To Be Real: On Emily Nussbaum’s “Cue the Sun!”

Olivia Stowell reviews Emily Nussbaum’s “Cue the Sun! The Invention of Reality TV.”

To Be Real: On Emily Nussbaum’s “Cue the Sun!”

Cue the Sun! The Invention of Reality TV by Emily Nussbaum. Penguin Random House. 464 pages.

A FRIEND OF MINE is teaching a class about “bad” media objects and the audiences that love them. To her surprise, after showing clips of Judge Judy and Jersey Shore during a lecture about reality television, a student piped up and asked: “Is this even reality TV?” 

To those of us who came to the genre in the 1990s or 2000s, the question “Is Jersey Shore reality TV?” may feel ridiculous, maybe even a little egregious. What’s more reality TV than JWoww’s “anonymous” letter to Sammi, or Snooki getting punched in the face?

But for college students, who lean more toward current fare like Too Hot to Handle or The Circle than early classics like The Real World or The Hills, such genre confusion is at least somewhat understandable. The slick neon palettes and social media–ready casts of Netflix reality competition programs can feel worlds apart from the chaotic, often bumbling vibes of earlier reality shows—we’ve come a long way from Jessica Simpson musing about whether her canned tuna was chicken or fish.

Which is to say, my friend’s student asks a good question. After all, what is it that unites Judge Judy or Jersey Shore with such disparate programs as Below Deck, Duck Dynasty, Love Is Blind, Top Chef, Naked and Afraid, The Amazing Race, and Dance Moms? What makes us look at the wide range of shows we call “reality TV” and say they have more in common than they do differences?

Emily Nussbaum’s Cue the Sun! The Invention of Reality TV (2024) points us to some answers. As Cue the Sun! reveals, something like reality television has been with us for longer than we might expect—about as long as the TV set has been a mainstay of the American living room. The story of its invention, then, is in part the story of how television workers were making the forerunners of reality TV long before anyone would call it that, and how at every step along the way, innovation was entangled with ambivalence, uncertainty, and, sometimes, exploitation.

Nussbaum serves as a helpful guide to reality TV’s past and present, peppering Cue the Sun! with well-researched details, lively anecdotes, and primary-source accounts of the genre’s checkered development across decades. As she demonstrates, reality television as we know it today is the product of a rich stew of influences, including Queen for a Day’s depictions of female complaints and the “Warholian coldness” of Allen Funt’s prank show Candid Camera in the 1940s, An American Family’s cinema verité–family soap hybrid and Chuck Barris’s provocative game shows in the 1970s, and COPS and Americas Funniest Home Videos’ clip-show formats predicated on real-life stakes in the 1980s and ’90s. No wonder, then, that the descendants of such varied programs may not look related at first glance.

Emerging in the 1990s from this blend of proto-reality programs, MTV’s The Real World (1992–2019) “modernized the genre,” combining the contrived structure of game shows and prank shows with the documentary-style drama of An American Family. It was a soap opera without a script, starring “real people,” and gave the channel a “hot drama about young people, only it would be low-budget and nonunion.” On the back of The Real World’s popularity came Survivor (2000– ), “the first series to take the reality genre mainstream in the United States, turning the fringe, faddish phenomenon of ‘dirty documentary’ into a legitimate institution.” Since Survivor, the reality genre has proliferated, producing near-infinite permutations of its original ingredients.

In demonstrating how these proto-reality programs gave way to the diverse landscape of contemporary reality TV, Nussbaum reminds us that “reality programming wasn’t all that new—and neither was the moral outrage that came with it, like a clap of thunder after lightning.” Since their inception, reality programs have raised questions about the ethics not only of making television out of the “Voluntary Amateur” (and sometimes the “Involuntary Amateur”) but also of watching and enjoying it. In exploring these questions, Nussbaum suggests that the invention of reality television was also the invention of new kinds of audiences. But as this hybrid genre struggled to be born, critics consistently dismissed these shows as “cruel carnivals, which traded in humiliation.” Again and again, reality TV’s detractors wrote shows off as “dumb spectacles, made on the cheap. They were shoddy imitators of better types of art: less sophisticated than real documentary, shallower than fiction, too crass to have any lasting value.”

