Reality television is a genre of television programming that documents unscripted situations and actual occurrences, and often features a previously unknown cast. The genre often highlights personal drama and conflict to a much greater extent than other unscripted television such as documentary shows. The genre has various standard tropes, such as reality TV confessionals used by cast members to express their thoughts, which often double as the shows’ narration. In competition-based reality shows, a notable subset, there are other common elements such as one participant being eliminated per episode, a panel of judges, and the concept of immunity from elimination. The genre began in earnest in the early to mid-1990s with The Real World. It then exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the global success of the series Survivor and Big Brother. These shows and a number of others (usually also competition-based) became global franchises, spawning local versions in dozens of countries. Reality television as a whole has become a fixture of television programming. In the United States, various channels have retooled themselves to focus on reality TV, most famously MTV, which began in the 1980s as a music video pioneer, before switching to a nearly all-reality format in the early 2000s. There are grey areas around what is classified as reality television. Documentaries, television news, sports television, talk shows and traditional game shows are not classified as reality television, even though they contain elements of reality television, such as unscripted situations and sometimes unknowns.
Other genres that predate the reality television boom have sometimes been retroactively grouped into reality TV, including hidden camera shows such as Candid Camera (1948), talent-search shows such as The Original Amateur Hour (1948), documentary series about ordinary people such as the Up Series (1964), high-concept game shows such as The Dating Game (1965), home improvement shows such as This Old House (1979) and court shows featuring real-life cases such as The People’s Court (1981). Reality television has faced significant criticism since its rise in popularity.
Much of the criticism has centered around the use of the word “reality”, and such shows’ attempt to present themselves as a straightforward recounting of events that have occurred. Critics have argued that reality television shows do not present reality in ways both implicit (participants being placed in unusual situations) and deceptive or even fraudulent, such as misleading editing, participants being coached in what to say or how to behave, storylines generated ahead of time, and scenes being staged or re-staged for the cameras. Other criticisms of reality television shows include that they are intended to humiliate or exploit participants (particularly on competition shows), that they make celebrities out of untalented people who do not deserve fame, and that they glamorize vulgarity and materialism.