Change in Reality Programming Between 1990 and 2012 - From Documentation to Voyeuristic Sensationalism
They have become a prominent part of today’s television culture: reality TV shows. Since the 1990s, these shows have taken over the media landscape and turned into a fascination. Driven by humans’ voyeuristic personalities, television producers saw the money- making possibilities in this cheap and easy-to-produce genre. But over the last two centuries, reality television has tremendously changed and pushed its limits to the extreme. This paper will analyze the changes of the genre between 1990 and 2012 and look at popular shows during these years.
The first appearance of reality television can be traced back to Alan Funt’s TV series Candid Camera, which first aired in 1948. However, no specific term was coined for this genre in the 1940s. The term “reality television” first appeared in the 1970s, when socialist Margaret Mead found the expression “documentary” not fitting anymore for this kind of TV productions. Reality television, as we know it today, goes back to the 1990s, when numerous new shows like Cops or The Real World mushroomed and made their appearance on several major channels (Slocum).
Today, The Real World might be the first show people think of when they hear the term reality television. It started in 1992 with seven people moving into a loft in SoHo, New York. Currently, the show is producing its 27th season, which will be stationed in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. In the beginning, The Real World was an incredibly smart concept, as it wanted to keep the lives of the inhabitants as real as possible, also allowing them to leave the house and having to work (however, in a job that was provided to them by the producers of the show). The producers also showed courage when they used the program to address issues such as homosexuality, AIDS, abortion, racism, or religion. Especially noticeable were the production rules that the cast had to follow to be able to remain on the show, the most significant one being a rule against absolutely any kind of violence. Should one cast member just punch another, he or she had to leave the show immediately.
When The Real World was first aired, it was a novelty. Reality television was not part of mainstream culture at the beginning of the 1990s, but just slowly started to register large growth. Additionally, reality TV seemed to have a bigger importance than simply please our voyeuristic cravings. It also opened the door for a discussion about major issues (AIDS, homosexuality, etc.). The episodes didn’t seem scripted nor did it seem as if the producers were staging every situation in the housemates’ lives. At this point, reality television still resembled the beginnings of its genre as a documentary-style program, trying to portray life as realistic as possible. In fact, documented footage included mostly situations the regular viewers could identify themselves with: falling in love, fighting with a friend, or losing a close person. The show became popular because people could feel with the persons, thinking, “I’ve been through this, too.” (The Real World will be the only show used to exemplify reality television in the 1990s, as it was the biggest and most successful show. In addition, it took almost a decade for the genre to literally explode and be everywhere and to bring up other groundbreaking shows.)
After The Real World ’s success, numerous new shows were produced, and at the beginning of the 21st century, a slow shift was noticeable. Three of the major trends during this time were shows starring celebrities, dating shows, and lifestyle changes and makeover shows of regular people. It seemed not enough anymore to simply film some regular people in their everyday lives. More action and specialties had to be brought to the table, and it was about to get “uglier.” Because producers noticed that celebrities’ lives are more interesting to the viewer than the lives of the general public, shows like The Osbournes (2002) or The Simple Life (2003) starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie were made. The viewers were definitely looking for something different from their lives, not feeling the necessity anymore to be able to identify themselves with the characters on the shows. However, the viewers still admiringly watched the shows, thinking, “I want to live this life.” Dating and celebrity- starring shows were often combined, such as Rock of Love with Bret Michaels (2007) or Flavor of Love (2006) with Flavor Flav. The latter became controversial when two of the finalist girls started a fight and one of them spit in the other girl’s face. Above all, celebrity reality shows appealed to a large audience due to “the carefully constructed facades of C-list celebrities quickly disintegrating to the voyeur factor providing a quicker hit than the slow character build up of the unknown wannabes seen in traditional reality shows” (Fairclough). Celebrities also appeared mainly in talent search shows, e.g. American Idol and Project Runway, because their appearance gave the shows credibility. Despite the popularity of celebrity reality shows, the series still seemed pretty realistic. Although most people could not identify themselves with the characters portrayed anymore, they still felt that the depictions were real.