Although many people think reality TV has its origins in the 1990s, it was actually invented far earlier than that. The very first reality TV show was created in the 1970s, although people probably didn’t think of it as a reality show; nevertheless, it’s one of the many old reality TV shows that the public has forgotten. We’re here to remind you of those shows. Here are 25 reality programmes that might have slipped your mind!
1. An American Family (1973)
This 12-part series followed a family as they underwent a divorce. It was originally filmed in 1971, but wasn’t broadcast until two years later, and was more documentary in style than reality show. Still, the unrelenting focus on real people’s lives rather than fictionalised or dramatised versions puts this squarely in the “reality TV” genre for us.
2. American Candidate (2004)
More of a gameshow than a reality TV proposition, we’re still including American Candidate on our list of old reality TV shows because it had a distinct feel of reality to it. The idea was simple: to parody the 2004 electoral process, a reality show would try to produce a political candidate fit for office. Seems positively normal now, right?
3. I Survived A Japanese Game Show (2008-2010)
The premise of this one is just as crazy as it sounds. American TV network ABC sent contestants to compete on the Japanese game show Majide and filmed them as they tried to “survive” it. There’s a faintly racist undertone to this one, so it might be better off forgotten in the annals of history.
4. I Wanna Marry ‘Harry’ (2014)
Sometimes, it’s easy to understand why old reality TV shows aren’t well-remembered. I Wanna Marry ‘Harry’ revolved around a Prince Harry lookalike, with contestants vying for the chance to woo and marry him, all while not realising that he’s not actually Prince Harry. It’s not exactly high art, but it was sort of entertaining.
5. Stylista (2008)
The fashion industry can be brutal, but Stylista completely ignored the many warnings of cautionary tales like The Devil Wears Prada, instead choosing to treat working within fashion as eminently desirable and problem-free. This show revolved around contestants looking to land a job at noted fashion publication Elle.
6. The Mole (2001)
Now here’s a reality TV show that managed to transcend the genre’s somewhat trashy origins. The Mole’s premise was simple: contestants compete to win a cash prize, but one of them is a mole who’s trying to actively undermine the efforts of the others. Each week, the player who knew the least about who the mole was would be eliminated.
7. That’ll Teach ‘Em (2003-2006)
Channel 4 is well-known as the primary purveyor of reality TV in the UK, and That’ll Teach ‘Em aired during the network’s heyday when it came to reality television. It took teenagers back to a boarding school environment right out of the 1950s in order to see if stricter discipline would produce better academic results. This isn’t a particularly ethical idea, and it’s hard to imagine this show being made today!
8. Fame Academy (2002-2003)
Most pop talent shows don’t actually follow the contestants outside their performances, but Fame Academy was different. Its contestants not only had to prove themselves as artists, but also to live together with one another, with the least popular contestant being voted out each week. This made Fame Academy a more interesting longitudinal study-style look at the artists involved.
9. Back To Reality (2004)
These days, Celebrity Big Brother is mainly known for bringing returning Big Brother contestants back to the show. Back to Reality was one of the first attempts to do this, reuniting reality alums like Uri Geller and Jade Goody and filming them living together in a house for a few weeks. The premise isn’t particularly original, but this was entertaining TV nonetheless.
10. Joe Millionaire (2003)
And we’re right back to trash with this one. Joe Millionaire presented its contestants with a supposed millionaire who was, in fact, just a normal person with no great wealth. Once this fact was revealed to the winning contestant, if she chose to stay with the titular Joe Millionaire, then the couple would be granted a million dollars. It was cheap and tawdry, but hey – that’s reality TV, right?
11. Whodunnit? (2013)
Have you ever thought about turning a detective story into a reality show? That’s exactly what the premise of Whodunnit? was. Contestants would be “killed” each week, and whoever managed to solve the mystery of their “murder” would be given a higher score. Low-scoring players would be eliminated each week. This one actually had some promise.
12. The Phone (2009)
Rather unusually, this show has a celebrity origin: it was brought to life by Justin Timberlake, who probably envisioned it while on the set of one of his Hollywood projects. The premise is weird and labyrinthine: contestants would receive calls on the titular Phone, then take part in Hollywood-style setpieces for…some kind of reward, presumably. It’s easy to see why this one didn’t take off.
