How Ted Bundy Invented Reality TV In The 1970s

Culture | January 28, 2019

Ted Bundy's image on a television screen on the lawn of the Florida State Prison. | Location: Starke, Florida, USA. Source: Getty/Bettmann

In 1979 and 1980, a nation sat riveted to their TV screens watching the televised trials of serial killer Ted Bundy. Was this reality TV in its truest form? Decades later, our fascination with watching people go nuts on television has been proven time and again by the success of reality shows, beginning with The Real World and extending to competitions with Survivor. But reality TV didn't exist in 1979 -- and neither did the term "serial killer." As the first criminal trial to be televised nationally in the United States, the spectacle of Bundy, by any measure a complete monster of a human being, jonesing for attention and control was must-see TV. 

Ted Bundy described himself as “the very definition of heartless evil,” and “the most cold hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet,” but he never watched contestants vote each other off a desert island, or a man hand out roses to women with the possibility of falling in love as the grand prize. Bundy murdered at least 30 young women between 1974 and 1978 and after he was caught he put on one of the strangest shows seen until then. In what may have been a last ditch effort to come off as insane Bundy defended himself in front of a jury; he lost and sentenced to death but the spectacle wasn’t lost on the most savvy members of the media.

Bundy screamed, he spat, and he married a woman while she was on the witness stand, providing the sort of watercooler talk that The Bachelor and Big Brother strive to spark today. The antics on display during the televised trials of serial killer Ted Bundy were abhorrent and beyond the pale, even for a man on trial for murder. They also just might have sparked the fast degradation of our media landscape into the realm of reality television in which we now live. Sure, viewers would tune in to watch a man land on the moon or win gold medals -- that's live TV at its most aspirational. But we'd also seen an unpopular war unfold from the comfort of our living rooms. Were there even better ratings to be had from watching a villain self-destruct? Reality TV may not be all Ted Bundy’s fault, but he definitely pushed things in that direction.

Ted Bundy Craved Power

Ted Bundy in court. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Bundy grew up in Burlington, Vermont to a family that hid his lineage from him. The woman he believed to be his sister was actually his mother, and his "parents" were actually his grandparents. This kind of upbringing not only instilled in Bundy a distrust of authority, but also a distrust of the very people whom he was supposed to trust from birth. This absolute lack of power instilled in Bundy a constant need to be in control. Regardless of what situation he was in -- a kidnapping, family dinner, court -- he had to make sure everyone knew he was top dog.

This need to be the alpha of any given situation is exactly the kind of behavior that’s rewarded on reality television. The most telling example of his need to be in control comes from the women he chose to kill. Most of them looked nearly identical to the woman who broke his heart, Elizabeth Kloepfer. Being spurned by a lover, having your clear affections go unrequited, is a profound loss of control.

He Was Obsessed With His Own Crimes

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Prior to being arrested in Utah, Ted Bundy was obsessed with himself. Bundy had worked at a suicide prevention hotline and closely monitored the news about missing girls -- many (if not most) of whom were his victoms. He was obsessed with the notoriety he gained through his crimes and prided himself on being one step ahead of the police.

His attitude pre-arrest is similar to that of a reality contestant who thinks they have it all figured out, someone who thinks they’re ahead of the curve without realizing that the game is rigged from the start. Reality TV rewards narcissism.

His Court Case Was Pure Drama

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The performative nature of Bundy’s court proceedings was over the top, but even in the ‘70s his flair for showmanship was ahead of its time. Not only did Bundy’s love of the spotlight inform his performance style in the courtroom, but it affected how he spoke to reporters. In The Ted Bundy Tapes a four-episode documentary that came to Netflix in 2019, journalist Stephen Michaud notes that Bundy cradled his tape recorded like a baby when he spoke into it, and that he was only able to get a real story out of the killer when he could get him to speak in third person.

You can classify that as narcissistic behavior, but isn’t that what “characters” on reality shows do? They find the biggest character they can inhabit and become the thing that gets them the most attention. Bundy was already an awful person, but once he found himself in front of the cameras a new persona came out, one that morbidly entranced viewers from thousands of miles away.

Bundy screamed, he acted out, and he spontaneously married one of the women that he called to the witness stand. Everything he did was meant to drum up controversy, and it worked. We’re still talking about Bundy’s antics in front of the jury in 1980, but we rarely speak in depth about the crimes that Bundy committed. 

Bundy Has His Fans

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Everyone loves a villain on reality TV, be it Chad from The Bachelorette or Drew from Survivor. We root for them because they’re more fun, and because of the absolute chaos that could break out if they actually suceeded in whatever faux-reality venture they’re competing in. Ted Bundy was not unlike these villains. He was good looking, he did what he wanted to get ahead, and most importantly he didn’t care what anyone else thought.

This is key to Bundy’s ill-advised fan base. It’s too simplistic to say that people like him because he was handsome, the important factor here is that he knew he had committed horrific acts of violence and he didn’t care. 

His Court Case Had Wild Implications

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thirteen years after Ted Bundy’s case, the Menendez Brothers would be tried for the murder of their parents, and that was plenty of time for the media to learn its lesson about how to cover controversial court cases. Rather than get what they could piecemeal, channels like Court TV sprung up in order to capture all the gruesome details, slicing and dicing every minute aspect of the trial like NBC covers the Olympics.

Bundy’s narcissism and overall lack of human compassion spoke to something dark within the American psyche. While defending himself, Bundy argued that the truth wasn’t true, and when he was put on death row he blamed everyone but himself for his crimes. These abysmal traits are the same things exercised by characters on any reality show that you accidentally binge for 8 hours.

By the time of the OJ Simpson trial, it was obvious that yet another person with amazing abilities of compartmentalization was on trial, only this time he was smart enough to let lawyers do the talking for him.

Tags: Crime In The 1970s | Reality TV | Serial Killers | Ted Bundy | Television | The 1970s | Trials

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.