Reality TV— A Brief History

        It’s amazing to see how far technology has come in just the last 100 years.  Television, which seems like an amenity we could have never been without, didn’t begin in the US until 1939.  By 1970, TVs were the primary information and entertainment medium in the US.  At this time, the US owned 93 million of the 271 million television sets in the world.  And as we progress through time, the more creative we get with the types and genres of shows we watch.  Just recently a new fad has come into American pop culture known as reality based television.
        Reality TV is typically defined as, non-fictional programming in which portrayal is presumed to present current, historical events or circumstances.  The production itself must be a realistic account.  Generally included in this category is news and public affairs programming, interviews, talk shows, entertainment, or news programming, documentaries, real world events, police or emergency worker drama, and live quiz shows.  Typically docu-dramas, invented or composite characters, and dialogue are excluded from the reality TV category.  For the sake of this project we will focus primarily on reality shows made within the last few years.
        The emphasis of reality television is on intense emotionality, exaggeration and sensationalism.  It has been said to be historically rooted in the "penny press" of the 1830’s the "dime novels" of the 1870’s and the "yellow journalism" of the early 20th century.  Such programming is typically driven by four common elements: profits, politics, education and entertainment.  Although reality based programming is more popular than ever, the concept itself is not new.  In 1973 PBS aired a documentary titled, "An American Family" in which filmmakers followed the Loud family in Santa Barbara for seven months.  Since then American audiences have been exposed to shows like, “America’s funniest home videos,” “Cops,” “When good pets go bad,” “Deadly car crashes” and just recently we have moved into more entertainment based, game show reality television.
        MTV has produced the “Real World” for more than nine years, a show about "Seven strangers who are picked to live in a house, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real."  These types of shows seem to be a combination of documentary film, soap opera, serial drama and cinema.  MTV did not radically change the form of this genre but adapted it to a particular audience that came to expect a certain style of programming, with quick edits and rock soundtracks.  This is not the only reality endeavor MTV has concocted.  They have also produced a spin off called “Road Rules” where five strangers have adventures and try to win prizes while traveling around in a mobile home.
        In the past two years reality TV has exploded in popularity.  But this new trend is most likely just the beginning.  European television has been exploring reality TV for a few years longer than the US and US television is just starting to catch-up.  A number of popular American reality shows can be traced back to similar shows from Europe.  “Who wants to be a millionaire” was taken from Great Britain, “Survivor” was taken from the Swedes, “Big Brother” was taken from Holland and “The Mole” from Belgium.  Perhaps the most popular reality television show yet has been CBS’s “Survivor,” which marooned participants on a desert island and promised the last person left $1 million.  Over 15 million people watched the first “Survivor” that figure rose to 18 million the second week.
        Currently, networks are trying to get their hands on and produce as many of these programs as audiences can gobble up.  Currently airing or in production are a few of the following:  “Temptation Island” (Fox), “The Mole” (ABC), “Survivor 2” (CBS), “The 1900 House” (PBS), “Making the Band” (ABC), “Big Diet” (ABC), “Boot Camp” (Fox) and “Chains of Love.”  In Europe, “71 degrees North” is expected in Norway and a show titled, “Wanted” in Britain.

Reality Statistics
B = percent of people who say they watch survivor
C = percent of people who say they like/love reality TV shows

