It's not always cool to watch reality TV shows. It's one thing to convey your erudition by dissecting a dark plot in The Sopranos, but what does it reveal to cop to a fascination with Donald Trump's boardroom or worse, Ryan and Tristan's love affair on The Bachelorette? For closet reality TV fans, it may finally be safe to come out of the closet. On Sunday, Sept. 21, for the first time the Emmys will award a statue to the best host of a reality TV show. To top that off, the event itself will be hosted by the five nominees: Tom Bergeron (Dancing With the Stars), Ryan Seacrest (American Idol), Howie Mandel (Deal or No Deal), Heidi Klum (Project Runway) and Jeff Probst (Survivor). "Clearly, everyone watches it," says Andy Dehnart, editor of the blog Reality Blurred, which follows and analyzes the reality TV genre. "But everyone also thinks they have to say they don't."
The potential of filming real people live their lives was not lost on the earliest entertainment honchos. Nightwatch, a popular radio serial in the early 1950s, followed a group of Culver City, Calif. police officers on patrol (and became the ancestor of another reality giant, Cops). In 1973 An American Family, a 12-part series that brought us the Santa Barbara, Calif. Loud clan, broke new ground with its artful, excruciatingly real portrayal of a family in transition. With its unabashed invasion into the private lives of the Louds, and exploration of taboo subjects like the divorce of parents Pat and Bill and the open homosexuality of eldest son Lance, the seminal broadcast drew more than ten million viewers and became a pop cultural landmark.
Yet for all of its power, Family was not just close to home it was home. Then in the wake of the late '80s Writers Guild of America strike that pushed desperate networks to learn to produce the cheap 'n easy reality fare came 1992's The Real World. Like almost all of its emulators, from The Osbournes to the Paris Hilton-Nicole Richie vehicle The Simple Life to The Biggest Loser: Couples, The Real World explored what happened when people "stopped being polite ... and started getting real" ... but not too real. Slickly created and cast by pros, TRW placed seven 18-to-25-year-olds from diverse backgrounds in a house of its choosing for at least a dozen shows' worth of provocative banter. (Its first season generated buzz with a fierce battle on race between a black writer and a moody, white aspiring folksinger.) A ratings bonanza for MTV, the artificially authentic TRW convinced network execs that the genre had commercial brawn, and set the stage for the first network reality megahit, CBS' Survivor and the endless stream of shows that followed.
It's hard to pinpoint the precise draw of reality TV: There's the vicarious thrill of talent competitions like American Idol, with its promise of stardom for shower-singers; there's the rare chance to feel superior by tuning in to watch someone being voted out of a room. Most powerful is that, at their intimate best, the shows can out-dramatize fictional TV drama. In The Real World's third season, 20-year-old Pedro Zamora, a gay educator, came out as HIV-positive to his housemates, one of whom harassed him; married a fellow AIDS educator on camera; and sparked an enduring national conversation. In a new series, Discovery's Ice Road Truckers, viewers are introduced to men who risk their lives in Northwest Canada, braving dangerous roads, frozen lakes and white-out conditions to bring supplies to diamond mines. "Some reality shows are horrifying and trashy, and others are completely compelling and socially redeeming," says Dehnart. "It's a varied genre." Just like the real world.