These dismissals, however, depend upon a set of assumptions about reality television: that those it depicted couldn’t possibly ever be in on the joke, that those who made it were just looking to make a quick buck, and that those who watched it were becoming stupider the more they watched. Given the consistent recurrence of such assumptions, it’s no wonder that reality TV is often considered a foremost example of “trash.”

As someone well-versed in the genre, I can’t deny reality television’s trashier moments, and Nussbaum doesn’t paper over them either. The genre’s history includes near-endless examples of the sordid, the dubious, the in-poor-taste, even the transgressive. To name a few of the low points that Nussbaum details: Barris’s Gong Show (1976–89) featured such acts as a pair of teenage girls “licking and sucking Popsicles in silence” for almost two minutes, An American Family (1973) producer Craig Gilbert insisted that Pat Loud (the mother of the titular family) let cameras film her telling her brother that she planned to divorce her husband, and The Real World co-director Alan Cohn followed cast members home from a blind date and told them “he wasn’t going to leave until they kissed.” In an interview with Nussbaum, MTV director Jim Jones jokingly referred to that kiss ultimatum as “the original sin of reality television.”


That original sin points to another of reality TV’s defining characteristics: its semi-fictionality. Across its varied subgenres and iterations from Candid Camera to Vanderpump Rules, reality television depends on the fusion of authenticity and contrivance. The setup is inherently manufactured, even in programs that feel more naturalistic (although many programs forgo naturalism to deliberately construct over-the-top scenarios such as strangers surviving naked in the wilderness with each other, prospective couples going on blind dates while wearing elaborate animal prosthetics, hot single moms dating each other’s sons, etc.). And yet, under such conditions of contrivance, shows often produce off-kilter moments with a kinetic realness hard to find in other genres. This is what Mark Andrejevic calls “the lab-rat element of reality television: the promise that certain forms of artifice are necessary to get to something authentic and true.” I’d argue that this lab-rat element—the semi-fictionality baked into reality TV from its earliest iterations—not only sets the genre apart but also keeps audiences coming back. To my mind, reality TV hooks its audiences with both its outrageous antics and its invitation for viewers to dissect what is real and what is not—what is another feature of the genre and what seems to exceed it.

For Nussbaum, reality TV capitalizes on the idea that “if you could knock your subjects off balance, they’d reveal a moment so shocking and, sometimes, so tender or surprising, that it would shatter viewer skepticism.” This destabilizing moment, Nussbaum writes, creates “the quality that Allen Funt liked to describe as being ‘caught in the act of being yourself,’ the fuel that fed the reality engine, at both its loftiest moments and its lowest.” There’s something compulsively watchable about these shocking, tender, or surprising moments.

There’s also something compulsively discussable. Moments when people are caught in the act of being themselves become, as Ashley Rattner identifies, moments in which “the audience toys with the power to judge the characters at hand while reflecting on the contours of acceptable social behavior.” We can’t help but talk about such moments; in doing so, we also talk—and learn—about ourselves and each other. Reality TV has always functioned, Nussbaum writes, as “a mirror of the people who watched [it]—and if that reflection was sometimes cruel, it was also funny, riveting, outrageous, and affecting, even if—maybe especially if—you found it disturbing.”

As Nussbaum sees it, the reality format has produced such riveting and affecting moments by placing ordinary people in front of the camera and asking them to “be themselves.” I was particularly struck by Nussbaum’s attention to Lance Loud—American Family’s oldest son, one of the first openly gay people on US television, and, I would argue, the first true American reality star. To watch Loud’s interviews with Dick Cavett from the early 1970s is to see someone who feels so far ahead of their time that it’s almost disorienting—Nussbaum describes him as looking like “some time traveler from the 1980s.” Nussbaum examines the way Loud has influenced the reality genre, in ways both subtle and more overt. Fenton Bailey, who co-founded the production company World of Wonder (best known for producing RuPaul’s Drag Race), was “fascinated” by Loud, “a gay man on television, but not used as comic relief or some dour cautionary tale about acceptance […] a beacon of authenticity, all the realer for his embrace of Warholian artifice.” Lance Loud, with his artifice-meets-authenticity approach, understood before almost anyone else that reality stars could work as collaborators on production, rather than simply subjects to be filmed, paving the way for a “default setting for reality stardom” in which cast members are “comfortable with the notion of themselves as co-creators of their series, preparing for a future as a reality celebrity.”

