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Television formats portraying ordinary people in unscripted situations are almost as old as the television medium itself.Producer-host Allen Funt's Candid Camera, in which unsuspecting people were confronted with funny, unusual situations and filmed with hidden cameras, first aired in 1948, and is often seen as a prototype of reality television programming.In 1974 a counterpart program, The Family, was made in the UK, following the working class Wilkins family of Reading.Other forerunners of modern reality television were the 1970s productions of Chuck Barris: The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, all of which featured participants who were eager to sacrifice some of their privacy and dignity in a televised competition.The 1976-1980 BBC series The Big Time showed, in each of its 15 episodes, a different amateur in some field (cooking, comedy, football, etc.) trying to succeed professionally in that field, with help from notable experts.The series is credited with starting the career of Sheena Easton, who was selected to appear in the episode showing an aspiring pop singer trying to enter the music business.These shows and a number of others (usually also competition-based) became global franchises, spawning local versions in dozens of countries.Reality television as a whole has become a fixture of television programming.
Queen for a Day (1945–1964) was an early example of reality-based television.
In the 1966 Direct Cinema film Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol filmed various acquaintances with no direction given; the Radio Times Guide to Film 2007 stated that the film was "to blame for reality television".
The 12-part 1973 PBS series An American Family showed a nuclear family (filmed in 1971) going through a divorce; unlike many later reality shows, it was more or less documentary in purpose and style.
It differs from documentary television in that the focus tends to be on drama, personal conflict, and entertainment rather than educating viewers. The genre has various standard tropes, including "confessionals" (also called talking heads or interview segments) used by cast members to express their thoughts, which often double as the shows' narration.
In competition-based reality shows, a notable subset, there are other common elements, such as one participant being eliminated per episode, a panel of judges, and the concept of "immunity from elimination." An early example of the genre was the 1991 Dutch series Nummer 28, which was the first show to bring together strangers and record their interactions.
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