13. Who’s Your Daddy? (2005)
There are some reality TV shows that have interesting, complex premises, and then there’s Who’s Your Daddy?. This show saw a young woman who didn’t know her biological father attempting to guess who he was from a lineup. If she got it right, her dad would get a cheque, and if not, the man she incorrectly identified would get the cheque (but she’d be reunited with her real dad anyway).
14. The Swan (2004-2005)
Again, this one has an insultingly offensive premise, so it’s easy to see why it isn’t on the air anymore. Several women would compete to get plastic surgery, with the woman who “looked the best” at the end of the surgery receiving the prize. It was grossly exploitative, crass, and image-obsessed in a way that modern society would thankfully be disgusted by.
15. My Super Sweet 16 (2005-2017)
My Super Sweet 16 is, in many ways, the reality TV show that kicked off the phenomenon. It’s nowhere near the first of its kind, but it did help to embed the genre in the minds of the public (and also to disavow any notion that reality TV shows were some kind of social experiment). You know the premise: bratty teens get astronomically expensive birthday parties, complain anyway.
16. The Osbournes (2002-2005)
That’s right – not only is The Osbournes not still on TV, but it was only ever around for three years. It’s easy to forget that given the absolutely massive impact it had on popular culture, but it’s true. The dysfunctional tale of Jack, Sharon, Ozzy, and Kelly was as absorbing as it was sad; here was the great vocalist of the legendary metal band Black Sabbath, brought low by reality TV.
17. Temptation Island (2001-2003)
We’re not talking about the rebooted version that started airing in 2019 here, but the original 2001 show. It featured couples who were forced to live apart from their partners and in the vicinity of attractive members of the opposite sex, then tested to see if they would stray from their relationships. Trashy, yes, but eminently watchable.
18. Run’s House (2005-2009)
In many ways, Run’s House is reality TV at its purest. This show followed the family of Rev Run from Run D.M.C. and his family as they simply lived their lives. It didn’t have any kind of exaggerated, high-concept premise; instead, it simply followed the family through their high and low points, arguably encapsulating the best parts of reality TV.
19. Vanilla Ice Goes Amish (2013-2014)
Yup. Everything you need to know about this show, you can glean from its name. Vanilla Ice Goes Amish sees Vanilla Ice – yes, he of “Ice Ice Baby” fame – attempt to live a life among the Amish community, one of peaceful, technology-free tranquillity. The premise was inherently absurd, but that didn’t stop the show being compelling.
20. Wife Swap (2004-2020)
Technically, Wife Swap ran in fits and starts. It originally aired between 2004 and 2010, but was rebooted a couple of times, eventually coming to a permanent end in 2020. The show had couples swapping partners, then followed those couples to see how they adjusted to their new circumstances. It was breezy, throwaway fun.
21. Growing Up Gotti (2004-2005)
The mid-2000s really were the peak of reality TV, weren’t they? Growing Up Gotti followed Victoria Gotti, the daughter of legendary mob boss John Gotti (memorably played by John Travolta in the terrible 2018 movie Gotti). Naturally, Gotti’s lineage was what made this story memorable.
22. The Hills (2006-2010)
It’s easy to forget this given how hugely popular The Hills was, but it actually began life as a spinoff for Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. The Hills followed Laguna Beach’s Lauren Conrad at first, but the focus shifted to Kristin Cavallari in the fifth season after Conrad left to chase a career in fashion.
23. Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane (2007-2011)
While Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane certainly didn’t invent the #girlboss movement, you can see its origins here. The show followed Kimora Lee Simmons, a model running her own fashion line, as she adjusted to life post-modeling. Her family was an entertaining one to watch, making this show compelling each time it aired.
24. The Ashlee Simpson Show (2004-2005)
Since Ashlee’s sister Jessica had her own show, it only seemed fair for Ashlee to get one as well, right? The Ashlee Simpson Show followed the slightly moodier, edgier Simpson sibling as she pursued a music career, tried to make a name for herself in the industry, and navigated her myriad relationship troubles.
25. Britney and Kevin: Chaotic (2005)
We’re including this show mostly to mark Britney’s freedom from her conservatorship and remind ourselves how exploitative the media was at the height of her stardom. Britney and Kevin: Chaotic followed Britney Spears’ relationship with backup dancer Kevin Federline. It was every bit as messy as you’d imagine that premise would be.