Although it has been existence in some form since the 1950s with the introduction of Candid Camera, reality television has only truly risen to prominence in the past decade, spurring Americans fascination and curiosity.
The Real World (1992 – Present)
One of MTV’s first forays into programming that was completely unrelated to music, The Real World was centered on the brilliant realization that most people are so different that if you put them together for long enough, something exciting is going to happen. To date the network has managed to capture 24 seasons of complete strangers having trouble getting along. While the show is often known for the more ridiculous behavior of its participants, it has also brought issues and lifestyles of a younger generation to the public eye in a way that had never been done before. In its earlier seasons, the show dealt with topics as varied as racism, bigotry, AIDS, sexuality and politics.
Survivor (2000 – Present)
While The Real World recognized the dramatic side of strangers not getting along, Survivor sought to take that tension and turn it towards a competition with a million-dollar prize. The show not only gained attention for its interesting Lord of the Flies premise, pitting contestants against one another in the wild. These strangers are divided into tribes, dropped into a remote location with basic tools, and have to build themselves shelter, find food and complete challenges. Now a pop culture touchstone, a tribal council is held each week where participants have to vote for one person to kick out. The last remaining person, or ‘sole survivor’, wins a cool million bucks. Host Jeff Probst has seen the show through 21 seasons, featuring such diverse locations as Borneo, the Australian Outback, the Amazon, Africa and Micronesia.
Big Brother (2000 – Present)
Based off a show produced in the Netherlands, Big Brother combines aspects of both The Real World and Survivor. Contestants were isolated in a house, constantly under surveillance (hence the 1984 reference in the title) and competing for a $500,000 prize. The show has been a worldwide phenomenon ever since its inception, being broadcast and finding success in nearly 70 countries. Part of the draw undeniably comes from the continual controversy surrounding the show. On many seasons, the level of isolation imposed upon the contestants’ results in some of them reacting badly, sometimes even violently.
The Bachelor (2002 – Present)
Although previous reality shows had seen participants becoming involved both romantically and sexually, The Bachelor was the first that had love, not money, as the prize for the winner. Each season, a number of women simultaneously compete for the affection of a single man. Ironically enough, only one of the 14 seasons has actually resulted in a marriage. The success of the show would seem to forgive that small matter, spawning a successful spin-off titled The Bachelorette, with the same basic premise but with a number of men vying for the love of one woman.
American Idol (2002 – Present)
Unlike other reality shows that have made stars of their participants known only for their appearance on the show, American Idol is a musical competition that has produced a number of well-known musicians’ careers of their own. The show was the first of the competitive reality shows involving the audience to decide which contestants remain or are sent home. In only 9 seasons, less than any other on this list, the series has managed to score 6 consecutive #1 seasons, a feat unmatched in the history of television. While the winners usually go on to fame within the recording industry, such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, perhaps the shows biggest draw is Simon Cowell. Americans tune in to watch this brutally honest judge tear through the early applicants that ridiculously believe they can win, without a shred of talent. 2010 will be Cowell’s last year as a judge.