The Year That Broke TV And Paved The Way For The Reality Show Era

Shows like “Love Island,” “The Bachelorette” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” wouldn't exist today without the reality television seeds planted in 1999.

Consider this: In 1999, there was no Tiffany “New York” Pollard. The exploits of Bethenny Frankel and Countess LuAnn de Lesseps were unknown to us. Millions of people did not tune in every night to see the sexcapades of twentysomething strangers looking for love on a secluded island. TV — particularly the reality television landscape — was completely different.

Variations of what we’ve come to know as reality television date back to the game shows of the 1940s and 1950s, such as “What’s My Line?” and “This Is Your Life,” where guests would be surprised with a retrospective of their life in front of a live studio audience, complete with appearances from old acquaintances and long-lost family. There were also the docuseries of the ’60s and ’70s, like the U.K.’s “Seven Up!” which since 1964 has followed the lives of 14 British children every seven years. PBS’ 1973 series “An American Family” depicted the effects of divorce on a typical “nuclear family.” These shows were framed as educational and experimental exercises but delighted TV audiences with their sense of real-life drama.  

These series were the first to cement the idea that unscripted stories of human life could make for compelling television. In 1992, MTV’s “The Real World” premiered, framed in the style of the docuseries before it as a kind of social experiment. Seven strangers were picked to live in a house, with ’90s edge thrown in: The 13-episode season tackled homophobia, police brutality and racism, themes that had never been explored as openly and candidly on television before. 

And yet, for all the strides made over the decades, one could argue that 1999 was the year when things shifted. It was the year that changed reality television — and possibly society as we know it — forever. The seeds planted that year and into the early 2000s would later bloom into the reality TV we love (or love to hate) today, including “Project Runway,” “Love Island,” “The Bachelorette” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”  

The biggest show on television in the summer of 1999 was, without a doubt, “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” It was a typical game show, yes, but it was a game show for the reality TV age: The wild popularity of the show saved the struggling ABC network and ushered in game shows on other networks, including NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” and “The Weakest Link.” It also served as a kind of progenitor for a new age of reality TV, setting the stage for an era of competition, because the key to the appeal of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” wasn’t only the high-stakes game but also the fact that viewers had the opportunity to strategize with contestants and, more important, follow them week to week as they made a bid for the ultimate prize. 

As “Millionaire” was drawing millions of viewers that summer, the seeds were being planted for the gamification of reality TV in the United States and in Europe. We saw it early on with the first season of “Popstars” on the WB in 2001, based on a New Zealand show that premiered in 1999. It was the first American reality competition show that sought to create a pop group (this, incidentally, is where Nicole Scherzinger got her start before moving on to fame with The Pussycat Dolls).

“Popstars” paved the way for “American Idol” in 2002, which similarly used judges, mentors and weekly challenges to pick the No. 1 star. Even “The Real World” and its sister show “Road Rules” would get in on the game with the eventually far more popular competition series “The Challenge,” which premiered in June 1998. 

Meanwhile, TV executives were exploring just how far the reality TV form could go in Europe, specifically in the Netherlands. In 1997, Dutch producer John de Mol came up with the concept for a show based on a 1991 research experiment called “Biosphere,” in which a group of scientists spent two years in a 40-acre, self-contained research facility in Arizona for two years. De Mol wanted to re-create the experiment, but this time with regular people, and televise their interactions without interruption. 

In de Mol’s show, which had the working title “The Golden Cage” when he began pitching it to networks, contestants faced weekly challenges and the possibility of elimination. In 1999, the show was finally picked up, airing on Dutch television under the title “Big Brother.” The series followed a group of a dozen strangers living together in a house 24/7, with viewers able to watch even as they were sleeping. There were weekly challenges, and contestants were also able to vote each other off every week, one by one, until a winner was left standing. 

Back in the United States, the overnight success of “Millionaire” made networks sit up and pay attention, realizing they needed shows to rival the ABC juggernaut or, more important, to up the ante. With this in mind, CBS President Les Moonves greenlighted both an American remake of “Big Brother” and the remake of a similar Swedish reality show, “Expedition Robinson,” which would later be known in the United States as “Survivor. 

More than even “Big Brother,” the first season of “Survivor” (pitched in 1999, filmed in March and April 2000 and aired on May 31) was the true opening of the floodgates for the domination of reality television in pop culture. The show wasn’t merely a plodding “social experiment”; it was also a human drama that highlighted romance, intrigue and straight-up backstabbing. Viewers were shocked and secretly elated when contestant (and eventual winner) Richard Hatch turned out to be manipulative and calculating player, gaming the other players in order to win. 

Today, there isn’t a single reality show, regardless of genre or subgenre, that doesn’t love a good game and that doesn’t love to exploit the appeal of a good villain.

Simon Cowell on “American Idol” and Omarosa Manigault Newman on the first season of “The Apprentice” are prime examples. After 1999, the drama, the spectacle and arguably the artifice of reality television became the main draws. Participants couldn’t simply be regular people anymore; they had to be personalities, or types, perfectly attuned and calibrated to orchestrating the juiciest of drama. Soon reality stars became the new celebrities, celebrities the new reality stars. 

As reality TV surged in popularity, it also prompted debate and even fear about its effect on our culture. It brought up, once again, the questions that the 1998 Jim Carrey film “The Truman Show” had also posited in a fictional setting: What is reality, actually, when everything is a simulation, an approximation of real life. What will it mean when we are all just contestants, wheeling, dealing and backstabbing to win the “game”? 

There are some who believe television really was ruined in 1999 — a year incidentally thought of by some as a landmark year for movies but not so much for TV. It would be wrong to make a judgment call one way or another about whether reality TV “ruined” things. 

Obviously, some truly amazing scripted television has emerged on both cable and network television since then, but there have also been some great reality shows. For better or worse, these shows have set the tone and predicted the changing tides of the zeitgeist in ways that cannot be ignored. Shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “The Amazing Race” have even gone on to win numerous accolades and Emmy Awards.

Even with the so-called new golden age of prestige television of the 2000s, populated by shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” reality television has continued to steer conversations and catapult its stars into near stratospheric levels of fame and power. 

In a 2001 interview with The New York Times, Jeff Zucker, the former president of NBC who oversaw the production of the popular — and disgusting — reality show “Fear Factor,” playfully quipped, “I’ve destroyed everything. The critics think I’ve ruined television.” In 2003, Zucker would negotiate the deal to sign Donald Trump up as the host of “The Apprentice,” the show that would enhance his celebrity and ultimately, unbelievably, catapult him onto the national political stage. 

Because of 1999, the reality genre broke TV wide open, but it broke American culture wide open, too.  

For the Love of 1999” is a weeklong series offering some totally bangin’ essays and analysis of hot — or not — TV, music, movies and celebrities of 1999. Keep checking back this week for more sweet content. 

(Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Alamy/Getty/AP) 

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