18-29 50% 68%
30-49 44% 44%
50-64 50% 34%
65+ 32% 32%

How the Media Works and the Technologies Used

        Reality TV is popping up everywhere you look these days.  From MTV to PBS everywhere you look you are watching real people put into situations that you or I wouldn't normally put ourselves into.  Most Americans are addicted to the goings on of these normal people in extraordinary situations.
        It's amazing how these simple TV programs have invaded our everyday TV shows.  Instead of sitting down and watching carefully constructed plots where every detail has been mapped out we are now tuning into the unpredictability that is reality TV.  It's amazing how such a simple idea has created such a huge fan base.
        Producers go through a lot of work to pick out those normal everyday people that you and I enjoy watching so much.  All producers go through a casting call where they pick people that they think an audience will respond to.  They are looking for people that we can identify with that have the same gender and background as you or I.  People that we will want to identify with.  They try very hard to pick people that will mirror today's society.  Most shows have an even number of men and women, at least one minority and at least one person who is homosexual.  At the same time producers are looking for people that will cause a sensation.  They want stereotypes that their target audience can identify with.  From the bad boy to the rebel to the sweetheart.  Producers also are also looking for conflict.  Conflict brings in ratings so they want to create tension between everyone, this is another reason for picking such a wide variety of people.  Once the cast is picked they are set up in a location where they all must spend an unusually large amount of time together.  As in the TV series "Survivor" the cast members they must live, work, and play together twenty-four hours a day.  All cast members must where a microphone at all times and must have a camera with them as well.  The cast members every word and movement is taped.
        Once the show is finished taping the producers then must go in and condense all the tape into a half-hour to an hour time slot.  They want to create story lines and characters with their footage that we as an audience will want to see.  What has proven to work in almost all shows is that people want to see conflict and they want to see sex so the producers use the footage they have to create these story lines that we will want to watch.
        Reality TV has taken a step forward in the way that television media works.  Instead of having a show with a script and set characters and set plots and set time slots reality TV works differently.  Reality TV takes real people and puts them into situations and watches how the people handle their surroundings and different situations brought to them.  Instead of being told what to say and do like on regular TV shows, there is very little that is controlled with reality TV.  We watch reality TV to see how people will react to the situations posed to them.  In many reality TV shows such as MTV’s "The Real World" or CBS's "Survivor" people are brought in and audition for spots on the shows.  An even number of men and women are brought in and there is usually at least one person who is a minority and there is usually at least one person brought in who is gay.
        Everyone participating on the show must where a microphone at all times and everyone must have a camera with them at all times so that everything they do or say is on video.  The taping usually lasts several weeks or months.  When the taping is done the producer watch all the videotape and put together story lines for a set time slot each week.  They pick story lines that they believe will make an audience want to continue to watch the show.

    (Road Rules)

Reality Television Ownership and Control

        To find who owned the niche of reality television, I began my search with looking for current television programs that were on.  This began by defining reality television as television programs that are referred to as “non-scripted,” “alternative,” “uncontrived,” “spontaneous” or “reality” (Martin, Toss out the Script, 2000: 26).
        Table A is a list of reality television programs there were compiled from two different web sites that direct reality television fans to shows.  Based on the network that the show was televised on, I could then interpret who the owners were.  We can then see from the 24 shows that were listed there were only actually five media companies that owned the shows.  Viacom owned 25% of the shows, leading the pack.  Disney owned 1/6 of the shows; News Corporation owned five of them, all broadcast of Fox.  GE and Time Warner shared the smallest niche of the reality television market owning 1/12 each.  PBS had two shows but is not owned by one entity and is governed by Congress, cornering 8.3% of the market.

Table A

Show Title
ABC The Mole Disney
ABC Making the Band Disney
ABC Who Wants to be a Millionaire Disney
CBS Survivor-Australian Outback Viacom
CBS Big Brother Viacom
CBS Winning Lines Viacom
CBS Kids Say the Darndest Things Viacom
FOX Temptation Island News Corporation
FOX Boot Camp News Corporation
FOX COPS News Corporation
FOX America's Most Wanted News Corporation
FOX Greed News Corporation
NBC XFL General Electric
NBC Twenty-One General Electric
WB PopStars Time Warner
MTV The Real World Viacom
MTV Road Rules Viacom
MTV Real World/Road Rules Challenge Viacom
E! Fashion Emergency Disney
PBS Frontier House 
PBS 1900 House
Internet Reality Run
HBO Greenlight Time Warner
UPN Chains Of Love Viacom
1.  Shows comprised from listings on Reality TV Online1 & Martin, Ed.  2000.  “Toss Out the Script” in Advertising Age.  Volume 71 Issue 21, Page 26-30.  May 15.
2. Owners comprised from listings on Columbia Journalism Review Media Ownership2

        Table B takes the owners in Table A and tells who the people are in charge (CEO’s and owners) of each individual company that has a huge influence on reality television programming. Time Warner is headed by Gerald Levine and Ted Turner after the merger of Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting3.  Disney is headed by Michael Eisner4.  Viacom’s CEO is Sumner Redstone5.  General Electric's NBC CEO is Robert C.  Wright with John F. Welch being the CEO of GE, kept separate after the GE and NBC merger6.  News Corporation is headed by Rupert Murdoch7.  All of these owners are white males.  Four out of the five are Americans, with Rupert Murdoch being the only Non-American (he was born in Melbourne, Australia)8.  Adding the Congress control over PBS, this adds more white, American males elitist controlling reality television.

