The most prominent form of television used to be the type of show where a character and setting were meticulously developed before being unleashed into the public sphere. Nowadays, with the creation and popularized rise of reality shows like The Real World and Big Brother in the 1990’s, television has taken on a whole new form from networks like National Geographic and Travel Channel that really gave rise to first form of the genre.
While the genre has certainly given way to programs that can be both educational and entertaining, it has also led to shows that are more exploitative in nature like The Real Housewives franchise and Duck Dynasty, which garner attention through the often ridiculous antics of the main characters, and have become even more scripted in recent years to trump up drama and create more controversy. With the spate of reality television that’s become largely commonplace, it can be easy to write off the genre as a one without any redeeming qualities, but there are a few that can serve as educational tools and go beyond mere superficial entertainment.
While The Real World has become glamorized in recent years, it started out as a social experiment that brought different groups of people together and could serve as an education for both participants and viewers. Likewise, with nearly 30 seasons under its belt, Survivor may be a social game but it can also inadvertently teach people many things about the dynamics of a group and the survival skills necessary in the pseudo-wilderness. Though reality television shows that are educational might be hard to find, the following can at least provide a bit of a brief on the trials and tribulations of real life.
5. The Real World
While The Real World has swallowed the reality pill of recent years, it didn’t start out in quite the same way. Originally premiered on May 21, 1991 and produced by Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, The Real World is often cited as the show that launched the modern era of reality television and was inspired by the PBS documentary An American Family. With a format that puts seven strangers in a house together for three months in a prominent American city, cameras located throughout the house record the relationships that develop, the interactions that occur and the drama that can unfold when diverging twenty something’s are forced to coexist in some manner of civility. While the show was criticized upon its release, it was also considered progressive for dealing with the always hot-button issues of religion, abortion, sexuality and politics. In particular, it received significant attention for its third season, The Real World: San Francisco, which featured Pedro Zamora, one of the first openly gay men with AIDS to appear on television. Now going into its 30th season, the show tends to focus more on the dramatic antics of its houseguests than real life issues, but there was a time that it educated its viewers about the differences that could exist between people and attempted to bridge that gap.
4. Project Runway
Originally premiered on Bravo on December 1, 2004, Project Runway was created by Eli Holzman and follows the prime-time version of what it takes to become a designer. Featuring model Heidi Klum, Marie Claire fashion director Nina Garcia and fashion designer Michael Kors as judges, each season features a group of contestants who are vying for the chance to win a showing at Fashion Week based on the creativity of their made-from-scratch designs. With a cool weekly challenge or theme that gives the designers a chance to execute an outfit from fabric to finish using their own creativity and design skills, each look gets cat-walked down the runway and judged on the execution of its vision until there’s only one designer left to win the big prize. While the show can be rife with drama and still features the familiar competition style format, viewers get a bird’s eye view into the passion that is required to be a designer as well as the personal integrity that is needed to stick to one’s vision and persist.
3. The Biggest Loser
Premiered on NBC on October 19, 2004 and created by Dave Broome, The Biggest Loser follows the weight loss journey of a group of contestants and has received spin-offs in many other countries including Asia, Brazil, Germany and Mexico. Starting with an initial weigh-in, this competition style show gives the contestants an overview of their health before unleashing trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels on them for a fitness and health regimen that will test their personal will and desire to persevere. With at least one contestant voted off each week, the cast is waylaid by a number of challenges and temptations with the ultimate goal of winning the prize for achieving the most dramatic weight loss of them all. In addition to entertainment, the goal of the show is for both participants and fans of the show to pick up the habits of a healthier lifestyle and improve their physical and mental wellbeing. Though the show has received significant criticism for its extreme attitude towards weight loss and its competition style that may encourage an unhealthy attitude towards physical health, The Biggest Loser has helped some contestants lose and keep weight off, and inspired many people to pick up the torch for their own personal health and join in on the competition.
Derived from the Swedish television series Expedition Robinson, Survivor premiered on May 31st, 2000 on CBS as a survival-of-the-fittest style reality television show that pits contestants against each other in the wilderness to see who will be the last person standing and win the one million dollar prize. Produced by Mark Burnett and hosted by Jeff Probst, the contestants of Survivor are marooned in a location without any of the familiar amenities, and through a series of challenges are given the opportunity to earn rewards or immunity from being the next contestant who is eliminated. While the show certainly features the familiar reality television staples of romance, betrayal and interpersonal drama, it also highlights the struggles and strategy involved in being thrust into completely unfamiliar surroundings with a group of complete strangers, and identifies the necessity inherent in being able to work as a team. Considered among the best of reality television programs, the show is entering its 29th season and has been nominated four times at the Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, in addition to being included in Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
1. The Amazing Race
Created by Elise Doganieri and Bertram van Munster, the Amazing Race takes both participants and viewers on a fast-paced journey around the world that offers up a host of interesting travel tips, international history and an exploration of relationships in the reality format. Premiered on September 5, 2001 in the United States, The Amazing Race follows eleven duos on a scavenger hunt style contest that takes them to “Pit Stops” in many different countries as they race for the chance to win a grand prize of one million dollars. Whether the duo happens to include family members, friends or a couple, the teams have the opportunity to learn much about the countries they are travelling to along the way, including new languages, national symbols and many of the local customs. While The Amazing Race certainly fits into the reality television genre, its educational and international bent has made it the winner of thirteen Primetime Emmy Awards since 2001 for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. As a result of its success, it has also led to spin-offs in many other countries including China, Israel, Norway and Vietnam.