If someone asked you to name the first reality TV show, you’d probably answer something like “The Real World,” “Survivor” or “American Idol.” When thinking about reality TV, most of us instantly think of the more recent shows that flood the airways every night. But when did this genre really originate?
The beginnings of reality TV can actually be traced back to the 1940s and 1950s with both radio and early television shows. Take “This is Your Life” for example. This show was original broadcast on radio in the late 1940s. By the early 1950s it had transitioned to television. “This is Your Life” featured the story of a real person’s life – both celebrities and the non-famous were profiled – and relied on their friends and family telling their life stories. The show was filmed on location or in front of a live audience.
In 1948, “The Original Amateur Hour” crossed from radio to television. This predecessor of “American Idol,” “Star Search,” and “America’s Got Talent,” featured a weekly talent show where the act with the most votes was invited back to perform again the next week. Many of today’s competition-based reality shows draw from this same formula.
Shows like “Punk’d,” and “Fear Factor,” can trace their origins back to the Art Linkletter and Allen Funt radio and TV shows like “Candid Microphone”, “Candid Camera” and “People are Funny,” which featured audience members participating in outrageous skits and gags.
Makeover shows got their start with the 1950s program “Queen for a Day,” where contestants discussed how difficult their lives were as they competed for household appliances. The studio audience would determine the Queen by the sound of their applause.
According to TV Guide, the first “official” reality TV show was the 1973 12-episode documentary series “An American Family.” This groundbreaking series followed the day-to-day life of the Lound family. The show did not shy away from showing the Louds’ marital problems or their son’s openly gay lifestyle. It was this show that paved the way for current hits like Bravo’s “Real Housewives” and Oxygen’s “Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood.”
In more recent memories, 1992s “The Real World” and 2000s “Survivor” spawned the current obsession with reality TV. “The Real World” was originally conceived as a soap opera for the MTV generation, but studio executives thought the project to costly. Creators Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murry then decided to drop the script and actors and film the show using seven “real” people that they would follow for three months. “Real World” was an immediate hit and has created spin-offs such as “Road Rules” and “Real World/Road Rules Challenge.”
Come meet Lauren Zalaznick, former president of Bravo and the mind behind your favorite reality TV shows, this Wednesday as she discusses reality TV, pop-culture and the future of the entertainment industry with Emmy Award-winning journalist Joyce Kulhawik at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown. Visit www.NewCenterBoston.org for tickets and more information!