Don’t blame the kids. When MTV debuted The Real World, 30 years ago, no one quite knew what they were in for. The music channel was expanding its programming. Perhaps getting seven to eight young people to live together in a Manhattan loft, and filming their lives non-stop, might be interesting?

The young adults arrived and settled in. They bickered, predictably, about household chores, personal space and having to share a single landline. But tempers also flared over racism, gay rights, abortion, homelessness, white privilege and Aids. It all hurtled towards a dramatic finale: the gang broke into the production room, only to discover that they weren’t subjects in a documentary, but part of an unscripted soap opera, the first proper reality show.

“Ah to be young, cute, and stupid, and to have too much free time,” ran one scathing review in The Washington Post. It described The Real World as “excruciating torture”. Other reviewers picked on the banal lives of the young people, found the documentary style pretentious. “Who’d watch this?” they wondered.

Everybody did. The Real World was an instant hit, running from 1992 to 2017 and spawning several spin-offs. It set up a formula for the genre: strangers in a stressful situation, personality clashes, surprise challenges, confessions on camera, elimination rounds, petty humiliations and indignities, and real people playing themselves.

Reality shows have thrived in every country in the world since. And 30 years on, the genre has become as hard to define as it is to criticise.

“There are some shows we’ll watch but won’t admit to watching,” says Rishi Negi, CEO of Endemol Shine India, which produces Bigg Boss, MasterChef India, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge and The Voice India, among other reality shows. “But reality programming is also teaching us new skills, uncovering new talent, telling inspirational stories about people that would have otherwise remained unknown.” Have we been looking at reality shows all wrong?

Tattoos, sharks, magic

If you lived through the 2000s, you’ve seen what reality TV can do. The Kardashians squabbled their way to billion-dollar fortunes. Simon Cowell’s cruel putdowns powered American Idol. Donald Trump began his public career with The Apprentice and became the 45th President of the United States. In Georgia, Lado Gurgenidze, who hosted the Georgian version of that show in 2005, served as prime minister from 2007 to 2008.

India, drowning in saas-bahu dramas at the time, embraced the genre. Indian Idol (2004-), was the country’s most-watched show until 2012, as viewers voted en masse, via SMS, to keep their favourite singers. On Bigg Boss (2006-), the sob stories and machinations of semi-famous housemates became so addictive, the Hindi show spawned editions in Kannada, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Malayalam.

For many viewers, meanwhile, the chance to banter with Amitabh Bachchan was as exciting as the shot at winning lakhs on Kaun Banega Crorepati (2000-). MTV’s Roadies (2003-), with hothead judges and brash motorcyclists, gave young men a new template for masculinity. Reality TV meant singing, dancing, makeovers, and working out who could withstand the most embarrassment.

Then, somewhere in the last decade, a new playbook emerged. Think of the refreshing sense of bonhomie on MasterChef Australia, which premiered in India in 2009. Or the dignified business pitches and hustles of Shark Tank, which has been airing in the US since 2009. Or the subtle way contestants on American Idol and Indian Idol started to cheer each other. “There’s been a celebratory, positive spin to the real-life stories on screen,” says Aradhana Bhola, managing director at Fremantle India, which produces Indian Idol and India’s Got Talent, among other reality shows. “Talent still shines through. But now, competitors encourage one another, they offer support when families back home don’t.” It’s almost like being nice was finally recognised as part of the human condition too.

The formats expanded as well, giving reality TV a legitimacy it didn’t enjoy before. Internationally, there are now shows about life in the tattoo business, home renovations, choosing a wedding dress, being a supernatural medium, contests for glass blowing, fashion design and landing a magic show.

Consider the runaway success of Shark Tank India, which premiered late last year. The American edition has long been lauded for teaching Americans, especially young viewers, the ropes of business, profit-making, equity trading and marketing. Namita Thapar, CEO of Emcure Pharmaceuticals, served as a judge on the India edition and says the show hit India at the perfect time: right in the middle of the start-up boom. “It demonstrated how the right mentorship and capital can go a long way to support our start-up ecosystem,” she says. “Every pitch was like a case study in business school, but narrated in Hindi and explained simply.”

Negi of Endemol and Bhola of Fremantle say that many of the song-dance-drama shows that characterised the 2000s continue to do well today because the whole family tends to watch them together. The newer shows address new aspirations: like dating to find the right match. Educational ones, like Fremantle’s The Inventor Challenge, find fans in tinkerers who have never had access to labs and mentors. “There’s abundant talent in India, but not enough platforms to discover and showcase it,” Negi says. “This is where reality shows shine.”

The new crop of shows also pushes a different kind of change. It’s typically where the fringe flexes its muscle before entering the mainstream. Drag queen RuPaul did it with RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-). The outdoor cooking traditions of black communities are highlighted on The American Barbecue Showdown (2020-). The dating show Love on the Spectrum (2019-2021) explored what the search for love looks like among young adults with autism. Family Karma (2020-) follows Indian-American friends in Miami as they grapple with Indian and American traditions.

For Thapar, “showing a woman shoulder-to-shoulder with men, making business decisions involving crores of rupees without any help or permission was a powerful image, one much needed to bust stereotypes”. There have been LGBT contestants on Bigg Boss Malayalam, “as the viewers are more progressive about sexual minorities,” says Negi.

Up next

The Real World’s original 1992 housemates reunited at the New York City loft last year for a special edition of the show. They were calmer, more introspective, supportive of each other’s dreams. Even the cameras seemed mellower, less intrusive. Cast members wondered what the future of reality TV would be.

What indeed? In China, voting-based reality shows offer the public a rare opportunity to participate in a democratic process. Last year, the government banned shows that required viewers to purchase products before they vote. The move came after tonnes of bottled milk were bought and wasted by fans who aimed to keep their favourite contestants on an Idol-like show called Youth With You. Late last year, China also banned reality talent shows that promoted “celebrity culture, displays of vulgarity and softened masculinity”, citing a fear that these were “a corruption of national morals”.

But bans can only do so much. “Social media is the local extension of the reality TV wave,” says Bhola. Why have a camera crew follow you around when you can livestream yourself? It’s where new talent is being discovered too. There is the same quest for freshness and authenticity. “We haven’t exhausted the vicarious thrill of following real people working through real conflicts,” says Negi. “It offers relief from soap operas and crime thrillers.”

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