Reality TV may be garbage to some and treasure to others, but one thing is up for debate: It has changed the world. From advancing the careers of entertainers like Kelly Clarkson and Harry Styles to lending a stage to the Kardashian-Jenner family to polishing the reputation of the man who became the 45th President of the United States, the genre has several central aspects. has had an undeniable impact. About society, politics and culture—and that’s only in the last two decades.
To explore this influence and the roots of the genre, TIME has put together a definitive list of the 50 most influential reality TV seasons of all time., We focused on the season rather than the series, as each one captures a moment in time, is colored by its context, and often features twists in the format, a novel setting, or a new cast with distinctive personalities and consequences. Is. Our list focuses primarily on the American show, or series, that has had the greatest impact on American audiences and society. But the influence of global reality TV is enormous, with many of the shows on our list having roots in series previously produced and broadcast in other countries.
Read more: The 50 Most Influential Reality TV Seasons of All Time
Reality TV can be a slippery category, even though most viewers are aware when watching it. For the purposes of this project, we defined it as TV that places real people – that is, people who appear as themselves, whether they are portrayed objectively or not – in situations that are not formally scripted, but can be heavily manipulated by producers and editors. Unlike documentary series, which have a greater allegiance to the truth, reality shows are primarily meant as entertainment. Unlike game shows, they are usually, but not always, serialized, with characters who appear for several episodes or seasons. And unlike lifestyle or how-to programs, which focus on projects, reality series focus largely on the personal lives of their cast members.
To develop our list, project leaders cast a wide net for nominations from Time’s editorial team, conducted additional research on the history of the genre, and debated a larger list of seasons. We considered each candidate based on key factors, including originality of concept and format, representations that break boundaries, personalities and stars that remain relevant, critical and popularly welcomed, and impact on society more broadly. We also looked at which season prompted the cultural conversation, for better or worse.
Read more: Reality TV has reshaped our world, whether we like it or not
The project is led by Time employees Judy Berman, Lucy Feldman, and Annabel Gutterman, with writing, reporting and additional by Elijah Berman, Soulcire Berga, Kelly Conif, Samantha Cooney, Eliana Docterman, Maria Espada, Mahita Gajanan, Rich Juzwick. Editing has been done. Cady Lang, Belinda Luscombe, and Megan McCluskey; Art direction by Katie Kalupsen; Photo editing by Kim Bubello and Whitney Matvey; Audience Strategy by Alex Hinnant, Sue Jin Kim, Carolyn Olney, Kitty Ruskin, Kari Sonde and Kim Tal; Video by Brian Braganza, Chris Grasinger and Josef Lautrup; and production by Juvaria Wright. Illustration by Tanya Cooper.