Reality Television Pioneers

Let's be honest -- is there any television network greater than HBO?  Other networks have blockbuster shows and the occasional interesting programming, but when you measure the comprehensive quantity and quality of the bulk of original programming, HBO comes out on top.  Their latest critically acclaimed show is Cinema Verite, a dramatization of one of the first reality shows in TV history, An American Family, which aired on PBS in 1973.  The current reality television trend owes plenty to the groundbreaking shows that preceded and are often overlooked and unappreciated by modern audiences.  Here are the pioneers who did it first, and some still say did it best.

Candid Camera - Allen Funt was a genius for coming up with the concept of playing pranks on unsuspecting people and videotaping how they acted with hidden cameras for broadcast television.  The program featured real people with real reactions.  Contemporary shows, such as Punk'd or Scare Tactics, seem almost amateurish by comparison.  Maybe because today's media savvy public is more self-aware than in the past, but the folks on today's reality shows seem like they're actors and models rather than genuine, average people caught in real situations.

An American Family - The PBS documentary series followed the private lives of a real family, the Louds of Santa Barbara, California, with all the drama that fiction tries so hard to duplicate. Tune in to HBO's Cinema Verite to see actors Tim Robbins, Diane Lane, Thomas Dekker, Patrick Fugit, and an almost unrecognizable James Gandolfini, all bringing the story to life.

Battle of the Network Stars - All celebrity reality competition shows pale by comparison to the greatest of them all.  Television stars from network hit programs competed in Olympic style and carnival style challenges, and it was awesome!

COPS - Real law enforcement officers chasing real bad guys makes for real drama, not the artificial kind from scripted dramas.  Reality is definitely stranger and more emotionally valid than fiction.

The Real World - What happens when people stop being polite and start being real?  You get the first of the modern reality shows thanks to MTV.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - Based on a British game show, the American version hosted by Regis Philbin shook everything up by becoming a blockbuster hit and proving that audiences would watch something else besides fictional hour-long dramas or half-hour situation comedies.  The floodgates were opened as producers suddenly realized that they could pitch and air virtually anything on TV, and they didn't even have to pay real actors or writers. 

Survivor - This reality competition wasn't the first, but it was arguably the best, and its phenomenal success set the standard for the genre.  There would be no going back.  Reality shows as we know them are likely here to stay thanks to billion-dollar franchises like Survivor.

The Osbournes - Ozzy Osbourne and his merry, quirky clan  let the cameras into their private lifes and the result was unscripted ratings gold.  Now, all celebrities view reality programs as another cash cow and a way to possibly revive a sluggish career.

So the next time you watch a reality show, remember the ones who came before and made it all possible, and those of you who bemoan the plethora of reality programming on the air today, blame the pioneers who started it all.

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