Reality TV may be trash to some and treasure to others, but one thing is not up for debate: it has changed the world. From catapulting the careers of entertainers like Kelly Clarkson and Harry Styles to lending a platform to the Kardashian-Jenner family to polishing the reputation of the man who became the 45th President of the United States, the genre has had an undeniable impact on many central aspects of society, politics, and culture—and that’s only in the past two decades.
To explore this 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, because each one captures a moment in time, colored by its context, and often features twists in format, a novel setting, or a new cast with distinct personalities and outcomes. Our list is primarily focused on U.S. shows, or series that have had the biggest 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 first produced and aired in other countries.
Reality TV can be a slippery category, even if most viewers know it when they see it. For the purposes of this project, we’ve defined it as TV that places real people—that is, people appearing as themselves, whether or not they’re portrayed fairly—in situations that are not formally scripted but may be heavily manipulated by producers and editors. Unlike documentary series, which have a higher fidelity to the truth, reality shows are intended primarily as entertainment. Unlike game shows, they are usually, but not always, serialized, with characters who appear for multiple episodes or seasons. And in contrast to lifestyle or how-to programs that center on projects, reality series tend to focus largely on the personal lives of their casts.
To develop our list, the leaders of the project cast a wide net for nominations from TIME’s editorial team, conducted additional research on the history of the genre, and debated a large list of seasons. We considered each candidate based on key factors, including originality of concept and format, representation that broke boundaries, personalities and stars who have remained relevant, critical and popular reception, and influence on society more broadly. We also looked at which seasons drove the cultural conversation, for better or worse.
This project is led by TIME staffers Judy Berman, Lucy Feldman, and Annabel Gutterman, with writing, reporting, and additional editing by Eliza Berman, Solcyre Burga, Kelly Conniff, Samantha Cooney, Eliana Dockterman, Mariah Espada, Mahita Gajanan, Rich Juzwiak, Cady Lang, Belinda Luscombe, and Megan McCluskey; art direction by Katie Kalupson; photo editing by Whitney Matewe; audience strategy by Alex Hinnant, Caroline Olney, Kitty Ruskin, Kari Sonde, and Kim Tal; video by Brian Braganza, Chris Grasinger, and Joseph Lautrup; and production by Juwayriah Wright. Illustrations by Tanya Cooper.