Loud also paved the way for other “representational pioneers” like The Real World’s Pedro Zamora, another key figure in the history of reality TV whom Nussbaum highlights. Zamora used his time on television to “harness his warmth and charisma to personalize [HIV/AIDS] for MTV’s young viewers,” ultimately becoming “the first gay man, and the first person with AIDS” whom many viewers felt “that they’d known intimately.” Zamora and his fellow cast member and partner Sean Sasser also exchanged commitment vows on the show, marking the first time that US television broadcast a queer commitment ceremony. Zamora’s HIV/AIDS activism is credited with “humaniz[ing] the disease for a generation.” Nussbaum also draws a line from Lance Loud to Survivor’s first winner, Richard Hatch, a gay man whose “big belly and urge to exert power” gave him “some resemblance to the other inescapable antihero of that year, the charismatic mobster holding court on HBO’s The Sopranos.” Like Loud, Hatch “divided viewers, repulsive to some and inspiring to others”; as with Loud, millions tuned in to see what he would do next.

Loud, Zamora, and Hatch illuminate a different side to reality television: its potential to function pedagogically in the realm of representational politics. To be fair, the genre’s educational and representational potential is something many reality cast members of color had ascertained from the beginning, and Nussbaum is careful throughout to underscore the role of race and racism in the genre’s invention. In her discussion of reality TV’s racial politics, Nussbaum draws from such cast members’ accounts of their own experiences, and her in-depth interviews with hundreds of sources pay off. Consider, for example, The Real World pilot’s Janel Scarborough, a Black cast member who assumed from the jump that “they’d sought her out for diversity’s sake.” Or Survivor’s Gervase Peterson, who refused to carry a spear for a challenge and had to explain to a white cast member that “holding that weapon on camera would make him look like ‘a spear chucker from Africa’ to the CBS audience.” Or Will Mega of Big Brother (2000– ), who “had set out to try to repair the weak image of Black men on television with a ‘confident, intelligent and uncompromising model’ of masculinity, but instead, like Kevin on The Real World [he] spent a lot of his time debating racism with white strangers.” These early reality cast members of color knew from the beginning what they risked by choosing to “be themselves” on TV. In taking the leap anyway, they expanded the boundaries of visibility on US television, even as their agency within the contrivances of reality programming remained partial, and often curtailed.


When reality TV is written off as only cheap or trashy, we miss the ways that its contrivances and its semi-fictionality enable representations that are complex, complicated, and ambivalent, as scholars like Racquel J. Gates and Kristen J. Warner have demonstrated. Encounters with reality TV can also be encounters with difference. The potential for difference to facilitate narratives, relationships, and conflicts, both within reality TV’s diegetic scene and beyond it, is also baked into the genre; Loud, Zamora, and Hatch are just a few of many examples. For the networks, however, the promise of difference was largely financial. As Nussbaum puts it, the CBS executives who picked up Survivor and changed the TV landscape forever were “fascinated by its radical approach to TV demographics. CBS would be able to cast a contestant to represent every type of person—rural, urban, Black, white, rich, poor, young, old—pulling in youthful viewers without alienating the AARP crowd.”

This analysis of Survivor’s approach to TV demographics—often replicated across other game-documentary programs—reflects reality television’s entanglement with industry practice and commercial, corporate logics. For every Pedro Zamora, producers often cast a Puck Rainey, a “crusty street punk” who “blew snot rockets and made fun of Pedro” and “undermined every diplomatic gesture the roommates made.” For every Richard Hatch, there’s often a Rudy Boesch, an “openly homophobic” Navy SEAL; as Nussbaum recounts, the entire Survivor production team was “excited by the prospect of a clash” between them.

As I follow developments in reality TV production for my own work, I’ve noticed that these dynamics seem to be shifting, with initiatives such as CBS’s 2020 commitment to making the casts of its unscripted shows at least 50 percent people of color (as opposed to earlier tokenizing setups that cast only a few people of color per season). These shifts in industry practice are also producing shifts in programs’ politics, or at least what kind of politics it’s possible for them to depict. But these initiatives can’t erase the genre’s history, and shouldn’t obscure the queer people, people of color, and other marginalized people who, despite this history, carved out new space through reality TV. Despite incremental progress, reality TV hasn’t abandoned the commercial imperatives that underwrote its initial demographic approach.

