Some younger TV viewers may not realize that there ever were television schedules that didn't include reality shows. In some ways, they're right -- at least if they've only been watching television since the 1970s.
The common and popular reality shows of recent years most likely come to mind when thinking about the birth of reality television. But the first reality show wasn't "Survivor" (which debuted on broadcast TV in 2000) or even "The Real World" (which hit MTV in 1992). Both shows are still going strong, by the way. Instead, "TV Guide" names the first reality TV show as "An American Family," a 12-episode documentary that aired on PBS in 1973. The show chronicled the everyday lives of the Loud family over a seven-month period, showing the tensions that led to the divorce of Pat and Bill Loud, as well as the life of their openly gay son Lance. This was groundbreaking television at the time. Before "An American Family," TV "reality" had consisted of game and variety shows. Now, there is hardly a concept that has not been given the reality-TV treatment. And in September 2008, the Emmys included their first reality TV-based award.
Part of the impetus for the 1992 rebirth of reality TV may have been a writers' strike. It was easier and less expensive in that environment to begin producing reality programs. And people were beginning to spend more time watching the details of the lives of others, especially celebrities. The O.J. Simpson car "chase" and trial in 1994 unofficially popularized interest in legal and crime reality shows. Explaining fascination with competitions that banish people is a bit more complicated than understanding why viewers watch shows that that let them cheer of text-vote for singers or chefs who get big breaks. Psychologist Michael Campbell likens some reality shows -- and their negative premises -- to ancient blood sport [source: Campbell]. He compares the social rejection and the terms used by the shows' stars to describe the rejection to the physical pain of blood sport. Still, says Campbell, people watch, probably because of their need for social connection.
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