Years Before ‘Survivor,’ These Reality Shows Paved The Way

Allen Funt with Candid Camera sign, 1964
Everett Collection

These days, reality shows are everywhere. There are cooking shows, dating shows, competition shows and so much more. But at one point, it was a brand-new and perhaps even strange concept. While reality television started picking up steam in the 2000s, the earliest reality show actually began in the ’40s with Candid Camera. If you’re a reality show fan, you might be surprised at some of these shows that spawned the popular genre.

1‘Candid Camera’ (1947)

Allen Funt Candid Camera

Everett Collection

Candid Camera began on the radio in 1947 and was called Candid Microphone. A year later, the TV version began and the name Candid Camera came around 1949. By 1960, the show, hosted by Allen Funt, became one of the most popular shows on CBS. It has been revived several times over the years, but nothing compares to the original!

2‘Queen for a Day’ (1956)

Queen for a Day Nancy Kaye Trewyn, Mrs.Nancy Popp(15-yr.old mother & widow), Jack Bailey, host (1956-1964)1958 episode

Everett Collection

Queen for a Day was another radio show turned television show that focused on four women per episode. They competed against each other for prizes based on sharing their hardships with the audience. The show was so beloved that NBC increased its run time from 30 to 45 minutes to sell more commercials, then around $4,000 per minute, which was pretty high for these days. It was on NBC from 1956 to 1960 then moved to ABC for the remaining four years.

3‘The American Sportsman’ (1965)

The American Sportsman from left: Joe Foss, Robert Stack fishing for perch on the Nile River, 1965

Everett Collection

Sports and nature enthusiasts loved this show hosted by Joe Foss, Grits Gresham, and Curt Gowdy. Each episode featured a host and a celebrity guest as they participated in a sport or an adventure in nature such as kayaking and mountain climbing.

4‘An American Family’ (1973)

An American Family The Loud Family (Top row: Lance, Michelle; Middle row: Kevin, Delilah, Grant; Front row: Pat, Bill), 1971

Everett Collection

An American Family is often credited for creating the reality show genre as it focused on the drama of a typical middle-America household. PBS aired twelve hour-long episodes and it focused on the Loud family as they went through marital and business problems and the son came out as gay. Ten years later, people were curious about what happened to the family so a follow-up special aired called An American Family Revisited: The Louds 10 Years Later.

5‘Real People’ (1979) & ‘That’s Incredible!’ (1980)

Real People Bill Rafferty, John Barbour, Skip Stephenson, Sarah Purcell, Byron Allen, 1979-84

Everett Collection

Similar to An American Family, Real People focused on real people and their challenges. It was a great family-friendly reality show as it showcased normal people doing extraordinary things. The show ran from 1979 to 1984. A comparable show aired from 1980 to 1984 called That’s Incredible! It shared the stories of people with unusual talents such as speed talking or even medical breakthroughs, stunts, or reenactments of paranormal activity.

6‘Cops’ (1989) & ‘Rescue 911’ (1989)

Rescue 911 William Shatner, 1989-1996

CBS/Everett Collection

Cops was one of the longest-running police-themed television shows aimed to show the realities of police officers day to day. After 32 seasons, it was canceled in 2020 following the killings of several Black individuals involving police officers. Rescue 911 was an informational docudrama hosted by William Shatner that featured mainly reenactments of emergencies that involved 911 calls. It was discovered that hundreds of people’s lives were saved due to the knowledge someone gained from watching Rescue 911.

7‘The Real World’ (1992) & ‘Road Rules’ (1995)

Real World San Francisco l-r Puck Rainey, Rachel Campos, Cory Murphy,Pam Ling, Mohammed Bilal, Pedro Zamora, Judd Winick, 1994, 3rd season, 1992-present

Everett Collection

The Real World was MTV‘s first reality show and paved the way for many iconic reality shows to come. Based on “the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house (and work together) and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real.” Even if you’ve never seen the show, which premiered in 1992, you probably know its tagline. In 1995, Road Rules aired as a sister show to The Real World with young adults living together in an RV and traveling to compete missions. It led to the show The Challenge, which still airs on MTV and Paramount+.

8‘Taxicab Confessions’ (1995)

Taxicab Confessions an HBO series, 1995

Everett Collection

HBO aired Taxicab Confessions from 1995 to 2006. The hidden camera documentary series showed passengers being prompted to talk about hot topics or their personal tragedies or triumphs. Since this is HBO we are talking about, some episodes included a lot of sex talk. At the end of the ride, passengers were told about the show and asked to sign waivers with some of this footage being seen in the closing credits. Mainly filmed in New York City, there was a brief time that the show focused on passengers in Las Vegas.

9‘Emergency Vets’ (1997)

There have been several vet and dog training reality shows over the years, but Emergency Vets on Animal Planet was said to start it all. It focused on the Alameda East Veterinary Hospital veterinarians in Denver, Colorado, and the cases that they would see, plus their home lives. The show lasted for ten years.

What is your favorite reality show of all time?

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