'Sister Wives' is back, plus more of TV's longest running reality shows
Reality television started trickling in at the start of the ’90s, but the genre became a programming mainstay right as the new millennium kicked off. In the decades since, we’ve seen people all over the world open up their lives on camera — some competing for cash, love or prizes, with others just documenting their daily existence. While many shows come and go, there are a select few that have stood the test of time with audiences, creating years of compelling unscripted material. One example is TLC’s “Sister Wives,” which premiered on the network back in 2010. The show documents the life of Kody Brown and his polygamist family, which includes his four wives (though one left him in 2021!) and their 18 children. The cast have said that they participated in the show to make the public more aware of plural marriage families and to combat societal prejudices. To celebrate the premiere of season 16 on Nov. 21, 2021, Wonderwall.com is taking a look at more of the longest running reality shows still producing episodes…
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“Cops” is oft-considered the originator of the reality television genre. The show, which premiered back in 1989, documents actual police officers and sheriff deputies while they’re on patrol, responding to calls, participating in prostitution and narcotics stings and serving search and arrest warrants at suspected criminals’ residences. The program’s cinéma vérité style gives viewers a fly-on-the-wall look at what it’s really like for officers working in the field. Season 33 of the hit series premiered in October 2021. “Cops” is not only one of the longest running reality shows of all time —it’s also one of the longest running shows of any genre in the United States.
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After first airing in Sweden as “Expedition Robinson” in 1997, the American version of “Survivor” arrived on CBS in 2000. Fans immediately tuned in in droves to see what happened when a group of strangers were put together in an isolated location and forced to provide food, fire and shelter for themselves. The contestants compete in challenges testing both their physical and mental abilities in hopes of avoiding being eliminated by their fellow inhabitants so that they can win a million-dollar prize. For years, the competition series was rated among the top 10 most watched shows in the U.S. “Survivor” is widely considered to be the leader of the reality TV boom because it was the first profitable reality show on broadcast television. It has since won numerous Primetime Emmy Awards and been named by both Time and TV Guide as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Season 41 of “Survivor” premiered in September 2021.
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MTV helped introduce reality television long before it became cool when “The Real World” premiered in 1992. The premise is simple: Seven to eight young adults are picked to temporarily live in a new city together in one residence while being filmed non-stop. Audiences couldn’t get enough of the cast members’ candid conversations, drunken hijinks and considerable drama. The series has been hailed for honestly depicting issues relevant to its young audience such as sex, prejudice, religion, abortion, illness, sexuality, AIDS, death, politics and substance abuse, though it eventually garnered a reputation for showcasing its stars’ immaturity and reckless behavior. Thirty-three seasons have aired thus far, with the reunion spinoff series “The Real World Homecoming” launching in 2021 on streaming platform Paramount+. Two additional seasons of “The Real World Homecoming” have been commissioned, while more seasons of the original program are still being developed.
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“Big Brother” was already a massive hit across Europe before launching in the United States in the summer of 2000. It follows a group of contestants known as “HouseGuests” who live together in a specially constructed home that’s isolated from the outside world as they compete for a large cash prize. The contestants vote each other out week by week and participate in numerous competitions throughout the season to earn various incentives. Reception to the initial season was chilly, forcing producers to turn the focus to strategy and gameplay, a tactic that’s made the show a ratings hit ever since. Season 23 of the series, which is hosted by Julie Chen, wrapped in September 2021, making it the second longest running adaptation in the “Big Brother” franchise to date after the Spanish version. Two spinoffs have also been spawned from the program: a streaming version as well as a celebrity edition that’s set to return for its third season in February 2022.
The “Real Housewives” brand is now a massive entity featuring shows that document the lives of women across numerous cities around the world. But it all started with “The Real Housewives of Orange County” back in 2006 on a then-little-known network called Bravo. The idea was to find the real-life affluence and drama viewers saw on popular soap operas like “The O.C.” and “Desperate Housewives” by, originally, following the social lives of wealthy Southern California women residing in an exclusive gated community. The show was an immediate hit, with viewership only growing along with the on-screen spending and fighting. Countless wives have come and gone from the series, but as it prepares for its 16th season, there’s no doubt the conflicts will continue.
Real-life dating got the TV treatment with the debut of “The Bachelor” on ABC back in 2002. Each season focuses on a new single man who’s expected to select a wife from an extensive pool of candidates. Cameras follow their dates and drama as the titular star eliminates contestants each week. On the finale, a proposal is expected for the last selected female. The show became an immediate hit, spawning numerous spinoffs — like the equally watchable “The Bachelorette” — and a passionate fanbase who call themselves Bachelor Nation. These devotees are renowned for digging up clues and spoilers in an effort to figure out each season’s winner. It’s become so popular that even the eliminated prospects garner media attention — good and bad. In 2022, “The Bachelor” will air its 26th season, which will feature a new heartthrob, new romantic prospects and a new host.
