Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

Not just a fad: Reality TV is here to stay

By Jeff Katzenstein | September 12, 2002

I thought that I was watching the beginning of the end. Reality television had gone too far. Survivor mania was in full swing, and to add to the reality TV hype, CBS had come out with Big Brother, a show in which 12 people lived in house, constantly surrounded by video cameras, until they got sick of each other and voted residents off, one by one. Who was going to watch a bunch of random people sitting around a house all day? I turned it off halfway through the show and never watched again.

Much to my surprise, reality TV was just beginning. Reality-based television shows continue to be a boon to almost every network on television, and the ideas for new shows, ridiculous as they may sound, continue to be churned out every season.

The list of networks with reality-based TV shows continues to grow. MTV probably shows more reality TV than it does music videos, as it now shows The Real World, Road Rules, Sorority Life, WWF Tough Enough and The Osbournes, plus many more to come. There are so many reality shows now on television that we don't have enough room to list them on this page. The Web site lists a total of 95 reality TV shows that will air on television this year. You can see everything, from rich people on The Hamptons to the lower-brow Who Wants to Date a Hooters Girl.

Reality TV even has its own channel now, appropriately named "The Reality TV Channel." The channel will reportedly be available through satellite TV in the United States by 2005 ( It will apparently show such classics as Fox's Temptation Island nonstop, 24 hours a day.

You would think America would be sick of it by now, yet TV watchers continue to gobble up these shows like Oprah on a cookie dough binge. If you haven't already heard, The Anna Nicole Show has posted the highest ratings ever for an E! Network show. The Osbournes smashed all records for MTV ratings as well.

Last Wednesday's episode of Fox's American Idol received a Nielsen rating of 9.7, and was estimated to be watched in over 10 million households


Multiple installments of these shows continue to air every season. The Real World has now gone into its 11th season. Big Brother and The Amazing Race have gone into their third. Survivor has moved on to its fifth.

Where did all this madness start? The tiny seed was planted way back in 1973, when a show called An American Family aired on PBS. In this show, a family opened up their home for seven months to a cameraman, and over 10 million viewers tuned in to watch the family drama unfold.

This begs another question: When did these shows stop being documentaries and start becoming what is now known as "reality TV?" It began when television producers became less interested in making documentaries about certain subjects, and simply stuck a bunch of people on an island or a house, gave them some games to play, and told them to make their own show. In other words, the idea gave the shows something that documentaries lacked: an unpredictable nature. Instead of being educated from a documentary, the country became enamored with Survivor's Greg and Colleen, and whether or not they actually had a wild fling that night in the forest.

Ridiculous and low-brow as it may seem, reality TV has undergone a metamorphosis. It is no longer simply a fad that stations will soon cancel in favor of the next new thing. It is now the driving force and the lifeblood of many huge television networks.

Why does the world love reality TV so much? Does it prey on the lonely, the bored, and the detached? Is it actually teaching us something about our own lives? Or is it just too interesting and addictive to turn away from? You can come up with your own theory. One thing is for sure: the world is watching, and people aren't about to change the station.

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