Reality shows managed to pull a fast one on the television viewing audience. What started as a glance into the dysfunctional lives of a few has turned into a springboard for the opportunistic. The content of reality show programming has re-shaped the landscape of societal norms.
In the early 90's, MTV debuted the first Real World show. Daily, unscripted interaction between 7 strangers living in a New York City loft tackled groundbreaking subjects. Poverty, race and gender were bought to the forefront in charged discussions that had the viewing audience buzzing and thinking. Many incarnations of Real World have aired but only earlier seasons of the show continued to have moments that made you think. The show developed into a parody of itself where you could predict the roles every participant would play. The homosexual, the sexy girl, and the angry black person are common characters presented on the Real World.
Reality television programming soon flooded the viewing landscape. Studios realized by airing reality television they could accomplish two goals. A large viewing audience was guaranteed because human curiosity is peaked when access is granted into the lives of others. Reality shows also allow the studio to save money. Following someone does not require a studio or extras. All you do is point the camera and shoot. Currently, there is reality programming featuring teen pregnancy, celebrating birthdays, and the lives of housewives in almost every major metropolitan city. The reality show "star" was born.
Initially, reality show participants had no idea their existence would drastically change. Interviews with the first "Real World" cast indicate they were totally unprepared for fame. People approaching them, knowing their name and identifying with them based off what was seen on television was a foreign concept. Earlier reality show participants used their exposure to assist in obtaining successful careers in law and medicine and to support worthwhile causes. Many earlier reality show stars left the spotlight to settle into a normal life. This attitude differs greatly from the mindset of current reality show participants. It appears they participate with no bigger goal than to stay in reality television. Reality television "stars" are not really celebrities, it is a notoriety that exists on the celebrity fringe.
With the average reality show participant craving attention and a type of infamy, regular people watch and attempt to reproduce the "reality" they see. The Real Housewives assisted in ushering in acceptance of plastic surgery and material indulgence for women in middle America. Children develop mindsets that everyone receives a car for their 16th birthday. If the vehicle is not new and shiny their parents do not love them. Teen pregnancy where everyone has a car and no one applies for food stamps or welfare does not give an accurate portrayal of the true financial circumstances of the situation.
Reality television regained some implied reality with the economic downturn. Real Housewives in Orange County, Atlanta and New Jersey faced turbulent financial times and reminded viewing audiences that reality television is an immaculate deception.