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Reality television is a genre of television programming that documents ostensibly unscripted real-life situations, and often features an otherwise unknown cast. It differs from documentary television in that the focus tends to be on drama and personal conflict, rather than simply educating viewers. Reality TV programs also often bring participants into situations and environments that they would otherwise never be a part of. The genre has various standard tropes, including “confessionals” used by cast members to express their thoughts, which often double as the shows’ narration. In competition-based reality shows, a notable subset, there are other common elements such as one participant being eliminated per episode, a panel of judges, and the concept of immunity from elimination.
The genre may have begun in earnest in 1991 with the Dutch series Nummer 28, which was the first show to bring together strangers and record their interactions.It then exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the global success of the series Survivor, Idols and Big Brother.These shows and a number of others (usually also competition-based) became global franchises, spawning local versions in dozens of countries. Reality television as a whole has become a fixture of television programming. In the United States, various channels have retooled themselves to focus on reality programs, most famously MTV, which began in 1981 as a music video pioneer, before switching to a nearly all-reality format in the early 2000s.
There are grey areas around what is classified as reality television. Documentaries, television news, sports television, talk shows and traditional game shows are not classified as reality television, even though they contain elements of the genre, such as unscripted situations and sometimes unknown participants. Other genres that predate the reality television boom have sometimes been retroactively grouped into reality TV, including hidden camera shows such as Candid Camera (1948), talent-search shows such as The Original Amateur Hour (1948), documentary series about ordinary people such as the Up Series (1964), high-concept game shows such as The Dating Game (1965), home improvement shows such as This Old House (1979) and court shows featuring real-life cases such as The People’s Court (1981).