“American Idol” helped introduce singing competitions amid the growing reality TV explosion of the early ’00s when it debuted on FOX in 2002. It immediately became a ratings powerhouse as millions tuned in to watch their favorite contestants then pick up the phone to cast their vote. Initial seasons created A-list stars like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson and even catapulted the non-singing talent — like judge Simon Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest — to enormous fame. Billboard reported that in its first 10 years, “‘Idol’ has spawned 345 Billboard chart-toppers.” For an unprecedented eight consecutive years, it was ranked No. 1 in U.S. television ratings. But as viewership dwindled, stars like Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban were added to the judging panel to shake things up. FOX canceled the series after 15 seasons, but it only took two years for rival network ABC to reboot the show with judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie. It’s now been renewed for a 20th season to air in 2022.
“The Amazing Race” debuted in 2001 and quickly became one of the genre’s leading adventure programs as it followed 11 or 12 teams of two racing around the world in hopes of winning a grand prize of $1 million. The race is split into legs requiring teams to deduce clues, navigate themselves in foreign areas, interact with locals, perform physical and mental challenges and travel by airplane, boat, taxi and other public transportation options on a limited provided budget. Since the inception of the outstanding reality competition program Emmy Award in 2003, “The Amazing Race” has won it 10 times as of 2021. Season 33 of the show — which has launched numerous international versions following the same core structure — premieres in 2022.
Watching celebrities take on normal tasks has long been a topic of fascination for pop culture fans and reached a new level when “Dancing With the Stars” launched on ABC in 2005. The premise is simple: Celebrities are paired with professional dancers and are trained to perform predetermined dances, competing against the others for judges’ points and audience votes. One or two pairs are eliminated each week until the final duo is awarded the coveted Mirrorball Trophy. The show has helped revitalize the careers of numerous celebrity winners from Donny Osmond and Jennifer Grey to Alfonso Ribeiro and Rumer Willis. It’s won 18 Primetime Emmy Awards and continues to receive rating so strong that it’s spawned recurring live tour, workout DVDs, a mobile game and spinoff shows. Season 30 wraps in November 2021.
In 2004, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay made the move to reality television with the British series “Hell’s Kitchen,” which became an instant hit and launched on American TV screens the following year. Each season, two teams of chefs partake in food-related challenges for the chance to win a job as head chef at a restaurant, all while the fear-inducing restaurateur overlooks every detail of their process. Gordon became must-watch television on his own with his frequent fits of rage directed at the contestants and the show has received multiple Primetime Emmy Award nominations. Some of the country’s leading chefs got their start on the show, which aired its 20th season in 2021.
“The Challenge” began on MTV in 1998 as a spinoff of the established hit “Road Rules” and was originally titled “Road Rules: All Stars.” It features previous cast members now competing against each other in an assortment of extreme challenges to win a large sum of cash. After the second season, it transformed into the “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” and included former cast members from the network’s signature reality show, “The Real World.” It was an instant smash and ran for 19 seasons before undergoing another rebranding, simply becoming known as “The Challenge.” The format remained the same, but the show now features original cast members as well as returning competitors who’ve never appeared on either “The Real World” or “Road Rules.” The retooling clearly helped, as an entire new generation of fans were secured despite not being familiar with the original show. The 37th season premiered on MTV in 2021, as did an “All-Stars” offshoot that was launched on streaming platform Paramount+.
With “The Bachelor” bringing in fans in droves, it didn’t take long for ABC to see the appeal of a female-led version of the series: “The Bachelorette.” Kicking off in 2003, it flips the script by following a woman as she chooses a husband from an assortment of eligible suitors all trying to win her heart (or trying to secure their 15 minutes of fame). The season’s star is usually a previous “The Bachelor” contestant. Thus far, every season has resulted in a proposal (though not all the leads have accepted them), while four marriages have come out of it since the show launched. The 18th season debuted in the fall of 2021.
After the massive success of “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” it came as no surprise that Bravo decided to launch a spinoff series a few years later. “The Real Housewives of New York City” premiered in 2008 and featured an East Coast-based group of women who know the value of flaunting their bank accounts, personal drama and occasional bad attitudes. The show was initially titled “Manhattan Moms,” but the network made the smart decision to rebrand it under the “Real Housewives” umbrella before it hit the airwaves. Like the original, the cast has undergone numerous changes, but OG wives Ramona Singer and Luann de Lesseps are still holding onto their apples. The show also launched the career of Skinnygirl Cocktails maven Bethenny Frankel, who’s arguably the most successful “Real Housewives” star to date thanks to her numerous spinoff shows. Season 13 aired in 2021, but reports of bad behavior, delays and dwindling ratings led to the controversial decision not to a film a reunion special for the first time in “Housewives” history.
There’s nothing like seeing a bride-to-be find the right dress for her wedding. “Say Yes To The Dress” adds cameras to that joyous occasion — and also shows all of the wrong dresses that come before finding “the one.” Following the sales associates, managers and fitters at Manhattan’s Kleinfeld Bridal, we see all the delight and stress that comes with finding the most important — and expensive — fashion choice in these women’s lives with the help and frustration of their friends and families. The show premiered in 2007 and eventually spawned spinoffs set in Atlanta, Australia and the U.K. Season 20 debuted in 2021.
