"It's absolutely spectacular the way in which reality TV took over time slots on television," says Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "It changed the balance of forces within the television industry."
That has turned celebrity culture upside down, turning nobodies into chart-toppers (American Idol) and chefs into rock stars (Iron Chef America), creating a host of one-named celebs (Paris, Jon & Kate, Snooki), and reviving D-list careers (Bobby Brown, Tawny Kitaen). Some people will do anything - pretend their kid's on a runaway balloon, crash a White House party - to get on a show.
Beyond the small screen, reality TV has pervaded popular culture and lifestyle. From dance to fashion, home-buying to cooking, dog-training to plastic surgery, it has gone beyond watercooler talk to influence lives.
As Thompson defines it, reality TV drops real people into artificial situations and leaves them to react. That approach, he says, became "the universal blood donor" that can be transfused to any genre.
The reality era began on cable, with MTV's The Real World in 1992. Survivor, though, was the prime-time broadcast breakthrough. Today it still wins its time slot, with an average of 13.5 million people watching.
Forget watchers - there are thousands of people in these shows. Producer Michael Hirschorn (VH1's Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew) has estimated that at any one time reality shows feature more than 1,000 first-timers. And many more want to join them. When Idol held Philadelphia auditions in 2007, within eight hours 13,000 people signed up at the Wachovia Center.
Cheap to make, sensational to launch, reality shows helped lift cable itself to prominence. Entire channels have gotten a personality makeover. Bravo and A&E started out as high-art affairs - and now offer The Real Housewives of [Your Town Here], Project Runway, Hoarders, or Dog the Bounty Hunter.
The interactive moment
Reality TV has been credited with playing a key role in the huge increase in culinary school enrollment, and in men's growing interest in personal style, fashion, and home decor - can you say Queer Eye? Some prospective home buyers grill real estate agents with questions seemingly cribbed from Sell This House.
"There's an instructional element in a lot of shows," says Tim Brooks, coauthor of the Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present. Reality shows explore restaurateuring, deep-sea fishing, wedding planning, and corporate firing.
"Everyone watches the dancing shows, and I do, too," says Sonya Elmore, owner of La Luna Dance Studio in Bensalem. "It has brought awareness of social dance to a lot of people."
Reality TV "fits a cultural moment in which interactivity is the predominant mode of media production," says Mark Andrejevic, a researcher at the University of Queensland, in Australia. He points to the cell phone, social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and video games in which the player is the star. "You have the audience itself working to expand the meaning of celebrity."
And is that ever expanding. Neal Gabler, cultural critic, says: "The audience now has the power to anoint celebrities - as in American Idol. Or it has the power to anoint themselves. We can say, 'Although I identify with Frank Sinatra or Tom Cruise, I could never be them. But I could be Kim Kardashian.' "
Critics ask whether all this attention devoted to seemingly trivial matters - millions riveted as Csar Millan walks dogs and Heidi Klum gives designers bad news - is somehow deforming society. "With reality television," says Lee Solow, a therapist and TV viewer in Corona del Mar, Calif., "we no longer find our own lives interesting and turn to the media to invent them for us."
There's a worry, too, that reality shows - in which people often fail in epic ways - have helped cheapen the culture.
Gary Edgerton, chair of the communication and theater arts department at Old Dominion University, sees reality TV as "entertainment that's humiliation." He says it did not cause the coarsening of American culture, but "at its worst, it really does" reflect it.
Katherine Sender has evidence to the contrary. Sender, associate professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, surveyed more than 1,800 people and found that many viewers observed a reality-TV code of ethics.
"They didn't like exploitative humiliation," Sender says, "but they did approve of necessary social shaming. Let's say, if the straight man on Queer Eye is doing some slaggy behavior such as drinking a beer in the shower, they think a certain amount of shaming is appropriate to get him to change his ways. And Carson Kressley is there to provide it."
Brooks, the TV historian, says some shows "arguably do a lot of good, such as Intervention. Some show how people can deal with very serious problems." Reality shows, he adds, "show us how to get along on our own."
Whose reality is it?
Viewers are vocal about why they love "their" reality shows. Sue Starr-Wicker of Brick Township, N.J., says she watches The Real Housewives of New Jersey faithfully, for both escapism and connection:
"These women on the show are over the top with their personalities and lifestyle," she says, in an interview conducted on Facebook. "Yet these 'characters' on the show are a bunch of scared, lonely girls with very low self-esteem (like most of us housewives in N.J.)."
Beth Seetch of Easton, Pa., says she loves Bravo's Nine by Design because it is "the only reality show I can think of where the principals consistently treat other people - even children! - with respect." And Lorna Howley of University City says, "I enjoy Amazing Race and the Top Chef shows because I am interested to see how people solve problems."
Nancy Spiller of Pacific Palisades, Calif., finds Hoarders motivating: "It's fascinating and sickening and incredibly sad, but ultimately good because I start straightening up and throwing things out every time I dare watch another episode."
Whose reality is it, anyway? In the end, yours, mine, anyone's. As Spiller says, "Maybe that's the ultimate benefit of reality TV. It encourages us to accept our own realities."
Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.twitter.com/jtimpane
Inquirer staff writers Tirdad Derakhshani and Michael Schaffer contributed to this article.