In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Reality Television

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Origins
  • The Business and Production of Reality
  • Globalization
  • Surveillance and Voyeurism
  • Governmentality and Neoliberalism
  • Reception and Audiences

Cinema and Media Studies Reality Television
Susan Murray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0053


While we can locate the start of the most recent wave of American reality TV in the 2000–2001 season with the premiere of Survivor and Big Brother, the history of the genre reaches back to the very earliest days of broadcast television, with programs such as Queen for a Day and Candid Camera. The current, and perhaps most significant and long-lasting, wave of reality television developed out of a moment of financial destabilization for the broadcast networks. In an environment of rising production costs, intense competition from cable networks, and the appearance of a range of new digital technologies that threatened the very basics of the financing and production of broadcast television, networks welcomed reality formats—many of which were created and sold by European packagers—into their prime-time schedules. The genre has become so profitable over the past decade that not only has it formed the base of network prime-time schedules, but it has also seeped into virtually all cable programming, often helping form a cable network’s brand identity. Media scholars quickly took note of these industrial changes and also considered how cultural and political changes might also be fueling the popularity of the genre at the turn of the 21st century—particularly the increased acceptance of surveillance and the intensification of neoliberal strategies and discourses. As a result, reality television became a catalyst for not just the restructuring of the television business, but also for the study of television in an academic environment. Over the preceding decade, the focus and methods of television studies had been remade as scholars considered the social, economic, philosophical, and political implications of a genre that makes claims to the Real, the ordinary, and the spectacular simultaneously. This article details some of the most relevant and important works related to the project of understanding the global phenomenon of reality television.

General Overviews

Some of the earliest writing on the recent wave of reality television works to unearth the genre’s history, generic classification, economic origins, and cultural/political meaning. Two anthologies were published in the same year, Murray and Ouellette 2004 and Holmes and Jermyn 2004 (both cited under Anthologies), which cover similarly broad ground, with Murray and Ouellette providing a primarily US context and Holmes focusing on the UK. Andrejevic 2004 is one of the cornerstone studies of the production and reception of reality television in the context of a developing surveillance economy, and Calvert 2000 covers voyeurism across nonfiction formats in US television. Ouellette and Hay 2008 provides an excellent book-length Foucauldian analysis of the genre as a whole. Many of the other works, such as Bignell 2005, Biressi and Nunn 2005, Lunt 2004 (cited under Origins), and Huff 2006 contain helpful explorations of the generic and historical origins of reality programming, while Murray 2010 provides an overview of recent research on the topic. Brenton and Cohen 2003 is an accessible and lively exploration of “reality game shows” such as Survivor and Big Brother.

  • Andrejevic, Mark. Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. Critical Media Studies. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

    One of the first works to address the socio-economic significance of the most recent wave of reality television. Contains interviews with producers, fans, and cast members and employs critical theory to argue that it is necessary to expose media’s promises of the democratizing powers of interactivity for what they are, and to reveal how we are all laborers in the surveillance economy.

  • Bignell, Jonathan. Big Brother: Reality TV in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    Offers a wide-ranging history and analysis of reality television as well as a discussion of the genre’s relationship to fictional and other forms of factual programming.

  • Biressi, Anita, and Heather Nunn. Reality TV: Realism and Revelation. London: Wallflower, 2005.

    Presents a series of case studies that reveal connections and disconnections between other forms of British nonfiction television—particularly documentary film.

  • Brenton, Sam, and Reuben Cohen. Shooting People: Adventures in Reality TV. New York: Verso, 2003.

    A nonacademic discussion of the ideologies and psychology of reality television.

  • Calvert, Clay. Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture. Critical Studies in Communication and in Cultural Industries. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000.

    This book traces the role of voyeurism in television, from daytime talk shows to Survivor.

  • Huff, Richard. Reality Television. Praeger Television Collection. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

    An overview and analysis of reality television and its subgenres.

  • Murray, Susan. “The Politics of Reality TV: An Overview of Recent Research.” In Media & Society. 5th ed. Edited by James Curran and Michael Gurevitch, 321–335. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.

    An overview of approaches to and research on reality television and its cultural and political implications. Originally published in 1991. E-book.

  • Ouellette, Laurie, and James Hay. Better Living through Reality TV: Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

    Drawing on Michel Foucault’s notion of governmentality and an analysis of neoliberalism, this work covers a wide range of reality programs and provides a model for the cultural, economic, and political work in which they are engaged.

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