In the 1990s and early 2000s, the phenomenon known as reality TV became a part of American popular culture. The concept behind the reality TV genre (category) is elementary: take a group of average individuals, who usually are strangers to each other, place them in an artificial living situation or an unusual locale, and have camera crews record their interaction. Such shows are popular with networks because they are inexpensive to produce, and the most successful of them earn astronomical ratings—and profits. They also are controversial. They present themselves as "reality," yet occasionally the behavior of participants is manipulated. Furthermore, even when there is no obvious pressure, how are participants affected by the constant presence of the camera? Do they react and interact as they ordinarily would, knowing full well that their every action is being recorded, and eventually will be broadcast to millions?
The reality TV phenomenon is rooted in two shows: An American Family (1973), a special on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS; see entry under 1960s—TV and Radio in volume 4) that recorded events in the lives of members of a suburban family; and The Real World (1991–; see entry under 1990s—TV and Radio in volume 5), an MTV (see entry under 1980s—Music in volume 5) series in which seven young people, all twentysomething strangers from diverse backgrounds, live together for a set period of time under the constant, watchful eye of the camera. The success of The Real World resulted in Road Rules (1995–), a spin-off show featuring five youthful strangers on a road trip.
Reality TV shows became a national obsession beginning with the popularity of Survivor in 2000, a CBS-TV summer replacement series. During the spring of 2000, sixteen average Americans went into isolation on the deserted Malaysian island of Pulau Tiga. They competed in games and contests, and every few days team members voted to banish an individual from the island. Eventually, after thirty-nine days, there was a lone survivor—Richard Hatch (1961–), a divorced, openly gay real estate agent—who won $1 million. The show fascinated viewers, who gathered around their TV sets by the millions each week to see who would be eliminated. Survivor soon became television's top-rated program, besting its primary competition, the quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (1999–; see entry under 1990s—TV and Radio in volume 5). In fact, it earned some of the best ratings ever for a summer replacement show, with its two-hour finale drawing over forty million viewers.
The "reality" of reality TV came into question when one Survivor contestant, Stacey Stillman (1972–), sued CBS and the show's producers, claiming that fellow competitors had been manipulated into voting her off the island. One of the participants admitted that this was precisely what occurred. Meanwhile, Mark Burnett (1960–), the show's creator, acknowledged that stand-ins occasionally were employed during the filming.
Survivor has since been followed by three sequels—Survivor: The Australian Outback (2001), Survivor: Africa (2001), and Survivor: Marquesas (2002)—plus a mass of imitators. A sampling: Big Brother (2000), in which strangers come to live in a house in Los Angeles, California; Fear Factor (2001), involving contestants who are required to overcome their worst fears; Boot Camp (2001), featuring contestants who enter an eight-week military-style training program; and Murder in Small Town X (2001), in which contestants compete to unmask a fictional killer. Low points of the genre have been Temptation Island (2001), spotlighting couples who come to a desert island and test their devotion to each other; and Who Wants to Marry a MultiMillionaire? (2000), which featured a bachelor choosing one of fifty women to marry on the show. The "couple," Rick Rockwell (1957–) and Darva Conger (1966–), divorced soon thereafter.
For More Information
Hatch, Richard. 101 Survival Secrets: How to Win $1,000,000, Lose 100 Pounds, and Just Plain Live Happily. New York: Lyons Press, 2000.
Johnson, Hillary, and Nancy Rommelmann. The Real Real World. New York: Melcher Media, 1995.
The Real World Diaries. New York: Melcher Media, 1996.
Reality News Online.http://www.realitynewsonline.com/index.html (accessed April 2, 2002).
Solomon, James, and Alan Carter. The Real World: The Ultimate Insider's Guide. New York: MTV Books, 1997.