Critic explores history of reality TV, counts the number of shows that aired this year: 567

On the occasion of reality TV’s 10th anniversary on broadcast TV, the Kansas City Star’s Aaron Barnhart has produced a tremendous package of stories that are “about the decade’s most influential, most prolific, most dynamic cultural product.” From behind the scenes of shows such as The Biggest Loser, Mythbusters, and The Real Housewives of Orange County, and interviews with Bethenny Frankel and Ken Burns, he covers a lot of ground.

In the first part, “How reality TV took over prime-time,” he traces the history of unscripted entertainment, finding that “classic documentary movies, in fact, were masterpieces of manipulation,” but also finds that “even on reality shows where producers do relatively little gaming, the reality format has a built-in unpredictability that sets it apart from scripted TV shows.” (Check out this great infographic [PDF] of key moments.) We don’t always agree on the exact definition of reality TV–I’d leave out Dateline, for example–and some of this may be familiar, such as hosts getting lines via earpieces, but it’s an awesomely comprehensive report.

In addition to comments from Kansas City-area reality TV stars, there are great sidebars, too, like an interview with Bethenny Frankel and one with the Mythbusters. The report includes on-location videos and photos of The Biggest Loser’s set and control room and The Real Housewives, in Vicki’s house and at the production offices, where a color-coded story board tracks the women’s lives.

And the second story examines two of reality TV’s big draws: budgets and personalities. Besides crunching the numbers (network dramas cost $2.7-4 million an hour, cable dramas $1.6-2 million, reality shows $300,000 to $1 million an hour), Aaron also did the previously unimaginable: counted reality TV shows that aired this year. The total: 567, 90 percent of which are on cable, and which take up 40 percent of prime-time TV, up from 20 percent in 2001.

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