Sure, reality TV has been around longer, but starting in 2000, it really hit the big time. Everyone professes to hate it, but this cheap, tawdry programming has become an easy staple, and it's changing every minute.
Reality television officially started in 1973 when PBS aired An American Family, a documentary series about the everyday lives of the Louds, a "normal" family in Santa Barbara, California. Of course the Loud's oldest son, Lance, was a flamboyant homosexual and the couple decided to get a divorce during the filming. Ten million people tuned in an a whole new genre was defined. The enterprise lay dormant pretty much until 1992 when MTV's revolutionary The Real World put a bunch of 20-somethings in a house to stop being polite and start being real.
In the summer of 2000, something called Survivor happened and changed the face of television forever. 52 million people tuned into the show's finale, and just as many people decried how horrible the show was. Once network execs saw how cheap these shows were to make and the rewards they could get from them, everyone rushed a bunch of reality shows into production. As the decade progressed programs started to splinter off from the genre and form genres onto themselves.
Here's a look at the reality genres that have come to define the decade. While some are better than others, making the whole "reality TV is bad" argument is now impossible, because it is everywhere and available in a million different forms across a broad and beautiful spectrum. We are living in a reality reality, and we're the better for it.
Description: A bunch of normal joes are thrown together in an extreme situation and have to do fight to win a pile of cash.
Highlights: The Amazing Race, Big Brother
Lowlights: The Mole, Pirate Master, The Swan
Reigning Champion: Survivor
Description: People of a certain profession compete in challenges to determine who is the best. A winner is decided by ranking professionals in the field and a telegenic host.
Highlights: Project Runway, Iron Chef
Lowlights: Wickedly Perfect, Shear Genius
Reigning Champion: Top Chef
Description: Unlike the professional category, these are amateurs trying to win a contract to be the performer they always dreamed they could be. There is almost always a set of judges involved, usually one nice, one snide, and one completely worthless.
Highlights: So You Think You Can Dance, America's Next Top Model
Lowlights: America's Got Talent, American Inventor
Reigning Champion: American Idol
Description: A person's house, wardrobe, car, dog house, nails, hair, or just about anything that is deemed lacking is made into something new and shiny by a host who professes to know what he talks about. Gays excel in this genre.
Highlights: What Not to Wear, Trading Spaces
Lowlights: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Pimp My Ride
Reigning Champion: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
Description: A group of people is placed into a situation and observed without producers meddling with them. Well, at least too much.
Highlights: The Real World before Las Vegas, Bad Girl's Club
Lowlights: The Real World after Las Vegas, Kid Nation
Reigning Champion: Jersey Shore
Description: We are supposed to be tricked into thinking what we are watching is really happening, but the "scenes" and "storylines" have often been predetermined by producers and events are staged in order to get the desired effect. We actually know it's all fake, but we don't care.
Highlights: The City
Lowlights: The Hills
Reigning Champion: The Hills
Description: A celebrity—no matter how large or small—opens his or her doors and lets the cameras inside to get a look at his real life. It is always a train wreck, but it's not always something you want to watch.
Highlights: The Osbournes, Being Bobby Brown
Lowlights: Hey, Paula, The Newlyweds, Keeping up with The Kardashians, The Anna Nicole Show
Reigning Champion: Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List
Description: Like documentary or celebrity programs, this takes an inside look into a specific workplace, usually one that is odd, extreme, or full of drama.
Highlights: Ace of Cakes, Dirty Jobs
Lowlights: Sunset Tan, Miami Ink, The Restaurant
Reigning Champion: The Deadliest Catch
Description: People go on television in order to make themselves better. They usually succeed while the cameras are on and then go home and fail, returning to a life of quiet desperation after they have been sentimentally abused for our entertainment.
Highlights: Intervention, Shaq's Big Challenge
Lowlights: Celebrity Fit Club, Celebrity Rehab
Reigning Champion: The Biggest Loser
Description: Are you sitting alone in your room? Go on television and find the man/woman/midget of your dreams!
Highlights: Joe Millionaire, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, Flavor of Love
Lowlights: The Littlest Groom, Mr. Personality, Boy Meets Boy, Paradise Hotel, Rock of Love,
Reigning Champion: The Bachelor
Description: Congrats, Bravo. You have created your own genre about rich women behaving badly, having fights, and pretending like they're wealthier than they really are.
Highlights: Real Housewives of Atlanta
Lowlights: Real Housewives of Orange County
Reigning Champion: Real Housewives of New Jersey