What Are the Different Types of American Reality TV?

Lee Johnson

Many different types of American reality TV exist, and they can be classified in a variety of different ways. A basic classification could include real life scenarios, performances, physical challenges, and identity change programs, but this doesn’t convey the diversity present in reality television. More complicated classifications could include dating programs, historical recreation programs, makeover programs, life change programs, celebrity “docusoaps,” talent searches, and documentary style reality TV shows. The sheer number of American reality TV shows makes them difficult to classify accurately in a concise list.

Some reality TV programs focus on home renovations and improvements.
Some reality TV programs focus on home renovations and improvements.

Most American reality TV shows can be simply classified as documentary style reality TV shows. A large number of these programs follow ordinary Americans in their occupations, but in reality the interpersonal relationships between employers and family members generally plays a larger role than the actual profession. Viewers get to understand the profession and what the stars of the show actually do, but the focus is often on disagreements rather than the occupation itself. While most of these documentary style TV shows follow people in an occupation, some follow people in their non-working lives, and in these cases, the interpersonal relationships are even more prominent.

Paranormal investigation shows are becoming a popular genre of reality TV.
Paranormal investigation shows are becoming a popular genre of reality TV.

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Talent search style shows are another popular type of American reality TV. These programs offer hopefuls from across the country the chance to succeed in their desired profession. Ordinarily, the shows begin with a nationwide search from which the best performers are chosen and then put through eliminations each week until the winner is found. The voting on a lot of these programs is done by the viewing public, and the nationwide votes are tallied up and the show's outcome depends on the results. This type of American reality TV show generally offers prizes for the winner, one which essentially catapults the winner into a successful position in their desired profession.

Singing competitions are among the most viewed reality TV shows.
Singing competitions are among the most viewed reality TV shows.

Many other types of American reality TV shows exist, and these can be split into various different classifications. One popular type of reality TV show is dating shows, which aim to find a relationship for one man or woman through a series of trials or individual dates. Other types of reality TV show include celebrity “docusoaps,” which follow the real lives of celebrities and accentuate any drama in their lives. Game show-style reality TV programs are another popular variety. These feature real people competing against each other in a variety of challenges to win a prize offered to the victor.

Concerns have been raised that reality TV shows can distort a child's perception of society.
Concerns have been raised that reality TV shows can distort a child's perception of society.
"Teen Mom" is a popular reality TV program that shows the struggles young women face from an unplanned pregnancy.
"Teen Mom" is a popular reality TV program that shows the struggles young women face from an unplanned pregnancy.
Dating programs are one popular kind of reality TV.
Dating programs are one popular kind of reality TV.

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Discussion Comments


@Latte31- Those shows are interesting to watch. I usually watch “Mystery Diagnosis” on the Discovery Channel. This is one of the shows that you can’t stop watching.

The program showcases people that have had an illness that was hard to detect and the person gets worse and worse but eventually a doctor solves the mystery and is able to treat the person.

You really get drawn into the program and feel like you know the people on the show. It is fascinating to see how the doctors actually find out what is wrong with the patient and make them better. It really makes you appreciate how intelligent doctors are.

I also watch Untold Stories of the ER, and that show is kind of stressful. I really find the medical field so fascinating but very stressful at the same time.


@Sunshine31 -I know what you mean that is why I don’t watch those types of shows. Most of the shows that I watch are related to cooking competitions or interior design and real estate shows.

I learn so much from some of the decorating shows. You can really change the look of your home with little money. I also watch the cake competition shows which are amazing.

These cakes end up looking like sculptures that are too pretty to eat. The real estate shows are fun too because I love looking at houses. I love “House Hunters” especially “House Hunters International”.

I enjoy learning about all kinds of real estate markets and what your money will buy you in different parts of the world.


I used to watch some of the Housewives shows but after a while I got tired of all of the drama. These shows seem to have the same set up and there isn’t much reality to them.