Because, of course, reality programs are dependent on commercial ad spots or subscriptions (whether streaming or cable) to keep themselves on the air. And, as Nussbaum explains, the reality format post-Survivor is “catnip to advertisers,” who can not only show off their products during commercial breaks but also enfold their products into the action of the show itself. This model has persisted, producing hilarious moments of blatant commercial sponsorship, both intentional (see Top Chef covering ingredients in Reynolds Wrap) and unintentional (see Survivor’s Liz Wilcox melting down over her love of Applebee’s). To me, this unapologetic commercialism is part of what defines reality TV, and, paradoxically, it can even amplify its sense of authenticity. As June Deery indicates, reality television’s commercial ethos points to how difficult it is in the contemporary moment to “distinguish the commercial from the noncommercial or to conceive of meaningful experiences that don’t have elements of both.” The internet has only intensified these ambiguities. Through its dependence upon real people being willing to offer up their lives to the cameras and to the audience, reality TV has collapsed seemingly distinct boundaries—between the commercial and pedagogical, the authentic and artificial—and helped produce the norms that govern contemporary popular culture in the process.

For Nussbaum, the clip shows COPS and America’s Funniest Home Videos (both premiered in 1989) were also “the first draft of internet culture.” Reality television, in other words, has always been mixed up with other genres, as well as with the internet. After all, as Deery points out, Big Brother format creator John de Mol “launched Big Brother specifically in order to […] conjoin television and Internet activity and thereby generate additional revenue streams from coveted youth audiences.” The proliferation of reality TV, as well as its fusion with the internet, highlights what Andrejevic calls “the seemingly omnivorous character of reality television,” which works “to enfold all aspects of life within the monitoring gaze of the reality show.” Nothing, it seems, amid a reality TV landscape that documents everything from celebrities performing in a singing contest wearing full-body costumes to rural production of illegal moonshine to the Los Angeles real estate market to amateur pottery throwing, is beyond the scope of reality TV’s cameras. If, as Nussbaum writes, “mixing the internet with reality TV was the speedball of pop culture,” the mixture of the two is now inescapable.

In short, Cue the Sun! points to not only the ways that reality television has been with us far longer than we’d think but also the ways that the subjectivity of the present is “reality-televisual.” I would argue its residue is all over TikTok, where short, user-created clips follow each other in a facsimile of televisual flow. It’s in our smartphones, which normalize the concept of an ever-present camera, always ready to capture the material of “real life” and transmogrify it into entertainment, distributed by and across social media platforms. It’s in our social media profiles, which slot us into performances of stock character types not unlike those embodied by reality TV cast members. And, of course, it’s all over US politics, where partisans root for and judge politicians as though they were reality personalities—and where, of course, reality personalities construct the image-brands that enable them to become politicians, as Nussbaum details in her incisive chapter on The Apprentice (2004–17) that closes the book. For me, this development points to the alternatively chilling and thrilling fact that reality-televisual modes of acting and interacting have pervaded contemporary life.

Perhaps, then, part of what makes reality television hard to define is its omnipresence—the extent to which it has permeated the social, cultural, and even political structures of our present. But Nussbaum’s book helps us understand how we got here in the first place, and the struggles over representation and labor that birthed a genre that has become ubiquitous both in cable TV schedules and as a structuring idiom for the current moment. Nussbaum’s history of reality television not only shows us how a genre becomes a genre but also how reality TV has become “a shared language, a way to talk about politics and identity, emotion and ethics, what was fair and what was real.” Cue the sun, then—we’re all angling for our 15 minutes of fame under it.


Featured image: Nam June Paik. The Hundred and Eight Torments of Mankind, 1998. CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons. Accessed June 27, 2024.

LARB Contributor

Olivia Stowell is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, where she studies discourses of race and racism in contemporary popular culture, particularly emphasizing the construction of racial identities and narratives in reality TV. Her scholarship has appeared in Television & New Media, New Review of Film and Television Studies, and the edited volume Feminist Posthumanism in Contemporary Science Fiction Film and Media (Bloomsbury, 2023). Her public writing has been published in Post45 Contemporaries, ASAP/J, Avidly, and elsewhere.


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