“Even though reality TV is very manipulated, it’s all manipulated so that something real happens. And so, our job in this era is to make that real thing happen, because nobody wants to see any more manipulated, pre-planned performances. That era is over.”—Josh Pais.
More and more, television networks are abandoning traditional, scripted television programs in favor of unscripted reality shows. They’re cheaper to produce, easier to make, and, above all else, popular with audiences. When real, attention-hungry people are put on TV, almost anything can happen. Reality shows have broadcast the craziest, funniest, and most controversial moments in TV history, and audiences can’t get enough of the drama. Here are 42 unbelievable facts about reality TV.
42. Ready for Prime Time
Long before American Idol and The Voice made weekly work of launching pop stars into the public eye, one British television program provided the big break for an aspiring musician. The Big Time, which ran from 1976 to 1980 on the BBC, followed the day in the life of an ordinary person trying to land their dream job. Sheena Easton appeared in a 1979 episode and within two years was singing the theme to a James Bond movie. Easton won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1981.
41. Training Day
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Norway’s Bergen Railway, state broadcaster NRK ran a live shot from the window of the train as it traveled from Bergen to Oslo. Seven hours with no dialogue, no discussion, just mile after mile of Norwegian countryside rolling by. More than 25% of Norwegians watched.
40. Runaway Success
The popularity of the Bergen Line broadcast kicked off a craze in Norway for “slow TV.” Coastal cruises, people knitting, even stationary birdfeeders—if it’s long, dull, and utterly without plot, character, or dialogue, the Norwegians will watch it. And now the craze is coming stateside: in 2016, Netflix picked up several of the NRK’s “slow TV” mainstays.
39. Model UN
The Real Housewives of Orange County debuted in 2006. Since then, the show has spun off to follow the drama of well-heeled housewives in Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, and several others. In all, there are Real Housewives in nineteen cities around the world.
38. Out of the House
In addition to their more municipal-minded franchisees, the Real Housewives sphere has also expanded to include other reality-based spinoffs like Vanderpump Rules, Bethenny Ever After and Date My Ex.
37. Sixth Time’s The Charm?
Melanie Martinez, of Brathwaite, Lousiana, lost her home to Hurricane Betsy. Then Hurricane Juan. Then Hurricane George. Dubbed “the unluckiest woman in America,” A&E reality show Hideous Homes spent $20,000 remodeling and repairing Martinez’ house—which was then immediately destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
36. Better Luck Next Time
The hosting gig on Survivor very nearly went to Phil Keoghan, the host of The Amazing Race.
35. Idle Hands
In Survivor’s inaugural “Tribal Council,” contestants were to decide who can speak by passing around a conch shell, just like in Lord of the Flies. The gimmick was dropped because it gave host Jeff Probst nothing to do.
34. A Taxing Punishment
The winner of that first season of Survivor, Richard Hatch walked away with $1 million. Hatch, however, failed to declare his winnings on his taxes. As you might expect, tax evasion is pretty hard when you win a million on one of the most popular competitions on television; Hatch served four years in prison.
33. Contributions to Science
Linguists have begun using Big Brother to see what happens to language when you isolate groups of people together for long periods of time. To perform such an experiment in a laboratory setting would be considered deeply unethical.
32. No Singing Allowed
Residents of the Big Brother house are asked to not sing or quote movies. The reason? The network would then be required to pay royalties. Contestants will be given a warning if heard singing, and then their audio feed will be cut.
31. Breaking News
Producers of Big Brother have delivered news from the outside world to housemates just once: September 11, 2001.
30. Daddy Issues
Boy, The Bachelorette is great, huh? You know what would be even better? If, instead of a grown woman, it was a little girl, and instead a bunch of grown men, it was…well, also grown men, but one of them is her estranged father. And if she guesses right, they both get a lot of money. Sadly, this was the premise of the reality show Who’s Your Daddy? It was canceled after one episode.
29. Endorsement Deal
Abercrombie & Fitch paid MTV to ensure their clothes would not be worn by cast members of Jersey Shore.
