Reality television it may be trash to some and treasure to others, but one thing is non-negotiable: it is change the world. From catapulting the careers of artists like Kelly Clarkson and Harry Styles for providing a platform the Kardashian-Jenner family to polish the reputation of the man he became The 45th President of the United Statesthe genre has had an undeniable impact on many central aspects of society, politics and culture – and that’s just in the last two decades.
To explore that impact, as well as the roots of the genre, TIME created a definitive list of The 50 Most Influential Reality TV Seasons of All Time. We focused on seasons rather than series, as each captures a moment in time colored by its context, and often features twists in format, a new setting, or a new cast with different personalities and outcomes. Our list focuses primarily on American shows or series that have had the greatest impact on American audiences and society. But the influence of global reality TV is huge, with many of the shows on our list having their roots in series produced and first broadcast in other countries.
Read more: The 50 Most Influential Reality TV Seasons of All Time
Reality TV can be a slippery slope, even if most viewers know it when they watch it. For the purposes of this project, we defined it as television that puts real people—i.e. people appearing as themselves, whether portrayed fairly or not – in situations that are not officially scripted but can be heavily manipulated by producers and editors. Unlike documentary series, which have a greater fidelity to the truth, reality shows are intended mostly as entertainment. Unlike game shows, they are usually, but not always, serialized, with characters appearing over multiple episodes or seasons. And unlike lifestyle or how-to programs that focus on projects, reality series tend to focus heavily on the personal lives of their actors.
To develop our list, the project leaders cast a wide net for nominations from the TIME editorial team, conducted additional research on the history of the genre, and discussed a large list of seasons. We reviewed each nominee based on key factors including originality of concept and form, performance that breaks boundaries, personalities and stars that have remained relevant, critical and popular reception, and impact on wider society. We also looked at which seasons have driven the cultural conversation, for better or worse.
Read more: Reality television has changed our world, whether we like it or not
This project was led by TIME staffers Judy Berman, Lucy Feldman, and Annabelle Gutterman, with writing, reporting, and additional editing by Elisa Berman, Solsir Burga, Kelly Conniff, Samantha Cooney, Eliana Docterman, Mariah Espada, Mahita Gajanan, Rich Juzwick, Kady Lang, Belinda Luscombe and Megan McCluskey; art direction by Katie Calupson; photo editing by Whitney Matewe; audience strategy by Alex Hinnant, Caroline Olney, Kitty Ruskin, Carrie Sonde and Kim Tal; video by Brian Braganza, Chris Grassinger and Joseph Lautrup; and production by Juwayriah Wright. Illustrations by Tanya Cooper.
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