On the Origin of Reality
A CultureMap®
by Christine Sismondo
Published on 7/10/13

Reality television is widely considered the nadir of modern entertainment, but its seeds were planted by such revered cultural icons as Andy Warhol, Paddy Chayefsky and George Orwell. Of course, most of the visionary examples are works meant to warn us against our worst vices—not the least, a prurient interest in the banal lives of others. Here, we take a look at what happens when those fictional imaginings start getting real.

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“You’re Another”  (Damon Knight | short story | 1955)
to  The Year of the Sex Olympics  (Michael Elliott (dir.) | TV film | 1968)

The concept of reality television was probably born in the short story “You’re Another” by Damon Knight, first published in the June 1955 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In this tale, protagonist Johnny Bornish realizes that his run of bad luck has lasted 10 years, since the day he found and pocketed a “lucky” Japanese coin. He discovers that the coin is a device through which his life has been broadcast as a comedy show, a plotline echoed nearly 45 years later in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). Johnny’s story, however, has a more sinister twist: His director has set him up to take the fall for a murder.

If Knight’s paranoid vision for the future of entertainment anticipated the production of reality television, The Year of the Sex Olympics, a 1968 TV film first shown on the BBC program Theatre 625, foreshadowed the other side of the equation—audience consumption. Sex Olympics is set in a future in which the masses are anesthetized with “reality” television programs, including a whole lot of pornography. Critics found the concept chilling, anticipating the opinion many hold today of reality TV.

The Year of the Sex Olympics  (Michael Elliott (dir.) | TV film | 1968)
to  Network  (Sidney Lumet (dir.) | film | 1976)

American social-realist writer Paddy Chayefsky (1923–1981) expressed his belief that there was nothing television producers wouldn’t do for ratings in his screenplay for Network. In the movie, television executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) greenlights a show starring a terrorist group, and then commissions the terrorists to kick-start their season by assassinating former anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) on the air. Beale’s popularity had dropped after he discontinued his citizen-rousing spiel, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” He becomes, the movie concludes, “the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

Low ratings had prompted fictional television executives to stage murder before, in The Year of the Sex Olympics. In the film’s future, the governing powers are essentially TV producers who sate the masses with a diet of offensive programs. To keep the public engaged, they create The Live Life Show, stranding a do-gooder and his family on an island with a psychopathic killer. Sex Olympics screenwriter Nigel Kneale never claimed to be a prognosticator. “You can’t write about the future,” he said of the script. “It’s largely an image of television as I know it.”

Network  (Sidney Lumet (dir.) | film | 1976)
to  Nineteen Eighty-Four  (George Orwell | novel | 1949)

Aaron Sorkin, creator of TV shows The Newsroom and The West Wing and screenwriter of The Social Network, said “No predictor of the future—not even Orwell—has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.” Writers Paddy Chayefsky and George Orwell both examined the ambiguous interplay among reality, news and entertainment. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the populace is both spied on and fed propaganda—delivered in “Newspeak,” a national language program designed to limit people’s ability to think beyond what they are told—via ubiquitous telescreens. An entity known as Big Brother is always watching.

In Network, Chayefsky explored his conviction that television was “an indestructible and terrifying giant that is stronger than the government.” Like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Network’s anchorman, Howard Beale, glimpses behind-the-scenes reality and begins to question prescribed truths, rousing the powers that be. Beale is assassinated—for his slipping ratings as much as for daring to expose the buyout of the parent company. Smith’s attempts to outsmart the system are also uncovered, and he undergoes brainwashing and torture, ultimately accepting the omniscient Big Brother as his leader. In both stories, television wins in the end, at humanity’s expense.

Network  (Sidney Lumet (dir.) | film | 1976)
to  The Real World  (TV show | prem. 1992)

In its early seasons, MTV’s The Real World, a reality show that places seven young strangers in a house together and films their every move, was touted as a “social experiment,” as if it might serve as a lab of human behavior. Ratings apparently trumped scientific inquiry, however, and it soon began to seem as if certain cast members had been selected for their likelihood to melt down on camera. The critical backlash hit a crescendo in the 2006 season, set in Key West, when producers cast Paula Meronek, who suffered from depression and an eating disorder and was in an abusive relationship, despite their knowledge of her mental health problems—or perhaps because of them.

Paddy Chayefsky as much as predicted this as an inevitable outcome for the medium in his screenplay for Network, in which the ratings-obsessed producers at Union Broadcasting System, after firing newscaster Howard Beale, rehire him when he has a nervous breakdown on the air and threatens to kill himself. Audience interest nets the “mad prophet of the airwaves” his own show. “In Act II, crazy [Howard] becomes the hottest television sensation in the country,” Chayefsky wrote in his notes for the movie.