28. ’Naut Exactly True
In December 2005, nine aspiring astronauts entered a top-secret Russian training facility. That group of nine would be whittled down to three, who would then be blasted into low orbit, becoming the world’s first “space tourists.” In reality, the crew never left Suffolk. Space Cadets ran on Channel 4 for 10 consecutive nights, branding itself as “the biggest hoax in television history.”
27. The Wrong Stuff
The rockets, training facilities, and “astronaut commanders” who appeared on Space Cadets might have all been phony, but the tests used to find participants for the program were just as precise and well calibrated as anything NASA had to offer. Casting directors were specifically told to avoid anyone who had served in the armed forces, anyone with any interest in science or science fiction, and anyone with anything above the normal level of inhibitions. Preferred cast members would be gullible, conformist, and utterly ignorant about space travel—basically, the perfect anti-astronauts.
26. Smoke Screen
To keep up the illusion that the show was really being shot at a Russian test facility, crew members of Space Cadets were given Russian cigarettes. It proved the perfect distraction from the cardboard spaceship.
25. Still Against the Law
The Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners supposedly follows a group of traditional moonshine distillers in Appalachia. Despite the show’s claims, the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control insist that no moonshine is actually made on show. In a statement, the ABC declared “If illegal activity was actually taking place, the Virginia ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement would have taken action,” and claimed that requests to the Discovery Channel running a disclaimer before the show were ignored.
24. Nice, Nice Baby
One short-lived reality show on the DIY Network saw rapper-turned-home renovator Vanilla Ice traveling to Ohio to learn Amish carpentry techniques. It was called Vanilla Ice Goes Amish.
23. Bad Ideas
Believe it or not, reality TV can always be worse. Some rejected pitches for reality TV shows have included a version of The Biggest Loser where contestants are put in a home they’re physically too big to leave, a competition to see which couple gets to adopt an orphaned child, and Monkey On Your Back, an Amazing Race-style program where contestants all literally have monkeys on their backs.
22. Here Come the Cops
Cops, which began airing in 1989, is the longest-running reality television program in history. The show follows police officers from across America as they perform a typical night on the beat. The show was created to help the Fox Network through the 1988 television writers’ strike.
21. Bad Boys
Cops’ distinctive theme song, written and performed by reggae veterans Inner Circle, was originally released in 1987 but got little airplay. Once Cops became a hit, the band re-released “Bad Boys” as a single, and it became a top 10 hit.
20. Accidents Can Happen
In 2014, Cops’ audio technician, Bryce Dion, was shot by police during filming; he later died of his wounds. The three police officers Dion was working with that night were placed on leave, but ultimately found not guilty of any wrongdoing. A wrongful death lawsuit, filed by Dion’s brother against the City of Omaha, is still in court.
19. Drifting And Drifting
Have you noticed your TV is slowly being overtaken with reality shows? This is a phenomenon called “channel drift” or “network decay”—when a television network previously noted for it’s scripted programs abandons them in favor of “unscripted” reality programs. TV critics consider History, A&E, and The Learning Channel (now TLC) as among the worst offenders.
18. Cutting Costs
Network decay is seldom met with enthusiasm by fans or critics, but it does cut costs for networks big time. It might seem counter-intuitive, but by reducing the quality of its programming, a network can not only cut costs, but increase its viewership, meaning greater revenues across the board. It’s basically a win-win for the networks, if not necessarily for the medium of television itself.
17. Hard to Keep Up
So who makes the most money in reality television? It should come as no surprise that it’s the stars of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The top six earners in reality TV are all members of the Kardashian clan, having used their flagship show to launch several successful side businesses and celebrity endorsements.
16. Minimum Wage
Of the Kardashians, Kim obviously makes the most money – $51 million every year. The lowest-paid? Kourtney, who earns a komparatively—er, comparatively paltry $10 million.
15. The Million Dollar Question
And now the question everyone wants answered – is reality television, well, real? In a word, ummm… A lot of reality TV is, if not straight up scripted, then cast, edited, coached, and otherwise manipulated to present a very particular set of events and personalities. And while there are laws against things like rigging game shows or putting people in immediate danger, it’s wise to watch any reality TV program with a hefty dose of skepticism and critical thinking.
