The television landscape has changed drastically since its inception almost a hundred years ago. The content offered for viewers continues to grow and evolve. The one-hour drama has almost completely transformed into a long-form film: serialized shows such as Lost, 24, and Heroes are the mainstream. It is no surprise that the most popular form of television is a complete counteraction to these detail-oriented fiction shows.
Reality television did not truly catch on until the early 2000s, though it has existed for many years. Global audiences cannot get enough of the supposedly real situations; the number of reality shows currently on the air is staggering. Most popular ideas become multi-national and are either re-engineered or renamed overseas and given completely new life (witness Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?). But a handful of shows are responsible for the popularity of the genre, they have influenced audience taste and show creators alike.
The Real World: Created in 1992 and still running to this day (in its 26th season, no less), The Real World defined and glorified the MTV crowd of the Nineties. The premise is simple: take seven or eight strangers, move them to a city, force them to live together, and watch the shenanigans ensue! Some Real World cast members have been criticized for their behavior (i.e. Season Three’s Puck) and some have used the series as a starting point for a career (actress Jacinda Barrett). The show raises personal issues and controversial social opinions while entertaining. Without The Real World, current reality shows like Big Brother (or anything on VH1) would have never existed.
Survivor: The challenge show to end all challenge shows, Survivor’s debut in 2000 caught like wildfire. Dropping two teams of everyday people in a remote location, the show forces the contestants to compete for survival and work as a group. Famous for the elimination method of kicking a member of each group (called “tribes”) off the island, Survivor became a phenomenon. Hosted by Jeff Probst, it has been the focus of many debates and even a few lawsuits.
The Biggest Loser: A kinder-hearted reality show that rewards contestants for losing weight, The Bigger Loser is currently heading into Season Eight. The contestants break off into two groups and each week the losing team (the team that loses the least amount of total weight) votes off a member. Many contestants experience life-changing results and gain confidence thanks to their stint on the show. The Biggest Loser is influential in the medium for being a reality show that helps its contestants more than its audience.
The Amazing Race: Influential for both range and scope, The Amazing Race is a globe-trotting reality show that none other can touch. Taking teams of people and racing them around the globe, while stopping to compete in challenges, and eventually competing for $1 million, the show is surely an adventure. The Amazing Race takes elements from many previous reality shows (namely MTV’s Road Rules) and expands them by (literally) millions.
American Idol: When talking reality shows it is impossible to overlook one of the most popular series of all time. This singing competition results in a record deal for the winner (and often for many of the runners-up as well). Voted on by the audience, American Idol became the ultimate interactive experience. Not only did the public become fans of specific singers, they interacted online and campaigned for votes on a radical scale. The judges (specifically the straight-forward Simon Cowell) are now internationally known personalities, so much so that other reality shows base their panels on the trio.