I remember watching the show and seeing a couple that has about ten million dollars in debt continue to spend money on frivolous things even though they filed for bankruptcy.

I stopped watching these shows after a while because a lot of the cast really act catty and mean towards each other and while some people might enjoy the fight, I find it too stressful to want to tune in.


@TreeMan - Actually, The Real World on MTV was around long before Survivor. I don't think it is the first official reality show, but it is the first one that was widely popular. I don't know exactly when it first aired, but it was in the early 90s, probably in 1991 or 1992. Survivor didn't start until 2000, of course.

I don't know if anyone remembers it, but the show I really used to like was called The Mole. It was hosted by Anderson Cooper and involved a group of people all trying to choose "the mole". The mole was someone who was working for the producers and was responsible for sabotaging the various tasks. I thought the idea was really unique, and the show was fun to watch, but for whatever reason it only went for two seasons and then disappeared.


Does anyone know what the first reality TV show was? The first one I can remember was Survivor. I liked watching it for the first couple of season, but then it started to feel like it was the same thing over and over every season, and I got tired of it. I think that is the problem with a lot of reality shows like that - it is hard to keep coming up with ideas to stop the show from getting stale. It seems like Survivor is constantly coming out with new seasons, though, so I guess they are doing something to keep people entertained.

I still think it is amazing how fast reality TV went from being a relatively new concept to dominating TV nowadays. I am pretty sure there is even a whole cable channel now that is dedicated to showing reality shows.


I guess they would be considered reality shows to a certain point, since they follow the jobs of the various people, but the shows I really like are the "buying and selling" shows like Pawn Stars and Storage Wars. I know a lot of the transactions and things are scripted, but I still like seeing the random things that people are able to find and sell. I always like learning about the history behind some of the things, too.

I guess I kind of like them, too, because of the educational component. They often have experts that come on and talk about the stuff and how to tell the difference between originals and reproductions. Hopefully one of these days I can try to put that information to good use if I ever stumble upon a bunch of old things that might be collectibles.


@Sara007 - I am the complete opposite. I am not a huge reality TV fan, in general, but the shows I can't stand to watch are the ones with celebrities or dating. My biggest problem isn't so much that I don't like the people as much as you can tell the entire show is scripted. We have gotten to the point where reality shows don't follow reality any more. They are just TV shows with people playing themselves as far as I am concerned.

The one show that I did like with a celebrity was The Osbournes that followed around Ozzy Osbourne and his family. I think the great thing with that show was that he was so wild to begin with that it would have been hard to script certain parts of that show. The rest of the family was pretty off the wall, too, which made it interesting.


Does anyone else love reality TV that follows celebrities around or that deal with real life romantic relationships?

I really enjoy getting a peek in the celebrity lifestyle, as I know I will never be able to afford to live so outrageously. It never ceases to amaze me how rich some people can be. I wish I could buy that many cars or live in a mansion.

As far as the dating reality shows go, matchmaking shows are probably the most enjoyable. I am past the dating stage myself, but it is nice to revisit all the drama that comes from finding that special someone. I guess, that even though I know the matches won't last, that I like seeing some of those awkward first dates.


@letshearit - I love reality TV that deals with medical drama as well. I think the best show I have seen that deals with both a medical issue and a mental one is the show Intervention on A&E. The show deals with helping those that are suffering from substance abuse.

My brother had a problem with alcoholism, so I suppose that I can relate to the families in the show, and I have a sense of what the people who have an addiction are actually dealing with. I think that these reality shows can actually be educational, though I know they are really just for entertainment.


Can anyone recommend some great reality TV shows that feature people dealing with different medical and mental disorders?

It is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me to watch shows where people are struggling with various conditions. It really fascinates me how the human mind works, and what people are capable of overcoming. I suppose I am interested in human nature, and these kind of reality shows give me a peek into other people's lives, without being invasive.

My favorite show at the moment is Hoarders. I had an aunt who was a hoarder and watching the show makes me feel like I understand the condition a bit better.

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