Most people believe "Reality Television" began with Survivor. Or on cable with The Real World. Nope...and nope.
It means they never heard of something called Candid Camera. Or People are Funny.
Candid Camera, which hit the height of its popularity in the 1960's, first appeared as periodic specials and summertime replacements in the late 1940's. It showed people surprised by unexpected (but not totally embarrassing) situations while, without their knowledge, a camera was rolling (they had to sign a release form for the stunt to appear on the show). Created and hosted by Allen Funt (whose son hosted it in the early 2000's), it was described by one of Funt's co-hosts, Durward Kirby, as a show about "people caught in the act of being themselves", something which also describes today's "Reality"Television.
People Are Funny was hosted by Art Linkletter in its heyday in the 1950's and '60's. Linkletter, you may remember, is the TV personality who said "Kids Say The Darndest Things". This show proved adults could say--and do--the darndest things, too. I don't remember seeing this particular show, but my parents recall a broadcast which aired in the '50s, featuring a hermit who, when asked to name the President of the United States, replied "Franklin Delano Roosevelt".
Then, there was You Asked For It, which actually had people write in (snail-mail, of course) asking to see people doing amazing things. The show had a revival in the 1970's and '80s, and was parodied on an episode of "Happy Days".
By the way, the most popular of the so-called "reality" shows, American idol, is a close relation to The Original Amateur Hour, perhaps the mother/father of all TV talent shows. The early weeks of Idol, which arguably are the most popular of the series, look to me like Chuck Barris' immortal The Gong Show. Simon Cowell probably would love to "gong" some of those contestant-wannabes.
Ironically, at the time Survivor first started, Art Linkletter appeared on Larry King Live, talking about his career. He said that, if someone approached him with the idea for Survivor, he would have shown the guy the door.
Apparently, Linkletter forgot People Are Funny. And that's reality.