Table B

CEO (owners/controllers)
Disney Michael Eisner
General Electric John F. Welch & Robert C. Wright
News Corporation Rupert Murdoch
Time Warner Gerald Levine & Ted Turner
Viacom Sumner Redston
 Ownership information comprised from the following locations:
Time Warner3, Disney4, Viacom5,  General Electrics6, &  News Corporation7
        This indicates that the many shows are being controlled by only a few entities.  The viewers get the illusion of having a variety of television programs that are dictated by white, male (mostly American) elitist.

          Murdoch                        Turner                      Not pictured: Wright, Redstone, Welch & Levine

Reality Television Economic Factors

        Many factors play a part in how reality television shows are produced.  When we think of producers having the pressure to provide shows that will make money, an evaluation of how this process works in the media social structure is in order.  What I found is that the major influences on this season huge influx of reality based television shows stem from the actor’s and writer’s strike, advertisers trying to reach a large portion of the population, and the inexpensive production cost of making reality television programs.

The Actor’s and Writer’s Strike

        On May 1, the contract between production companies and writers expired, and the writers went on strike.  On July 1, the contract between production companies and actors expired and the actors went on strike.  And you don’t think the writer’s/actor’s strike didn’t impact this craze? September began the new television season, after a summer of striking actors and writers, reality television shows rise to the occasion.  The goal of the networks was to accumulate as much material as possible as fast as possible for network use in case of a strike.  This is especially true after the giant success of “Survivor” and other networks trying to get their part of the market (Mink, Time to Face Reality, 2000, Arts and Lifestyle section).  Cheap reality shows are prime pickings by networks to fill the airtime, and might even keep writers out a job if the genre continues (Poniewozik and McDowell, Back to Reality, 2001: 75 & Bianco9).

Reality Shows Production Costs

        Reality programming is cheaper than regular programming.  “ER” set a record at $13 million per episode, while $500,000 is typical for an hour of “Dateline” (Goodale, TV Feeds hunger for real stories, 1998: 1).  A half hour sitcom easily runs over a million to make, while $150,000 for half hour shows “Stalkerazzi” or “When Good Pets Go Bad” are much cheaper (Streisand, Did you say reality TV?, 2001: 36).  “Survivor” episodes ran just under $1 million to make (Grover, Off the Island, 2000: 48).  Some reality production costs run 1/3 of the $1.5 to $2 million price tag that it takes to make “The X-Files” (Lacter, “Blair Witch TV, 2000:64).  Networks also benefit because they are “able to run fresh installments of such programming from September-May, without having to rely on holiday and spring reruns simply to fill out a season (Martin, Toss out the script, 2000:26).  Original programming while others are running reruns brings one-thing…viewers, which brings advertisers, and the economic circle begins again.
        Around 1/3 of a new season’s programming (30 new shows) will fail (Streisand, 36).  This means that networks are willing to gamble on reality shows because they are a lower threat.  “Friends—a scripted hit with actors who get more expensive with every contract—is the old-line antithesis of Survivor, a moneymaking machine with disposable stars and no writers” (Poniewozik and McDowell, 2001: 74).


