Television shows during the 1960s and 1970s were usually scripted, with a cast of professional actors creating the characters. It was believed that a reality show featuring untrained actors working without a guiding script would be virtually unwatchable. There would be no way to create a satisfying storyline ending precisely after the allotted half-hour or hour running time of a typical scripted show. The only network amenable to the idea of a true reality show in the 1970s was the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). A documentary called An American Family followed the real lives of the Loud family as they dealt with the parents’ impending divorce.
During the late 1980s, a syndicated reality show called COPS began showing real policemen performing their duties as hand-held cameras rolled. The success of COPS spurred other production companies to create reality shows featuring real footage captured by amateur photographers, local news organizations, and police surveillance cameras. This documentary form of reality show proved to be quite popular, especially among the younger demographics sought by advertisers.
Meanwhile, another form of reality show began to take shape. Producers of The Real World recruited groups of twenty-somethings to live in a furnished apartment while cameras recorded every public moment of their lives together. The footage was carefully edited to create a satisfying arc of episodes, even if the participants appeared to be prodded into certain confrontations at times. Shows like The Real World proved that television audiences could enjoy watching unscripted performers reacting to somewhat scripted circumstances.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking reality show on American network television was CBS’ Survivor, debuting in 1999. Survivor featured teams of non-professional actors culled from thousands of audition tapes. Its success prompted network executives to greenlight a number of other shows employing a cast of camera-ready civilians and armies of creative editors. Professional actors, directors, and writers have all voiced strong objections to this new form of reality programming, but a reality show is usually inexpensive to produce and consistently reaches its target audience. There is some evidence that the reality show format is losing some momentum, but finding successful replacement programming has also proven to be difficult.