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The program was structured as a series of interviews with no element of plot.However, it did have the then-new effect of turning ordinary people into celebrities.Television formats portraying ordinary people in unscripted situations are almost as old as the television medium itself.

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Another precursor may be considered Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom which aired from 1963 through 1988.This show featured zoologist Marlin Perkins traveling across the globe and illustrating the wide variety of animal life on the planet.In the United States, various channels have retooled themselves to focus on reality programs, most famously MTV, which began in 1981 as a music video pioneer, before switching to a nearly all-reality format in the early 2000s.There are grey areas around what is classified as reality television.It differs from documentary television in that the focus tends to be on drama, personal conflict, and entertainment rather than educating viewers. The genre has various standard tropes, including "confessionals" (also called talking heads or interview segments) used by cast members to express their thoughts, which often double as the shows' narration.

In competition-based reality shows, a notable subset, there are other common elements such as one participant being eliminated per episode, a panel of judges, and the concept of "immunity from elimination." An early example of the genre was the 1991 Dutch series Nummer 28, which was the first show to bring together strangers and record their interactions.Critics have argued that reality television shows do not accurately reflect reality, in ways both implicit (participants being placed in artificial situations), and deceptive or even fraudulent, such as misleading editing, participants being coached in what to say or how to behave, storylines generated ahead of time, and scenes being staged or re-staged for the cameras.Other criticisms of reality television shows include that they are intended to humiliate or exploit participants (particularly on competition shows); that they make stars out of either untalented people unworthy of fame, infamous personalities, or both; and that they glamorize vulgarity and materialism.Confession was a crime/police show which aired from June 1958 to January 1959, with interviewer Jack Wyatt questioning criminals from assorted backgrounds.The radio series Nightwatch (1951–1955) tape-recorded the daily activities of Culver City, California police officers.Documentaries, television news, sports television, talk shows, and traditional game shows are not classified as reality television, even though they contain elements of the genre, such as unscripted situations and sometimes unknown participants.