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Reality television is a genre of television programming that documents supposedly unscripted real-life situations, and often features an otherwise unknown cast of individuals who are typically not professional actors, although in some shows celebrities may participate. It differs from documentary television in that the focus tends to be on drama, personal conflict, and entertainment rather than educating viewers. The genre has various standard tropes, including "confessionals" (also called talking heads or interview segments) 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."
An early example of the genre was the 1991 Dutch series Nummer 28, which was the first show to bring together strangers and record their interactions. It then exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the global success of the series Survivor, Idols, 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 programs, most famously MTV, which began in 1981 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 the genre, such as unscripted situations and sometimes unknown participants. 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).
- See also: List of reality television game shows
- See also: List of reality television game shows
- A 2006 study proposed six subgenres: romance, crime, informational, reality-drama, competition/game, and talent.
- A 2007 study proposed five subgenres: infotainment, docusoap, lifestyle, reality game shows, and lifestyle experiment programs.
- A 2009 study proposed eight subgenres: "gamedocs", dating programs, makeover programs, docusoaps, talent contests, court programs, reality sitcoms, and celebrity variations of other programs.
- "The Seventh Victim" (1953) was a short story by science fiction author Robert Sheckley that depicted a futuristic game in which one player gets to hunt down another player and kill him. The first player who can score ten kills wins the grand prize. This story was the basis for the Italian film The 10th Victim (1965).
You're Another, a 1955 short story by Damon Knight, is about a man who discovers that he is an actor in a "livie", a live-action show that is viewed by billions of people in the future.
A King in New York, a 1957 film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin has the main character, a fictional European monarch portrayed by Chaplin, secretly filmed while talking to people at a New York cocktail party. The footage is later turned into a television show within the film.
- "The Prize of Peril" (1958), another Robert Sheckley story, was about a television show in which a contestant volunteers to be hunted for a week by trained killers, with a large cash prize if he survives. It was adapted in 1970 as the TV movie Das Millionenspiel, and again in 1983 as the movie Le Prix du Danger.
Richard G. Stern's novel Golk (1960) was about a hidden-camera show similar to Candid Camera.
- "It Could Be You" (1964), a short story by Australian Frank Roberts, features a day-in-day-out televised blood sport.
Survivor (1965), a science fiction story by Walter F. Moudy, depicted the 2050 "Olympic War Games" between Russia and the United States. The games are fought to show the world the futility of war and thus deter further conflict. Each side has one hundred soldiers who fight in a large natural arena. The goal is for one side to wipe out the other; the few who survive the battle become heroes. The games are televised, complete with color commentary discussing tactics, soldiers' personal backgrounds, and slow-motion replays of their deaths.
- "Bread and Circuses" (1968) was an episode of the science fiction television series Star Trek in which the crew visits a planet resembling the Roman Empire, but with 20th-century technology. The planet's "Empire TV" features regular gladiatorial games, with the announcer urging viewers at home to vote for their favorites, stating, "This is your program. You pick the winner."
The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) was a BBC television play in which a dissident in a dictatorship is forced onto a secluded island and taped for a reality show in order to keep the masses entertained.
The Unsleeping Eye (1973), a novel by D.G. Compton (also published as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe), was about a woman dying of cancer whose last days are recorded without her knowledge for a television show. It was later adapted as the 1980 movie Death Watch.
- "Ladies And Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis" (1976) was a short story by science fiction author Kate Wilhelm about a television show in which contestants (including a B-list actress who is hoping to revitalize her career) attempt to make their way to a checkpoint after being dropped off in the Alaskan wilderness, while being filmed and broadcast around the clock through an entire weekend. The story focuses primarily on the show's effect on a couple whose domestic tensions and eventual reconciliation parallel the dangers faced by the contestants.
Network (1976) includes a subplot in which network executives negotiate with an urban terrorist group for the production of a weekly series, each episode of which was to feature an act of terrorism. The climax of the film has the terrorist group being turned against the network's own unstable star, news commentator Howard Beale.
The Running Man (1982) was a book by Stephen King depicting a game show in which a contestant flees around the world from "hunters" trying to chase him down and kill him; it has been speculated that the book was inspired by Robert Sheckley's The Prize of Peril. The book was loosely adapted as a 1987 movie of the same name. The movie removed most of the reality-TV element of the book: its competition now took place entirely within a large television studio, and more closely resembled an athletic competition (though a deadly one).
- The film 20 Minutes into the Future (1985), and the spin-off television series Max Headroom, revolved around television mainly based on live, often candid, broadcasts. In one episode of Max Headroom, "Academy", the character Blank Reg fights for his life on a courtroom game show, with the audience deciding his fate.
Vengeance on Varos (1985) was an episode of the television show Doctor Who in which the population of a planet watches live television broadcasts of the torture and executions of those who oppose the government. The planet's political system is based on the leaders themselves facing disintegration if the population votes 'no' to their propositions.
The Comeback (2005) satirizes the indignity of reality television by presenting itself as "raw footage" of a new reality show documenting the attempted comeback of has-been star Valerie Cherish.
Dead Set (2008) is a British television programme featuring a zombie apocalypse affecting the Big Brother house. Part of the film was shot during an actual eviction with host Davina McCall making a cameo appearance.
Rock Rivals (2008) is a British television show about two judges on a televised singing contest whose marriage is falling apart.
- "Fifteen Million Merits" (2011) is an episode in the first season of British television anthology series Black Mirror, set in a dystopian future in which appearing on reality television is the only way in which people can escape their miserable, jail-like conditions.
Unreal (2015) is an American television show that depicts the behind-the-scenes drama on a show similar to The Bachelor.
Chart Throb (2006) is a comic novel by Ben Elton that parodies The X Factor and The Osbournes, among other reality shows.
Dead Famous (2001) is a comedy/whodunit novel, also by Ben Elton, in which a contestant is murdered while on a Big Brother-like show.
Oryx and Crake (2003), a speculative fiction novel by Margaret Atwood, occasionally makes mentions of the protagonist and his friend entertaining themselves by watching reality television shows of live executions, Noodie News, frog squashing, graphic surgery, and child pornography.
L.A. Candy (2009) is a young adult novel series by Lauren Conrad, which is based on her experiences on Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and The Hills.
Big Brother - Why Bother? - Graham Barnfield's Spiked commentary
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Lord of the fly-on-the-walls - Observer article: Paul Watson's UK & Australian docusoaps
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