The Roloff family, who all lived on a massive farm in Oregon, began having their lives documented by TLC in 2006 for “Little People, Big World” in hopes of educating audiences about the everyday lives of people with dwarfism. Matt and Amy opened their doors to cameras that followed them and their four children — one of whom has dwarfism while three are of average height. Major storylines focused on obstacles they faced as little people, but the series also showed that their experiences weren’t all that different from anyone else’s. Season 22 premiered in 2021.
Bravo found another hit franchise when it launched “Million Dollar Listing,” a show focused on several Los Angeles real estate brokers and their professional and personal lives, in 2006. The cutthroat antics of agents determined to negotiate major money-making deals quickly became must-watch television for reality fans, who love getting an inside look at the world of high-priced real estate in highly coveted areas like Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Malibu. The success of the Los Angeles version led to “Million Dollar Listing” spinoffs set in New York, Miami and San Francisco. That said, the original is still holding strong: Its 13th season debuted in 2021.
Food Network debuted what would become its signature show in 2007 — “Chopped,” which pits chefs against each other as they make meals using a basket of mystery ingredients until one person avoids getting “chopped” after the dessert round is judged, winning a $10,000 prize. While episodes are only a half-hour in length, they can take up to 12 hours to film. In addition to regular episodes, the competition series has premiered special episodes based on holiday themes, family members competing against each other and chefs who work in similar industries. So far as of 2021, an incredible 50 seasons of “Chopped” have aired — and there zero signs of things simmering down any time soon.
Bravo’s “Real Housewives” brand got its third iteration with “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” which launched in 2008. The show is focused on the personal and professional lives of several women residing in and around Atlanta, Georgia. The cast’s hilarious one-liners and messy antics have revitalized the career of Xscape singer-songwriter Kandi Burruss and launched the careers of reality TV icons like NeNe Leakes and Kenya Moore. It’s anchored Bravo’s Sunday night offerings since the third season in 2010 and eventually became Bravo’s highest rated program. Its popularity has led to a slew of spinoffs focused on current and former “RHOA” cast members and created some much-needed diversity for the network’s programming lineup.
Bravo made its first foray into competition shows with “Project Runway,” which premiered back in 2004. Hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum, it depicts a group of aspiring fashion designers who must compete against each other to create the best clothes while being restricted by time, materials and theme. They must then present their creations to a panel of respected judges who ultimately pick one person to win a cash prize that will help them launch their own line. Over the course of 18 seasons (as of 2021), it’s started the careers of acclaimed designers like Christian Siriano. And while it’s swapped networks multiple times and undergone numerous changes to its panel of judges (with Heidi and longtime mentor Tim Gunn eventually leaving to launch their own fashion competition series), it remains a draw for longtime fans. It won a Peabody Award in 2008 and has spawned more than 30 international adaptations.
Another dancing competition series launched as reality television hit new levels of popularity in the mid-’00s — “So You Think You Can Dance.” That show, which came from the creative minds behind “American Idol,” sees each season with a new group of dancers who compete in various styles including classical, contemporary, ballroom, hip-hop, jazz and musical theater. Each week, the public votes until one is eventually named “America’s favorite dancer.” The show has won nine Primetime Emmy Awards and adaptations of the hit series now air in more than 40 countries around the world. A 17th season was set to start production before the coronavirus pandemic forced FOX to delay it.
Legendary drag queen RuPaul Charles began a search for the “next drag superstar” with the launch of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2009. RuPaul plays the role of host, mentor and head judge on the series, which sees contestants undergoing endless challenges in hopes of being named the best undiscovered drag queen (and winning a cash prize). The show developed a cult following when it aired on Logo before it gained enough popularity to move to VH1, where it launched an equally beloved “All Stars” edition. It’s helped bring drag to the masses, launching the careers of numerous queens while also popularizing an entirely new lingo. The groundbreaking program has also received universal acclaim, winning 19 Primetime Emmy Awards and sparking international versions in the U.K., Australia, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada and Thailand. Thirteen seasons of the original show have aired as of 2021, as have six all-star seasons.
Cooking competitions made their way to Bravo with “Top Chef,” which landed in 2006. The culinary battle sees chefs competing against each other in various challenges and being judged by professionals from the field before one chef is awarded a massive cash prize. Each season takes place in a designated city, incorporating its respective local cuisine and culture into the tasks. The acclaimed program, which has delivered special themed episodes and spinoffs like “Top Chef Junior” and “Top Chef Duels,” has nabbed numerous Emmy Awards. It’s also gained the respect of many in the food industry due its incredible track record of launching the careers of successful chefs all over the country.
It only took one table flip to solidify “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” as a significant show in television history. It took the “Real Housewives” brand and moved it to the Garden State where it focused on a group of passionate Italian American women, many of whom are connected by family. The lineup has undergone many shifts, but the aggressive disagreements have never tamed. Original cast member Teresa Giudice still leads the ensemble, even after serving prison time on federal fraud charges. Season 11 aired on Bravo in 2021.
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