From Joe Millionaire’s subtitled slurp to Idol, Fox’s 25 years of reality class and trash

Tonight, Fox celebrates its 25th year on the air with a special hosted by Ryan Seacrest, of course. While ABC was the first broadcast network to air a reality series (Making the Band), and while CBS changed television with its first reality series (Survivor), Fox has done everything from generating headlines for its offensive, WTF reality shows to defining an entire genre with actual quality television.

Fox has alternated between leading the way (American Idol) and shamelessly copying other series (Trading Spouses). Some of its shows are ridiculously high-quality (So You Think You Can Dance), while others were just bad ideas (American Juniors). Here’s a rundown of reality TV highlights and lowlights from Fox’s 25 years:

  • Three years after Fox started airing prime-time programming, it debuted COPS, which people often cite as the first reality series. I loved the show and watched it relentlessly, but to me it wasn’t really modern reality TV because it didn’t follow characters for more than a single segment in a half-hour episode. The Real World followed the lead of An American Family and turned real people’s lives into narrative, serialized stories. But of course, COPS‘ cinema verite style was engaging and it illustrated perfectly how real life was just as–if not more–entertaining than scripted television.

Fox recently decided to give COPS’ timeslot to Fox Sports, having already preempted the series this spring for Q’Viva, and when it returns next year, it will air fewer episodes than usual. The show hasn’t been cancelled, though, and executive producer John Langley recently told TV Guide, “If Fox doesn’t re-order us after the 25th season, we’ll find another home, I’m pretty certain. We’ve got an audience and will always have an audience no matter what happens. We’ve become an iconic program with guaranteed ratings. We usually win our time slot, so somebody will want us.”

  • Trashy dating series. Fox took the game show up a huge notch with Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, which aired in 2000 as a two-hour special. And they followed it with shows that were equally trashy–and equally able to generate buzz. Who can ever forget Joe Millionaire and its subtitled oral sex? Oh, Evan Marriott, we miss you.
  • Most of Fox’s dating shows were progressive and/or highly offensive twists on The Bachelor: The Littlest Groom (a little person bachelor choosing from both little people and average-sized people), More to Love (aka The Fatchelor), Playing it Straight (a woman choosing from gay and straight men pretending to be straight; cancelled it mid-season), and the Monica Lewinsky-hosted Mr. Personality (2003), on which the men’s faces were concealed with masks. Oh, it was also hosted by Monica Lewinsky. They also aired Married by America, which didn’t produce any marriages but did produce a then-record FCC fine for indecency.

  • Dating soap operas. Three of Fox’s dating series deserve their own special mention: Temptation Island, which you can watch on Hulu, would probably not seem shocking today, but tempting couples with hot single people was shocking–especially when its smarmy host confronted the couples about their cheating. There was off-camera drama, too, as a couple kicked off the show sued, claiming they were actors. They followed that with 2003′s epic, awesome trashfest Paradise Hotel, which got a second season but failed to recapture the magic, and Forever Eden, which was supposed to be on the air forever but lasted seven episodes.
  • Ahead of their time. Two of my favorite Fox reality series didn’t really capture the public’s attention: Unan1mous, whose contestants were locked in a bunker set and had to decide which of them should get an always-decreasing $1.5 million prize, and Murder in Small Town X, a hybrid murder mystery whose real-life winner was a firefighter killed on Sept. 11.
  • Talent shows. Fox is probably now best-known for American Idol (of course: it’s been the most-popular TV show for years, having managed to be a show that works perfectly for so many different types of viewers), but its other efforts here haven’t been that successful, and I don’t just mean that insane ego-trip shitfest The X Factor. Remember World Idol or American Juniors? Or Don’t Forget the Lyrics!, The Next Great American Band, or Celebrity Duets?
  • Meanwhile, So You Think You Can Dance remains underrated–it’s the best network talent competition, period–and I’m worried about its survival now that it’s been demoted to one episode a week.

  • Gordon Ramsay shows. Fox loves it some Gordon Ramsay. However, with all due respect, I kind of hate Fox for turning Gordon Ramsay’s awesome UK series into a dumbed-down, Foxified, Americanized piece of crap, but that’s what Kitchen Nightmares is. Hell’s Kitchen was interesting when it started but is so far entrenched in a rut that it’s completely boring now, and MasterChef is a decent attempt but not must-watch TV.
  • Docudramas. Fox has been the one major broadcast network to attempt serialized docudrama shows that usually work on cable but usually don’t get traction on broadcast TV. The best, and most interesting, was filmmaker RJ Cutler’s American High, which followed high-school kids and was cancelled, but rescued by PBS, which tells you something about its quality. Alas, that level of quality wasn’t to be found in scripted, fake crap like Princes of Malibu, or boring shows like The Casino and Nashville. Perhaps the most successful show in this category was The Simple Life, which inflicted Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on the world. Its set-up situations worked better early in the show’s life, and it was hilarious and weird at the same time.
  • The rest. In the past 10 years alone, Fox has tried a lot of different kinds of reality series, some of which lasted for a few seasons. Some were reality/game show hybrids, like Hole in the Wall, Million Dollar Money Drop, and Greed. But the others were just, to quote Fox’s tagline, so Fox. Here’s a non-exhaustive list: Nanny 911, The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best, Celebrity Boxing, My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, Renovate My Family, Skating with Celebrities, Trading Spouses, Boot Camp, and The Swan.
  • about the writer

    Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.