Types and History of American Reality Television Shows

Reality television started in the US during the 1990s and has boomed into a genre encompassing hundreds of shows in three main subgroups: reality competition and game shows, documentary-style reality tv, and structured reality shows. An example of the first type is the Masked Singer on Fox; professional fishing, mining, or trucking shows fit into the second category, and court and makeover shows are included in the third subgroup.

A Gradual Rise and an Explosion of Content

In the genre of Reality Television, the oldest series followed the daily life of a group of people, either an existing friend circle or several strangers brought together by the show. The Real World is an example of this early reality tv format. The early 2000s is when the genre went from one or two shows on at once to a reality tv show on almost every channel when the reality competition and high-concept game shows started appearing.

Reality-Competition and Game Shows

Reality competition shows include some of the most recognizable names from the first few decades of the genre, such as Survivor and American Idol. A newer, popular show in this genre is the Masked Singer. A group of celebrities put on elaborate masks and costumes, participate in a singing competition, and try to keep their identities secret from a panel of celebrities like Robin Thicke and Ken Jeong.

Game shows could be called the originator of the reality tv genre as they started decades before the industry coined the phrase. Still, this category is one of several subgroups to be retroactively put with the genre. Other types retroactively called reality television include court shows and home improvement.


In documentary-style shows, the audience is framed as a passive viewer of events happening to real people and in real-time. These shows follow professionals in various industries and feature personal drama between participants and factual information about the jobs being done. When a series in this subgroup uses planned situations or editing to construct plots, it is often called a docudrama.

Structured Reality

Structured reality shows feature the camera as a passive observer following real people and scripted plots or personality confessionals without a competition. Court shows fall into this category as the cases are carefully chosen to create engaging content for viewers. Self-improvement, makeovers and home improvement series also fall into this category.

Reality Television features such as the award-winning costumes of The Masked Singer and an air of anticipation for what happens next continue to draw in the crowds. This genre is sure to continue far into the future with amazing visuals and gripping stories.