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Reality TV became an increasingly prevalent global entertainment genre in the 1990s and early 2000s. The popularity of reality shows with producers is due in large part to the fact that they represent a cheap, flexible form of programming that is easily customizable to different audiences and lends itself to forms of interaction and participation associated with new communication technologies. As an entertainment genre that relies on the unscripted interactions of people who are not professional actors, reality TV develops and discards formats at a rapid rate, parasitizing the permutations available in everyday life – including everything from romance to warfare – for raw material. Their focus is not on bringing the public realm of politics into the private sphere, but on publicizing the private and intimate. The emphasis is on therapy and social experimentation for the purpose of diversion. Reality formats make their claim to reality on the basis of their lack of scriptwriters and professional actors, but they are, for the most part, highly edited portrayals of patently contrived situations.
Successful formats rapidly replicate themselves from region to region, drawing cast members from local populations. Thus, for example, the Big Brother format, which isolates a group of strangers in a house where they compete to be the last one voted out by viewers, was pioneered in the Netherlands but became successful in local versions across Europe and in the Americas, Australia, and Asia, as well as in regional versions in Africa and the Middle East. The reality TV boom in the early twenty-first century was built around successful blockbuster formats like Survivor and Big Brother, but reality TV, broadly construed, has been around since the dawn of television. The development of lightweight cameras and recording equipment facilitated the migration of reality-based formats from the soundstage to the home, the street, the school, the workplace, and beyond
Murray and Ouellette (2004) list several subgenres including, the ‘gamedoc’ (in which cast members compete for prizes as their daily lives are recorded), the dating show, the makeover show, the ‘docusoap’, the talent contest, court and police shows, and celebrity formats that feature behind-the-scenes glimpses of the real lives of the rich and famous.
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- Ouellette, L. (ed.). (2013). A companion to reality television. Chichester: John Wiley.