        Advertisers main concern is reaching a large population.  This has become increasing difficult with the cable-TV explosion.  Network market shares have dropped from 90 percent in the early 1980’s to about 50% today (Podhoretz, ‘Survivor’ and the end of Television, 2000: 52).  Reality TV has allowed for the first time since the 1991-92 season networks to maintain their primetime audience that was normally lost to cable.  23 million tuned in “Multi-Millionaire” and 51 million watched the finale of “Survivor” (Reality TV’s Real Survivor, 2001: 77).  This was an advertisers dream.  This is why we see advertisers paying $2.1 million for sponsorship on “The Mole” which buys nine 30-second units (one per telecast), two billboards, and an extensive presence on and sponsorship of an online contest.  The initial “Survivor” sponsors paid $4 million for the 13-week run, but “Survivor 2” price tag jumped to $12 million (Friedman, Harsh ‘Reality,’ 2000:4 & Grover, Off the Island, 2000: 48).  How do the networks benefit?  CBS collected about $52 million in advertising for the initial “Survivor” (Grover, Off the Island, 2000: 48).  ABC’s “Millionaire” brought up it’s operating income by 33% (Lacter, “Blair Witch TV, 2000:64).
        Advertisers are looking for opportunities that lead them to the very important demographic category of 18-to-49-year-olds.  “But the margins between the biggest networks are so that one hit show could alter the world order” (Streisand, 36).  To win these viewers networks must take chances.  CBS “could have put Survivor in a safer time slot, is going head to head with NBC’s top-rated Friends on Thursday nights…because movie companies paying top dollar (up to $600,000 for a 30-second spot) to reach young audiences before the weekend begins, Thursday is the most lucrative night in television (36-37).

The Reality of Reality Shows

        Producers are put under the gun to produce what will produce profits.  Mark Burnett (producer of “Survivor,” “Survivor: The Australian Outback,” “Eco-Challenge,” “Combat Missions,” and “Destination Mir”) is guaranteed to receive 50% of “Destination Mir,” “Eco-Challenge,” and “Combat Missions” advertising revenues, which surprised everyone and is breaking a media rule (Carter, Survival of the Pushiest, 2001: 24).  This is only due to the huge success of “Survivor” in which CBS only agreed to buy it after they enlisted Burnett to sell advertising on the series and they made a deal that if it succeeded that they would split the advertising profits an unprecedented 50/50 (25).
        Burnett did not go to advertisers out of the blue, but used his “associative marketing” technique where “he sought to tie sponsors, partly through offers of product placement, as closely as possible to his show.”  He admits ‘It is increasingly hard just to sell commercial spots in shows.  I looked on ‘Survivor’ as much as a market vehicle as a television show’ (25).  He got eight sponsors to cover the budget of the show (do you remember all the challenges being done in Reebok tennis shoes?), and with large ratings came large ad revenues.  Burnett received a staggering $10 million (exact figures not known) for “Survivor” (25).  Needless to say, the network learned from their first “Survivor” mistake which would have given Burnett an expected $45 million for “Survivor: The Australian Outback” and will bring in about three times more than the original “Survivor” for network profit.

Government Regulations

        In the realm of reality TV, government regulations are the same in any other television program.  According to Sardar (2000) he states, "The pandemic of voyeurism reaches its peak on television.  The success of sleaze talk whetted our appetite for a more overt form of voyeurism.  It arrived in the form of reality television."  Presently there are no specific guidelines for reality television programs to follow.  This is due to the introduction and new popularity of this kind of programming.  All reality television shows go by the standard guidelines that regular television shows go by.  The only difference is more editing and censorship would be added.  Any fan of reality TV knows two things: the secret is in the editing, and everyone involved ends up looking like an idiot (Deziel 2001).  Such regulations could be the censorship of nudity and violence or other things that are inappropriate for television viewers.
        Many have asked where do you draw the line between reality and staged television shows.  Viewers who watch such reality TV shows generally regard them as entertainment (Fuson 1999).  While they may be entertainment, the stories are real (Fuson 1999).  For example if a character on the new “Survivor” series were to get hurt or far worst and die, this would be real verse if a character on “Friends,” a WB sitcom were to get injured or die.  The difference between the two situations is that one is fake and the other is real.
        Also the freedom of the press is another line the must be explored.  Elements of news and entertainment thus become inextricably intertwined, making it impossible to draw a distinction that will protect private individuals from the risk of becoming involuntary subjects of "reality" television without impeding First Amendment protection for the press (Fuson 1999).  Nonetheless, while overly sensationalized headlines can have undesirable consequences, and in-your-face reporting and the proliferation of reality-based television may further blur the line between news and entertainment, they hardly suggest the sudden demise of individual privacy (Fuson 1999).


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