'That's Incredible!' & 'Real People:' The Birth Of Reality TV

By | August 1, 2019

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Left: 'Real People' hosts Bill Rafferty, Byron Allen, John Barbour, Sarah Purcell, and Skip Stephenson. Right: A TV Guide cover featuring 'That's Incredible' hosts John Davidson, Cathy Lee Crosby, and Fran Tarkenton. Sources: IMDB, Pinterest

Two early-'80s TV shows -- That's Incredible! and Real People -- brought us oddballs and daredevils, and we've never really recovered. Reality TV's voyeuristic fascination with people who were kind of like us, but really different in some way, can be directly traced to these two sideshow-style programs. They were the must-see TV of their day, with weirdos and drama to fuel conversations around watercoolers and jungle gyms. Americans flocked to this prime-time entertainment that wasn't built around high-paid actors; networks loved having a popular show that wasn't built around high-paid actors.

That’s Incredible! (1980-84) and Real People (1978-84) used different approaches, but both pushed the boundaries of what humans are willing to do for TV. Nevertheless, their shenanigans brought hilarity to living rooms all around the country and probably spawned a few ideas for shows we see today. 

'That’s Incredible!'

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The show's hosts on the cover of Dynamite magazine. Source: IMDB

That’s Incredible! combined Ripley’s Believe It or Not (which also got its own TV series in the wake of these shows' success) and America’s Got Talent before they ever existed. Each week, America watched as people of unusual gifts and sometimes curses strutted their stuff. The performers of That’s Incredible! truly spanned the entire spectrum of human beings.