The origins — and moral conundrums — of modern reality TV

David Brancaccio and Ariana Rosas Jun 25, 2024
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Reality TV shows like "Big Brother" often become popularized during periods of labor unrest among actors and writers. Above, "Big Brother" host Julie Chen in 2008. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The origins — and moral conundrums — of modern reality TV

David Brancaccio and Ariana Rosas Jun 25, 2024
Heard on:
Reality TV shows like "Big Brother" often become popularized during periods of labor unrest among actors and writers. Above, "Big Brother" host Julie Chen in 2008. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
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Historically, when Hollywood has gone on strike, studios have turned to a budget-friendlier alternative: reality TV.  It’s significantly cheaper to produce than scripted television and often doesn’t require unionized crews, making it an attractive option for networks.  

Earlier periods of labor unrest — like in 1988 and 2007-08 — helped popularize reality TV with shows like “Cops,” “America’s Most Wanted” and later “Big Brother.” A book that came out Tuesday, “Cue the Sun!” by Emily Nussbaum, takes a closer look at how the genre came to be and its influence on popular culture.

Nussbaum, who is also a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, joined “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio to discuss the origins of reality TV. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: So if you make something that’s not reality narrative, you make Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” that takes years, quadrillions of dollars and each prop is carefully crafted. It costs a lot of money. Reality TV doesn’t cost as much.

Emily Nussbaum: Reality TV exists because it’s cheap. It’s a way for networks not to pay writers, not to pay actors and not to work with unions. But just because it’s inexpensive doesn’t mean that wasn’t a goad to creativity. Because [the creators behind] “The Real World,” for instance, they wanted to do a show called “St. Mark’s Place” that was just going to be a scripted soap opera. And what Jon Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim, who created that show, came up with was something really provocative: They put seven strangers picked to live in a house to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. And they invented all of the aspects of modern reality — like the diverse cast, the confessional, all sorts of editing that’s been incredibly influential. So I’ve always thought of early reality TV as simultaneously a very cruel budgetary tactic and a really provocative, almost punk set of artistic developments that ended up influencing all of the culture.

Brancaccio: I mean, the book does not set out to mock all of this, but do you actually like some of it?

Nussbaum: I wouldn’t say the book is either a celebration of reality or a denunciation of it. But people who made those shows feel very different ways about them. Some of them feel very ashamed of their work, and some of them feel very proud of it, including some of the most manipulative parts of it. And actually, as one person who worked on “The Apprentice” said to me, “You work just as hard on a show that you sell your soul for.” So it’s a moral conundrum that’s baked into the production process.

Brancaccio: I mean, a moral conundrum — some of it probably falls into the category of “dishonest.” The audience probably thinks it’s more real, but, in fact, the reality is a lot of it’s constructed.

Nussbaum: A lot of modern reality is constructed. My book runs from 1947 to 2009. I call that, like, the spaghetti-on-the-wall period. So it covers everything from “Queen for a Day” through “Cops” through “The Real World,” “Survivor,” “Big Brother.” This was the experimental period, and most of the people who signed up for it genuinely didn’t know what they were getting into. But one thing I’ll say, and I say this in the book, is that the phonier a show is, the more ethical it is. And that’s sort of the sad, unavoidable contradiction of reality programming because the parts of it that are abusive or exploitative are also sometimes the parts of it that lead to the stories that people can’t look away from because they’re undeniably real.

Brancaccio: Now, when we were talking about the economics of some of this, you mentioned that reality TV is nonunion. That’s changing.

Nussbaum: A lot of my book traces a real attempt to unionize reality producers with [the Writers Guild of America]. And it was just a failure. And the reason it was a failure is there’s a historical split between scripted TV and nonscripted TV. You know, when I talk to people from much earlier shows from decades ago, and I would ask them about this, there were people who were like, “It can’t be unionized. The reason it exists is because of the bottom line.” And I think it’s helpful for reality audiences to know more about how the shows are made. And that’s part of what this book is about — the part that’s meant to stay invisible because people are trained not to take these shows seriously. This is an attempt to look at them thoughtfully through the voices of the people who made them.

Brancaccio: I think of MTV when I think of the genre. There are antecedents, though.

Nussbaum: Actually, I thought of MTV when I began this book — that’s what I figured was the origin, like “The Real World.” But once I started the research for the book, I realized that is not the beginning of reality TV. It actually goes back to the 1940s, to radio. There was an incredible boom of what was then called audience participation shows. And it set off exactly the same kind of moral panic that reality did later on.

Brancaccio: Like “Queen for a Day”?

Nussbaum: “Queen for a Day,” “Candid Camera,” which was created by Allen Funt, was originally a radio show called “Candid Microphone,” and it wasn’t a cozy show that people loved. It was actually very anxiety-provoking. It was really the first prank show. And once it became a television show, they had to create this thing called the reveal, which is the part where Allen Funt would turn to the person who had been pranked and say, “Oh, here are the cameras.” And that was in part because reality has always been a disturbing, controversial, anxiety-provoking, riveting thing for the audience. People couldn’t look away, but they also thought it was junk. So the reveal allowed them to feel a little bit better.

Brancaccio: You make an interesting point that early reality radio and TV brought people in front of cameras and gave exposure to people who had been traditionally ignored in the media.

Nussbaum: This is true. “Queen for a Day” was a show on which working-class women talked about the worst parts of their lives. They were a panel. It was a competition show, sort of like “The Bachelor” meets GoFundMe, where they competed for who had the worst life. And in one way, it was a horrible, exploitative show; in another way, it was a show that actually talked about poverty, domestic violence, stuff that would never be on a sitcom. But all along, there was a huge diversity of people on reality TV. And my personal favorite chapter in the book is about “An American Family,” a show that came out in 1973. And it showed a woman getting a divorce, and it showed the first openly gay man on television, Lance Loud, who was really the proto reality-star —

Brancaccio: Oh, the Loud family series. I remember when that came out. I was a kid, but it exploded across the culture.

Nussbaum: Yeah. It was very, very shocking to people because it showed a family living in California and things that were taboo, not allowed to be said. And it was meant to be, you know, a cinéma vérité documentary, but people reacted to it as a reality TV train wreck. And the result of it was that the Louds — Pat and Bill Loud and their five children — ended up becoming the first reality stars. And a lot of what I write in the book — and I interviewed a ton of different people who were on these early shows — it was a painful experience to suddenly be globally famous by people who knew and judged you and, not coincidentally, with no way to actually turn that into a career or to monetize it.

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