Incredible, the genre had actually existed for decades by that point. Indeed, it is difficult to ascertain what the first reality show actually was, although it is certain the genre originated on radio. Indeed, among the earliest reality shows was Candid Microphone, which would make its way to television as Candid Camera. Candid Microphone debuted on June 28, 1947. Candid Camera debuted on August 10, 1948. The concept behind the show was simple. Concealed microphones (on the radio version) or cameras (on the television version) would capture ordinary people faced with bizarre situations. It was the direct ancestor of a subgenre of reality shows which can only be described as prank shows--shows such as Punk'd.

Another forerunner of modern reality shows was Art Linklettter's House Party. In many respects House Party was a talk show, but it also featured segments with elements of game shows and even reality shows. In particular, the segment called "Kids say the Darnedest Things (which would eventually be spun off into a show all its own in the Nineties)," in which Art Linkletter interviewed children. This segment was also a forerunner of the modern day reality show. The radio show Nightwatch, which ran from 1954 to 1955, was another early reality show. The series recorded one day in the job of various police officers, making it a direct ancestor of Cops. The direct ancestor of such shows as The Real World, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and Jersey Shore would be a PBS mini-series called An American Family. An American Family followed an seven member, nuclear family through 300 hours of footage. Unlike many latter day reality shows, such as The Real World and The Jersey Shore, An American Family was filmed in documentary style and tended to be more educational than exploitative.

It was in 1979 that Real People debuted on NBC . The show basically featured reports on people with unusual hobbies, strange professions, unique abilities, and so on. The show would prove to be extremely popular, resulting in similar shows such as That's Incredible on ABC. It was at this time that the term "reality show" was coined. The term was not only used of Real People and That's Incredible, but of the old timer Candid Camera. It was not used of game shows, dating shows, or talent shows.

Looking to the use of term "reality show" prior to the Naughts, I believe that a reality show could be defined as "any show which seeks to portray realistic situations, events which are actually happening, and which centres on ordinary people or, at least, actors in situations where they are not acting." This would exclude game shows, as it is safe to say that the average person does not have to answer trivia questions to win a new car or perform ludicrous stunts to win $100,000 on a regular basis. Dating shows, which are essentially a subgenre of the game show, would be excluded because, while human beings do compete in the world of dating, they generally do not do so by answering silly questions asked by the object of their desire. Talent shows would be excluded under this definition as singing, dancing, cooking, or what have you on a stage is something the average person does not do on a regular basis unless they are a professional singer. I might add that if somehow we could include talent shows under the heading of reality shows, then variety shows would have to be included as well. I very seriously doubt anyone is ready to include The Ed Sullivan Show or The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour under the heading of "reality shows," even given the loose usage of the term these days.

Of course, the sad fact is that since 2000 the term "reality show" has been used of shows that are essentially game shows, dating shows, or talent shows. Prior to the current usage of the term "reality show" in the Naughts, no one would have dreamed of calling The Price is Right a "reality show." Despite this shows that are obviously game shows have been consistently labelled "reality shows" for the past ten years. Let's face it, the central focus of Survivor and The Amazing Race is not showing people in realistic situations, but on the competition in the shows. At best Survivor and The Amazing Race are game shows with elements of reality shows. Despite consistently being called "reality shows," they are better called "game shows." They are no more reality shows than The Price is Right, Let's Make a Deal, or the positively ancient Truth or Consequences (which debuted on radio in 1940 and on television in 1941, as part of an experimental broadcast).

Just as there have been game shows labelled "reality shows," so too have dating shows, which are really just a subset of game shows.The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have all been labelled "reality shows." On each of these shows, however, the focus of the series is not portraying people in realistic situations, but in the competition between several suitors to win the hand of a single man or woman. They are basically variations on the same idea as The Dating Game, that old show from the Sixties which coined the term "bachelorette." When The Dating Game debuted the term "reality show" did not even exist. After it was coined in the late Seventies, no one ever thought to call The Dating Game a "reality show." In reality, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are no more reality shows than The Dating Game. They are dating shows with some characteristics of reality shows.

Finally, talent shows in the past ten years have regularly been called "reality shows." Indeed, American Idol was nominated in the Emmy category "Outstanding Reality-Competition Programme." Now talent shows have a particularly long history Major Bowes Amatuer Hour  debuted on radio in 1934. Following Major Bowes' death, Ted Mack would continue the series under the name The Original Amateur Hour. It made the move to television in 1948, debuting on the DuMont Network. It ran for sixteen years. All talent shows which have aired since Major Bowes Amateur Hour owe something to that series. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (which debuted on radio in 1946 and on television in 1948), The Gong Show (which aired in the Seventies), and Star Search (which ran from 1983 to 1995) all owe their existence to Major Bowes' original idea. None of these shows, not even Star Search (which debuted after the term "reality show" was coined) were ever described as "reality shows." That being the case, there is no reason to describe American Idol, America's Got Talent, or Dancing with the Stars as "reality shows" either. These are talent shows. Here I must point out that the talent of any particular talent show need not be the traditional dancing, singing, acting, prestidigitation,  or comedy routines. The Apprentice is a talent competition where the talent is running a business. And as stated above, Top Chef is a talent show where the talent is cooking.

To the misuse of the term reality show classes shows which are not related in any way, shape, or form in the same class, a class in which they do not belong. Even before the term "reality show" began to lose its original meaning circa 2000, the term embraced a wide variety of sorts of shows. It embraced shows which purported to show the reality of people living together (The Real World), the documentation of various specific events (Cops), shows with reports done for entertainment rather than news (Real People) and prank shows (Candid Camera). These shows at least have in common the fact that their primary purpose is to show ordinary people in real or purportedly real situations. American Idol does not show people in real situations, neither does Survivor, The Bachelor, or Top Chef. It's time to call a spade "a spade" and to stop using the term of diamonds, hearts, or clubs. If it's a game show, it's a game show. If it's a dating show, it's a dating show. If it's a talent show, it's a talent show. None of them are reality shows.

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