Reality television is a genre of television programming in which the fortunes of "real life" people (as opposed to actors, or fictional characters) are followed.

There are three main types of reality television program. In the first, the viewer and the camera are passive observers following people going about their daily personal and professional activities. The "plots" which are compiled for the program often resemble soap operas, hence the description docusoap.

The first reality show broadcast was the PBS series An American Family, broadcast in the United States in 1973 in twelve parts. The series dealt with a nuclear family going through a divorce; the parents had several children and one of them, Lance Loud, was an openly homosexual young man who occasionally wore lipstick and women's clothes and took his mother to a drag show in episode two of the series. Scholars sometimes mention that Lance came out of the closet on TV, but this is technically incorrect--he was simply homosexual without announcement. His family confirms that he had been out for some time. The show was controversial in its time and was excoriated by the press, particularly The New York Times, which published a piece criticizing the series and especially Lance Loud.

In 1974 a counterpart programme, The Family, was made in the UK , following the working class Wilkins family of Reading. Later Australia saw Sylvania Waters in 1992, about the nouveau riche Baker-Donaher family of Sydney. Both attracted their share of controversy.

A prime modern example of reality television is MTV's The Real World, one of the first reality programs to gain popularity. A new subset of this type has recently emerged in which the daily lives of celebrities are portrayed. Examples include The Anna Nicole Show and The Osbournes.

In the second type, hidden cameras are rolling when random passers-by encounter a staged situation. The reactions of the passers-by can be funny to watch, but also revealing to the truths about the human condition. Allen Funt, an American pioneer in reality entertainment, led the way in the development of this type of show. He created Candid Microphone, which debuted on the ABC Radio Network in 1947, and the internationally successful Candid Camera, which first aired on television in 1953. He later produced a feature-length reality-film in 1968 entitled What Do You Say to a Naked Lady. The film was a hidden-camera study of sexuality and mores of the time. For example, in one staged situation, passers-by encountered an inter-racial couple.

In the third type, the so-called "reality game shows", participants are filmed intensively in an enclosed environment while competing to win a prize - thus they are game shows and discussed more thoroughly in that article. The reality game show genre has become pervasive enough to be parodied by Spike TV with The Joe Schmo Show.

One difference that makes these more like "reality television" than other game shows is that the viewing public usually (but not always) plays an active role in deciding the outcome. Usually this is by eliminating participants (disapproval voting) or voting for the most popular choice to win (with some other voting system). Two of the most popular reality-based game shows of this sort are Big Brother and Survivor. There is also a Spanish language show taped for Latin American audiences, Protagonistas De La Musica, filmed in Miami by Telemundo USA.

However, given that producers can control the format of the show, as well as manipulate the outcome of some of them, it is questionable how "real" reality television actually is.

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