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Reality TV has become managed to ingrain itself not only into conversation across the globe, but into culture across the globe. You could argue the phenomenon started in the 1990’s with the emergence of The Real Word in 1994, but since the 2000’s it’s taken on a life of it’s own. Take a look at our list of the top reality shows (ranked by the year they premiered) below to decide for yourself when reality TV really took off. Please note that when you look at our rankings for top reality TV shows by year, you’re going to be:

#1. Shocked by just how many shows you’ve watched

#2. Feel older than you’ve ever felt

#3. Get irrationally angry about us picking one show over your favorite

While some years are very straightforward, there are others that had HUGE premieres. Take 2009 for example, with the premiere’s of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Shark Tank, American Ninja Warrior, Jersey Shore, Chopped, and Pawn Stars to list a few. It was hard to decide which show should top the list, so if you disagree with any opinion of the blog and want to voice it – make your voice heard by filling out our Reality TV Show Bracket.

2000: Survivor 

The year 2000 introduced us to two of the largest Reality TV shows to date – and forever altered the landscape. Both Survivor and Big Brother first premiered in 2000 and haven’t stopped since. With multiple spin-offs in their own right, they’ve influenced every single show to come after it. It’s not easy declaring a winner between the two, but Survivor’s FIRST season finale had 50 million viewers. We can judge the shows based on the casting, scenery, formatting of competitions and every other possible which way – but we believe that Survivor’s storytelling allows for a more dynamic show. This is probably in large part due to Survivor season’s being filmed in whole, granting a cohesive story done by editors, making them the first champion.

Honorable Mentions: Big Brother

2001: The Amazing Race

Backpacking off the success of Survivor, but in a unique enough way where you can capture new and existing fans The Amazing Race is taking our 2001 spot. While the Amazing Race has been running for 35+ seasons, when it first aired it was considered on the bubble of cancellation. It ran against another Reality Series, Lost (not the one you’re thinking of), and premiered just a week before 9/11. “Once we saw our billboards covered in dust from the 9/11 tragedy, we knew we had a problem” said one show runner. Despite that, the show was never cancelled thanks to a loyal contingent of 8M+ fans. Fans of ABC’s The Mole may be upset by The Amazing Race taking the top spot. The Mole has a special place in our heart because of how different it tended to be than what’s on TV now, but we can’t debate the numbers in this instance.

Honorable Mentions: The Mole

2002: American Idol

We can already hear it now, Bachelor Nation up in arms over this ranking. Listen, we knew this was going to be controversial – but we’re sticking by this judgement. American Idol has influenced the entire genre of musically inclined television. It’s cultural impact was enormous – before a time when social media was the norm. Sure, nobody knows who won the last 17 seasons of the show – but the show has still generated some huge star power. This isn’t a put down on the Bachelor either, even if American Idol consistency drew 3 times the viewership at both of their peaks…

Honorable Mentions: The Bachelor/ette, The Osbournes

2003: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy

Alright, we’ll admit that this one is really tough, but we still don’t think it’s debatable. While 2003 was an enormous year for all sorts of reality TV buffs (featuring the premieres of: The Surreal Life, America’s Next Top Model, The Simple Life, and Punk’d) – Queer Eye was groundbreaking (there’s no wonder it got renewed on Netflix to rave reviews). Each of the aforementioned shows did have impacts in their own rights, but shows like the Simple Life were much more of a guilty pleasure. They all had their moments – but five gay men nationally broadcasted in Queer Eye was a moment. It had a broad cultural impact that couldn’t be ignored and the personalities were some of the best ever brought to screen.

Honorable Mentions: The Surreal Life, America’s Next Top Model, The Simple Life, Punk’d

2004: Project Runway

Once again there’s room for debate (actually). 2004 saw a lot of cult classic’s inside the reality genre. From Project Runway, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Laguna Beach, Nanny 911, to Pimp My Ride (is Pimp My Ride even considered reality TV?). Let’s be real, we can all say we loved Pimp My Ride and Nanny 911 was hilarious in it’s own right, but the argument is between Laguna Beach and Project Runway. If i’m being honest with readers here, I haven’t watched much of Project Runway and I have watched every single episode of Laguna Beach. Laguna Beach was a predecessor to scripted reality. It’s honestly responsible in part for the Kardashians when you look at the timelines. Still, in the back of my head Project Runway is and always will be bigger. I mean it’s still going strong and Laguna Beach lasted, what? 3 seasons? Project Runway wins by numbers (and my lack of knowledge).

Honorable Mentions: Dog the Bounty Hunter, Laguna Beach, Nanny 911, Pimp My Ride

2005: So You Think You Can Dance

While Girls Next Door may have been the fan favorite for a generation of stay-up late teens, it didn’t have a long lasting impact and many would say it doesn’t hold up against the test of time. Meanwhile, much like what it’s predecessor American Idol did for singing competitions, So You Think You Can Dance did for dancing. It was built by the same producers after all. Some of you may complain that Hell’s Kitchen should take the top spot – but i’m going to chalk that up to all of us being inundated with Gordon Ramsey’s face across the internet. After all, how many people can say they’ve actually watched an episode of Hell’s Kitchen?

Honorable Mentions: Hell’s Kitchen, The Girls Next Door

How much of our master opinions do you agree with? Sound off in the comments and continue below for the second part of the series, where we’re sure to aggravate you even more with the hotly contested 2006 – 2010 era!

- A word from our sposor -

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Ranking the Top Reality TV Shows by Premiere Year: Part 1