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From food, pranks, dancing, singing, competitions, exploring the wild, dating, home improvement, court cases, to having a 24/7 live stream of your life – the category of reality TV doesn’t seem to be abundantly clear. What is reality TV? According to Wikipedia, reality TV is defined as “a genre of television programming┬áthat documents purportedly unscripted real-life situations, often starring unfamiliar people rather than professional actors.” Surely that definition would cast a broad net and could cover the aforementioned topics, but there is so much overlap with other categories. Shows like Fear Factor and Survivor have often been classified as reality tv, but should they be? Sure, they’re unscripted, but do they really document real-life situations? And doesn’t the monetary prize at the end make them technically a game show? Apparently they can be both.

Reality TV can be broken up into subgenres, but this isn’t always that simple as researchers have found, “some researchers have taken an empirical approach by having viewers sort programs into categories that make sense to them and then analyze the patterns of groupings that emerge.” Research has attempted to break down reality TV into between 5 and eight subgenres – with the number of subgenres typically growing in later years.

A 2009 study proposed eight subgenres: “gamedocs”, dating programs, makeover programs, docusoaps, talent contests, court programs, reality sitcoms, and celebrity variations of other programs. While this is a great way to break down Reality TV – it still seems overbearing. What we’ve come to appreciate is the way the Emmy’s break down the category, which is between ‘Unstructured Reality’, ‘Structured Reality’ and ‘Reality-Competition’.

Unstructured Reality

What is unstructured reality? According to the Emmy’s it’s “story elements driven by the actions of characters and lacking a consistent structured template.” Inside of this definition we can easily categorize a number of shows. Take, The Kardashians for example: each episode consists of a different set of persons or situations that pop up – there’s no ‘host’ of the Kardashian show. It purports to show the unstructured day to day life of their family.

Structured reality programs examples can be found in past Emmy Nominations such as: Love on the Spectrum, Jersey Shore Family Vacation, Million Dollar Listing, Naked and Afraid, and The Real Housewives. The genre speaks for itself in most instances and while it may cover a larger series of subgenres it avoids any critical overlaps that make it hard to define.

Structured Reality

Structured reality programs are much more defined in their approach. Think Shark Tank for example, where the show clearly has a format. This can also apply to shows like Love is Blind, where we know that contestants will, enter the dating pods, get engaged, get married, etc. It’s very formulaic. Queer Eye, Antiques Roadshow, Property Brothers, MythBusters – they’re all considered structured reality because all of them have “story elements that mostly adhere to a recurring structured template”.


The reality competition category has always been on the edge of what makes reality television. Anything defined as “reality-style, skill-based competition formats” fit the bill for this category. This encapsulates shows like Survivor, Big Brother, American Idol, Top Chef, Project Runway, to Dancing with the Stars. It’s the most clear cut of all the subgenres to point out. If there’s a competitive aspect to the show or a prize at the end of it, you’re much more than likely right to categorize it in this category.


Based on these three categories of reality TV it does help explain what qualifies as reality TV and why. So based on this breakdown which category is your favorite? Do you prefer to see the competitive side of people, find the comfort of a cozy and consistent template, or love the chaos of unscripted dramas where anything can happen?

- A word from our sposor -


What Qualifies as Reality TV?