Chelsea Girls  (Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol (dirs.) | film | 1966)
to  The Real World  (TV show | prem. 1992)

Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol’s 1966 experimental film, is a voyeur’s plunge into the unremarkable daily lives of some very attractive young people in and around New York City’s Chelsea Hotel. It was groundbreaking in the banality of its subject matter and its lack of plot. The movie’s split screen was achieved by two films, each more than three hours long, running on separate projectors simultaneously—thus delivering six mind-numbing hours of what critic Rex Reed called “talentless confusion…about as interesting as the inside of a toilet bowl.” The actors were Warhol’s “superstars,” whose claim to fame rested on Warhol having selected them.

Some 25 years later, another group of attractive young people became celebrities for allowing their daily routines to be captured on camera in MTV’s Real World. This show (and the reality “stars” that ensued from it and competing programs) corroborates Warhol’s prediction that “everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Some of these stars have parlayed their 15 minutes into a seeming eternity of D-list celebrity appearances. Their tedious staying power brings to mind one executive’s comment about entertainment television in the movie Network: “All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.”

Chelsea Girls  (Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol (dirs.) | film | 1966)
to  An American Family  (TV show | 1973)

Edie Sedgwick was among the most famous of Andy Warhol’s so-called superstars, although she’s notably absent from his 1966 movie Chelsea Girls, despite having been cast and filmed. Sedgwick’s relationship with Warhol had become strained, and she insisted her footage be excised, claiming to be under contract elsewhere. Sedgwick died five years later from a barbiturate overdose after attending a fashion show that was being filmed for An American Family, a PBS documentary series that involved recording the everyday routine of an average household for 300 hours. Shown in 12 installments, it is considered the first reality-television show.

An American Family showcased the Loud family, the emerging star of which was 20-year-old Lance, who idolized Warhol and the band he managed, the Velvet Underground, even before he and his family were cast. After An American Family had finished its run, Lance displayed his Warhol-influenced sensibilities for another audience, when he appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and lamented that his character was edited to look stupid, instead of “brutal,” as he had hoped he would come off. Lance’s next stop was New York City, where he and his band became favorites at Max’s Kansas City, Warhol’s hangout near Union Square.

An American Family  (TV show | 1973)
to  “You’re Another”  (Damon Knight | short story | 1955)

In Damon Knight’s 1955 short story “You’re Another,” the producers of a television program find things getting tricky once their star, Johnny Bornish, realizes his life has been co-opted for their sitcom. They start to lose control as Johnny determines to change the script, which has him being framed for a murder. Even this very early conception of reality television anticipates something the producers of the first true reality-TV program, An American Family, discovered: Because the very act of observing has an impact on the observed (known as the observer effect), a documentary’s subjects can’t be “natural” once they know their actions are being recorded.

This became a hot topic after An American Family was aired in 1973, when the subjects, the Louds, were launched into celebrity and complained about oversimplification of their characters and manipulative editing of their stories. Critics claimed that the Louds were exhibitionists who performed for the camera, some noting that indeed they couldn’t help but do so with a camera crew about, thus invoking larger questions about the possibility of ever accurately representing “reality.” In a retrospective article, The New York Times called the fallout a “crash course in media literacy” for the public.

An American Family  (TV show | 1973)
to  The Real World  (TV show | prem. 1992)

An American Family is often cited as the granddaddy of reality TV. There had been unscripted shows like Candid Camera and documentaries chronicling “average” folks before, but An American Family broke ground with its weekly episode format. It also hit pay dirt with the Loud family, which unraveled on camera, notably when Pat Loud, the family matriarch, told her husband, Bill, that she wanted a divorce. In an era of public fretting over an apparent crisis in family stability and a rise in gender nonconformity, the only thing that could top a live divorce was the world’s first onscreen forthrightly gay “character.” That would be Lance, who came out to his family during the series.

The second openly gay reality-TV star was Norman Korpi, a housemate on the inaugural season of The Real World. Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, who created the MTV hit series, cited An American Family as their inspiration. (The producer of Nummer 28, a Dutch reality show about seven students living together, claims they ripped off his idea.) Ever since Lance Loud stepped out of the closet into American living rooms, every reality-TV producer has grasped the key to ratings—provocative casting.

An American Family  (TV show | 1973)
to  The Year of the Sex Olympics  (Michael Elliott (dir.) | TV film | 1968)

In many ways, Nigel Kneale’s 1968 science-fiction teleplay The Year of the Sex Olympics envisaged reality television. In the story, a lone TV producer, Nat Mender, has misgivings about the hackneyed pornography (including the Sex Olympics) the state network produces and broadcasts in order to exert both mind and population control over the “low-drive” masses. Pegged a troublemaker, Mender is confined to an island with his family, and their everyday lives there become The Live Life Show. The program becomes must-see, prime-time entertainment when a deranged killer is let loose on the island, murder proving to delight the low-drives even more than sex.

Although that stranded-on-an-island scenario most obviously anticipated the long-running reality series Survivor (crossed with the eerie drama Lost), it can also be seen as an antecedent of An American Family, which began filming in 1971 and aired on PBS in 1973. The Loud family wasn’t relegated to an island—it was the presence of the camera that proved nearly inescapable. The success of the 12-week program offered early evidence that television audiences might have an appetite for the transfixing marriage of the mundane and the sensational that we now call “reality.”