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History of reality TV and impact on society chronicled in new book 'Cue the Sun!'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Reality TV dominates television today. In fact, it's estimated that almost 80 percent of adult TV viewers watch reality TV shows.

But how did we get here? I spoke with the author of a new book which traces the rise of reality television and its broader impact on society as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Man: This is a bowling ball and this is a cake.

Amna Nawaz: From elaborate cake decoration, to the antics of a luxury yacht crew in the Mediterranean, so-called reality television now captures and contrives a seemingly endless array of subjects.

While it's often derided by critics and even fans as trivial, its cultural influence is undeniable.

Woman: And would you stop taking pictures of yourself? Your sister's going to jail.

Amna Nawaz: It's launched multibillion-dollar dynasties, remade cable TV networks…

Donald Trump, Former President of the United States (R) and Current U.S. Presidential Candidate: You're fired.

Amna Nawaz: … and arguably reshaped American politics.

A new book by "New Yorker" staff writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Emily Nussbaum, "Cue the Sun!: The Invention of Reality TV," traces the history of this now-ubiquitous genre.

I recently sat down with Nussbaum and asked her why she started thinking about writing this book 20 years ago.

Emily Nussbaum, Author, "Cue the Sun!: The Invention of Reality TV": It was because I was obsessed with watching the first season of "Big Brother" in the United States on video streaming, which was very new at that time.

I had also been very into "The Real World" and I was fascinated by what seemed like an entirely new genre that was bubbling up, like a new industry. So I wanted to write a nonfiction book about this kind of growth of a new Hollywood.

So when I got to it years later, I started looking into the history of the genre, and I assumed, frankly, the way that I had at the time that it was a modern phenomenon. And only once I started doing research did I realize that there was a real back history to reality television, and that's where this book came from.

It's an origin story.

Amna Nawaz: You trace these very deep roots that I did not know about in American media. We go all the way back to the radio shows of the 1920s and '30s, game shows and prank shows with everyday people.

When the format really moved from radio to TV though, how did that change the dynamics? What did that do?

Emily Nussbaum: In the late '40s, there had been this boom of shows that were called the audience participation shows. And they created the same kind of moral backlash that reality TV did at the turn of the century.

Like, there was outrage about the tackiness and narcissism of this. So there was a show that people are probably familiar with that's "Candid Camera." That started as a radio show. And on the radio, when you prank somebody, they have relative anonymity.

If you prank somebody on television, you can see them look humiliated, surprised, angry, sad, overwhelmed, giggle. It's like a much more intense experience. So I would say the biggest change was that it was a change for what these kinds of shows meant to the audience and their own feeling of being riveted by the emotions, but also sometimes guilty and a little — as though they were colluding with the prank that was happening.

Amna Nawaz: So I was fascinated to learn from your book that it was PBS that created America's first reality TV family, part of a documentary series by our member station in New York WNET, basically documented the lives of the Loud family in Santa Barbara, California, for seven months for a series called "An American Family" back in 1973.

This is a moment between the mom, Pat, and one of her sons, Lance, walking around New York where he lives.

Lance Loud, Son: Everybody I could imagine, I sit apart from.

Pat Loud, Mother: Yes?

Lance Loud: Like, when I was 13, I dyed my hair silver. And I just — and just think, it was energy that was being wasted, because, I don't know, it was like being a little mouse and trapped in a box.

Amna Nawaz: Why were moments like that so revolutionary for the format?

Emily Nussbaum: That episode, which is about Pat's relationship with Lance, who's gay, it's about their intimate relationship and about her love for him and her fears for him.

And the reason this was so startling to people was partially because of Lance. Like, there had never been a visibly openly gay man on television. And this was like a scandal for people. It was made as a documentary, but, when it came out, it was received as reality television, which is to say, people were scandalized by seeing the inside of this family.

And during the course of it, Pat, who's in that clip, asked her husband for a divorce. So, her divorce and Lance's homosexuality became the subject of a three million think pieces. It turned, as you were saying, the Louds themselves into really the first reality stars.

Amna Nawaz: You write in great detail specifically about the CBS show "Survivor," in which contestants basically battle to be the last person standing in some remote situation.

And this moment, in the very first season finale, ended up being watched by more than 57 million people. Take a quick look.

Jeff Probst, Host, "Survivor": The winner of the first "Survivor" competition is Rich.

Congratulations, Rich.

Amna Nawaz: You say "Survivor" supercharged reality TV. How?

Emily Nussbaum: I think it happened for a lot of different reasons, but one of them was electrical moments like that finale.

When I wrote this book, I interviewed more than 300 people. One of my favorite interviews was with Ramona, who was a member of that cast. And she left the show relatively early, but she stuck around on the island, so she was with the camera people when she was watching it.

And she had this description where she was just describing everybody's inner thoughts as essentially like who would think this could ever happen that the villainous guy in the show ends up winning? It established a format that had never been done before that wove together soap operas, game shows, prank shows in a kind of lasting and unbeatable format.

There was just a vast array of reality shows that resulted in the aftermath, but also the creation of the industry.

Amna Nawaz: I think it's fair to say there's an understanding among audiences that what they're watching isn't just reality, that there's a lot of producing and manipulation, but what about the folks who take part in this?

Like, what is the trade-off for them for agreeing to have their lives filmed in this way?

Emily Nussbaum: It's complex, because, for both the cast and the crew members, I would say that there's a range of experiences, including some extremely traumatic experiences of being misrepresented and traumatized.

But I don't want to simplify it and say it's only one thing. On a regular scripted show, people write the show and people act the show and then you watch the show. But on a reality show, it's essentially this invisible collaboration between crew members, which includes the field producers for the show and the editors for the show, and cast members.

And so when you see the results, you see it as a sort of simulacrum of real life, but what it really is the residue of this workplace relationship.

Amna Nawaz: You do end the book with "The Apprentice"…

Emily Nussbaum: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: … the NBC show launched in 2004 and made Donald Trump a TV star and a household name. Why end there?

Emily Nussbaum: For me, "The Apprentice" did mark the end of something, which was it had this incredibly significant impact. It rebranded Donald Trump. It made him president.

So it's the point at which the genre proved, for better or worse, it would affect everything from people's personal relationships to the government.

But the other thing is, actually, there are a lot of negative things to say about "The Apprentice," but it's a beautifully made season of TV, and it was made by skilled, polished professionals, because at that point it was an industry. Like, people knew what they were doing. It wasn't anymore like the spaghetti-on-the-wall period for reality TV where everybody was making it up for scratch.

And it was one of the most successful marketing schemes of all time. They took an extremely rotten product and polished him up and sold him to the world.

Amna Nawaz: The book is "Cue the Sun!: The Invention of Reality TV." The author is Emily Nussbaum.

Emily, thank you so much for being here.

Emily Nussbaum: Thank you so much for having me.

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