What would you do to be on TV? Some people would quit their jobs, or even sell their homes. That’s exactly what happened to the victims of the Great Reality TV Swindle. 30 people auditioned for the chance to win £100,000 on Nik Russian’s reality show. There was just one problem: there was no reality show, and Nik Russian wasn’t a TV producer—he was a clerk at a bookstore.
13. Off the Hook
The crux of Russian’s “show” was that it would follow contestants as they tried to make £1 million in a year, from which the production company took a “small” cut. Contestants apparently ignored the glaring flaw in this premise, many sold their homes and quit their jobs to pursue the show full time. The scam fizzled out before Russian could pocket a dime, and while he was obliged to go into hiding from his angry victims, he was never charged with any crime.
12. As You Wish
The ensuing media circus around the Great Reality TV Swindle did ensure, however, that both Russian and his victims achieved their dream of TV stardom: a documentary produced for Channel 4 followed victims of the scam as they tried to put their lives back together.
11. Winning The Lottery
In 1998, a struggling comedian named Nasubi won a sweepstakes for a vaguely described “showbiz job.” The job entailed being thrown, naked and alone, into a tiny apartment room. From there he was instructed to enter further mail-in contests until he had amassed $1 million.
Unbeknownst to Nasubi, his entire ordeal was being broadcast on television and he was becoming a sensation.
10. The Long Strange Trip
It took Nasubi fifteen months to amass the necessary $1 million—not to mention food, clothing, and all sorts of other odds and ends. From there, he was taken to South Korea, and forced to compete to earn the necessary money to get back to Japan. Back in Japan, he was taken to a third apartment, which, as soon as Nasubi sat down, collapsed, revealing itself to be a television studio complete with live audience.
9. Here Comes Bad Nudes
Nasubi did suffer some psychological trauma from his ordeal. For instance, for the first several months of his freedom, he found he could scarcely wear clothes at all—he had grown accustomed to being naked, and always felt sweaty and warm when clothed.
8. Protecting His Rep
Nasubi claims the producer of the program, Toshio Tsuchiya, apologized to him for his suffering. Tsuchiya denies this.
7. Innocent Until Proven Guilty
60 Days In, an inevitable lawsuit disguised as a reality show, locks up competitors in the Clark County Jail in Jefferson, Indiana, for—you guessed it—60 days. Here’s the catch: neither the staff, the inmates, nor the competitors themselves know who the other competitors are.
6. Float Like A Butterfly, Appear On TV
One competitor on the first season of 60 Days In was Maryum Ali, daughter of the legendary boxer Muhamed Ali. Clark County Jail is just minutes from Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
5. Leaving Eden
In 2016, the UK’s Channel 4 began airing a reality show about a diverse group of castaways trying to survive on a remote island. Sound a bit “been there, done that”? TV watchers thought so, too, and Eden was canceled after only four episodes. Unfortunately, no one thought to inform the participants, who only discovered the show had been canceled when they returned from an entire year of isolation.
4. Paradise Lost
When life hands you lemons, right? The following year, Eden’s producers re-edited and repackaged the footage they’d collected over the year and released it as Eden: Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost documented frustrations of the castaways, as members rebel against terrible living conditions, gradually leave the island, and slowly realize their show is a bust.
3. Paradise Regained
They may have been driven morbid curiosity, but audiences were much more interested in Eden: Paradise Lost than in its predecessor. All five episodes of Paradise Lost made it to air.
2. The Truman Show Delusion
Psychiatrist Joel Gold and his brother, neuro-philosopher Ian Gold have proposed something called “the Truman Show Delusion.” Taking its name from the 1998 film The Truman Show, the Truman Show Delusion is the persistent belief that one is the subject of a reality TV show and that relationships and events of one’s life are manufactured for the entertainment of others.
1. No Hoax Here
Since 2002, the Golds have recorded more than 40 cases of the Truman Show Delusion, primarily among 25 to 34-year-old white men. In one extreme case, a man traveled to Manhattan in an effort to prove the Twin Towers were still standing, and the events of September 11, 2001, had been a hoax perpetrated to create drama on his “TV show.”
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