In Depth

How Britain got hooked on reality TV

Tuning in to watch the trials and tribulations of real-life people began long before Big Brother

Remember Nasty Nick Bateman? The contestant-cum-villain was disqualified from the UK's first series of Big Brother for attempting to influence housemates' votes - attracting national headlines and landing Bateman a role in a Christmas panto.

Reality TV dominated the start of this century, with plenty of Nasty Nicks looking for fame.

However, comparatively low ratings have led to speculation the genre is on its way out, despite the cult-like following of Love Island

So is reality TV dying? And how did it land on our screens in the first place?

Candid beginnings

"There have been [programmes] with a 'reality feel' to them since the idiot box was invented," the Radio Times reports.

US prank show Candid Camera first hit the airwaves in 1948, secretly recording the reactions of ordinary people to far-fetched situations.

Other observational programmes followed, including An American Family (1973), examining the impact of divorce on one family, and the police show Cops (1989), which came about partly due to the need to compensate for a lack of material when TV scriptwriters went on strike in the US, says CBS News

In the UK, viewers were captivated by 1974's fly-on-the-wall The Family, which focussed on the lives of the Wilkins family in Reading, before giggling their way through the early 1980s with Britain's take on Candid Camera, Game for a Laugh.

This, together with the arrival of computer editing software, meant that "by...the 1990s, the reality machine was ready to hit the ground running", the Radio Times says.

Big Brother is watching...

And we were watching Big Brother - and lots of other "ordinary people".

In 1992, MTV's The Real World threw several strangers into an apartment and city chosen by producers and recorded their interactions. For many, the show was a pioneering development - fly-on-the-wall viewing, but in an engineered context.

At the time, most terrestrial channels in the UK stuck with authentic observational documentaries such as Airport and Driving School.

Two programmes are credited with changing this. The first, reports the Washington Post, was Survivor, a tamer version of Bear Grylls The Island that saw "tribes" of people compete for a cash prize by learning to survive in remote locations.

The second, of course, was the Orwellian-inspired Big Brother. First aired in Holland, it came to the UK in 2000 and the legitimacy of mass voyeurism was born.


Politician George Galloway role-plays as a doting cat next to "owner" Rula Lenska in 2006's Celebrity Big Brother, the spin-off to the original TV show.

Fighting for success

Both programmes' popularity lay in the element of competition, reports Radio Times, a formula replicated with considerable success over the next decade, from singing competitions Pop Idol and The X Factor to cook-offs such as Come Dine with Me.

Even the boardroom was a draw, with The Apprentice attracting more than eight million viewers during its heyday in 2009.

Not all reality TV shows of the time were successful, however. Channel 4's Shattered, a programme filming people as they attempted to stay awake, was condemned on mental health grounds while several others have been labelled commercial flops.

Producers even cancelled survival show Eden without telling its participants, who carried on for months believing they were becoming household names.

To regain momentum, a new sub-genre of reality TV emerged: scripted - or "constructed" - reality. Kicking off with The Only Way is Essex (Towie) in 2010, it spawned the likes of MTV rival Geordie Shore and Channel 4's Made in Chelsea.

These new shows on the box "sacrifice [some of] the reality from reality TV" in a bid to gloss over life's more tedious aspects, Radio Times says.

Are we tuning out?

The rise of Towie and the likes has fuelled criticism that today's reality TV lacks authenticity.

For some, contestants are indistinguishable from celebrities - especially when they are already famous on account of, yes, another reality show, says the London Evening Standard.

"Being famous for being famous" has sparked a debate about the example these shows set to young viewers, with critics including Labour leader Ed Miliband, journalist John Humphrys and even ex-reality contestants themselves.

Despite this, it seems our appetite for reality TV is as strong as ever.

Ratings attracted by former giants such as the X Factor have dropped in recent years, but Britain's Got Talent still pulled in some of ITV's biggest audiences in 2016, reports The Guardian

And for every reality TV show that drops off the radar, another storms ahead. The Great British Bake Off, for example, was the most watched programme of last year, with almost 16 million people tuning in to watch Candice Brown lift the crown.

A study in 2010 found the allure of reality TV lies in the sense of community and empathy it fosters.

So long as that continues, we'll keep tuning in - making the broadcasters money. That, says Radio Times, means reality TV is here to stay.


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