Kelefa Sanneh offers a little history of reality television’s transformation from public documentary to commercial game show:
On January 6, 1973, the anthropologist Margaret Mead published a startling little essay in TV Guide. Her contribution, which wasn’t mentioned on the cover, appeared in the back of the magazine, after the listings, tucked between an advertisement for Virginia Slims and a profile of Shelley Winters. Mead’s subject was a new Public Broadcasting System series called “An American Family,” about the Louds, a middle-class California household. “Bill and Pat Loud and their five children are neither actors nor public figures,” Mead wrote; rather, they were the people they portrayed on television, “members of a real family.” Producers compressed seven months of tedium and turmoil (including the corrosion of Bill and Pat’s marriage) into twelve one-hour episodes, which constituted, in Mead’s view, “a new kind of art form”—an innovation “as significant as the invention of drama or the novel.”
“An American Family” was a hit, and Lance Loud, the oldest son, became a celebrity, perhaps the world’s first openly gay TV star. But for decades “An American Family” looked like an anomaly; by 1983, when HBO broadcast a follow-up documentary on the Louds, Mead’s “new kind of art form” seemed more like an artifact of an older America. Worthy heirs to the Louds arrived in 1992, with the debut of the MTV series “The Real World,” which updated the formula by adding a dash of artifice: each season, a handful of young adults were thrown together in a house, and viewers got to know them as they got to know one another. It wasn’t until 2000, though, that Mead’s grand claim started to look prescient. That year, a pair of high-profile, high-concept summer series nudged the format into American prime time: “Big Brother,” a Dutch import, was built around surveillance-style footage of competitors locked in a house; “Survivor,” a Swedish import, isolated its stars by shipping them somewhere warm and distant, where they participated in faux tribal competitions. Both of these were essentially game shows, but they doubled as earthy anthropological experiments, and they convinced viewers and executives alike that television could provide action without actors.
The essay includes this tidy and maybe prescient quote from Mark Andrejevic’s 2004 book Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched:
The Illinois housewife who agrees to move into a house where her every move can be watched by millions of strangers to compete for a cash prize exhibits more than an incidental similarity (albeit on a different scale) to the computer user who allows Yahoo to monitor her web-browsing habits in exchange for access to a free e-mail account.
Here’s another thought. Traditional game shows are spectacles of consumption, plus luck. Think “The Price is Right” or “Supermarket Sweep,” where you try to win household and luxury goods based on your knowlege about household and luxury goods.
Now, game shows/reality TV are overwhelmingly about work — “American Idol,” “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “America’s Next Top Model.” The incentive at the end, if you win, is that you’ll get enough fame and exposure that you’ll win the right to continue to work.
The aspiring model/singer/washed-up celebrity who agrees to go on stage and engage in cutthroat competition with other aspirants to satisfy the whims of mercurial judges exhibits more than an accidental similarity to unpaid interns and at-will employees who can likewise be cut loose at a moment’s notice.
We’re all in the prize economy now.
PS: I still think Chappelle/Puffy’s rant starting around 4:20 is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.