Top 20 Most Controversial Reality Shows Ever

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Top 20 Most Controversial Reality Shows Ever

VOICE OVER: Andrew Tejada WRITTEN BY: Mimi Kenny
It seems every year brings another controversial reality show. For this list, we'll be looking at the unscripted programming that caused the most controversy. Our countdown includes "Sister Wives" (2010-), "Kid Nation" (2007), "Born in the Wild" (2015), "Teen Mom" (2009-12; 2015-), and more!
Transcript
It seems every year brings another controversial reality show. For this list, we’ll be looking at the unscripted programming that caused the most controversy. Our countdown includes "Sister Wives" (2010-), "Kid Nation" (2007), "Born in the Wild" (2015), "Teen Mom" (2009-12; 2015-), and more! Which of these reality shows shocked you the most? Let us know in the comments!

#20: “Are You Hot?” (2003)


Plenty of reality shows prioritize physical attractiveness, but few do it as flagrantly as this ABC competition did. Contestants vied to be named America’s sexiest man or woman, with judges like Lorenzo Lamas and Rachel Hunter evaluating their physiques. Where’s the twist? There is none. “Are You Hot?” was a show as shallow as its title. And while producer Mike Fleiss said the goal was to “[give] viewers what they want,” it seems what they wanted was contestants they could root for for reasons beyond looks. “Are You Hot?” earned a chilly reception and ended after its first season.

#19: “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” (2012-14)


A bad review is one thing, but calling something a “horror story posing as a reality television program” is another thing. This spinoff of TLC’s “Toddlers & Tiaras” following young beauty pageant contestant Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson and her family was derided for numerous reasons. Among the biggest controversies was the perceived exploitation, with the show seen as mocking lower-class and southern families. While the show was a ratings winner, one controversy - involving matriarch June “Mama June” Shannon and a romantic partner - was too great to ignore and the show was canceled. But to many, it shouldn’t have aired in the first place.

#18: “Born in the Wild” (2015)


Where were you born? In a hospital? At home? Either way, you wouldn’t qualify for this Lifetime reality show about people giving birth outside. And by “outside,” we mean out in the wilderness. Births were depicted without any guaranteed use of medical guidance or modern resources to ensure a safe and healthy birth. Many saw the show as promoting unsafe birthing practices, which executive producer Yoshi Stone countered by saying there were resources available and safety measures put in place. But “Born in the Wild” didn’t make it to old age, ending after its six-episode first season.

#17: “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” (2007-21)


You could live in a cave thousands of miles away from civilization, and even then, there’s no guarantee you’d be safe from hearing about the Kardashians. And this famous family’s notoriety started with the premiere of their reality show on the E! Network. Why were they being documented? Pretty much because they’re rich and attractive. “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” was routinely derided for being shallow, as were its “famous for being famous” subjects like Kim Kardashian and mother Kris Jenner. But many saw the show as the ultimate guilty pleasure, and it stayed on the air for an impressive twenty seasons. People are going to continue keeping up with the Kardashians, with or without a reality show.

#16: “Blachman” (2013)


Think only America is capable of making trashy reality shows? Then you luckily haven’t heard of “Blachman,” a truly appalling talk show that aired for six episodes in Denmark. Creator and host Thomas Blachman and another male guest would talk about the body of a woman who undressed in front of them. If you think that sounds sexist, you’re not alone. Called the “most sexist show in history,” “Blachman” was blasted for its chauvinistic premise. We’re not sure if it was low ratings or controversy that gave it the ax, but we’re arguably better off without “Blachman.”

#15: “Boy Meets Boy” (2003)


A reality dating show featuring gay contestants? That’s a great idea. But a reality dating show based on deception and dishonesty is a terrible idea. That’s exactly what viewers got with “Boy Meets Boy,” Bravo’s ill-fated attempt at a gay-focused reality show. The show was about a man looking for another man to be his special someone. The cruel twist was that some of the contestants - unbeknownst to the star and their fellow competitors - were straight. In an interview, star James Getzlaff said he “felt betrayed” by the show. Modern depictions of gay people on television is by no means perfect, but it’s a lot better than this.

#14: “The Pickup Artist” (2007-08)


You know those guys who go to bars and try to use their “powers of seduction” on any woman they can find? Would you ever want to watch a whole show dedicated to them? VH1 thought you might, as it aired two seasons of “The Pickup Artist.” The show followed pickup artist Erik “Mystery” von Markovik as he mentored contestants in the art of getting dates in any situation. While Mystery might disagree, his methods were dismissed as pseudoscience and the show was also exposed as dishonest about who some of the competitors actually were. “The Pickup Artist” was thankfully put down.

#13: “The Swan” (2004)


As demeaning as “Are You Hot?” was, “The Swan” reached a whole new level of cruelty. This Fox reality show featured female contestants deemed unattractive who underwent various cosmetic surgery procedures for the chance to compete in a beauty pageant. The title came from the contestants being seen as “ugly ducklings.” The show was blasted for promoting unhealthy body images and equating conventional good looks with being a good person. Entertainment Weekly even named it as the worst reality show of all time. “The Swan” somehow aired for two seasons, and the only thing ugly about it was the show itself.

#12: “Dance Moms” (2011-19)


Dancing is a great pastime, but we wouldn’t wish Abby Lee Miller’s teaching on anyone. This Lifetime reality show chronicled dance instructor Miller and her classes of young girls. Many of Miller’s teaching methods - such as commenting negatively on her students’ physical appearances - crossed the line. And some of the numbers she choreographed were far too risqué given the age of the performers. In 2020, racist remarks made by Miller towards Black students were exposed, and Lifetime severed ties with her. If the show is ever revived, we hope it’s with a much less problematic instructor at the center.

#11: ​​“My Husband’s Not Gay” (2015)


Our concept of love and attraction is constantly evolving, but we can’t imagine ever being okay with the premise of this TLC show. “My Husband’s Not Gay” followed married Mormons in Salt Lake City, in which the husbands professed attraction to other men. However, since they didn’t act on their romantic instincts and were married to women, they were deemed as not being gay. The was criticized for treating being gay as something that can be changed instead of being an innate part of someone’s being, and a petition calling for it not to air received more than 100,000 signatures. While the show only aired as a single documentary, it still goes down as one of the most infamous reality shows ever.

#10: “Sister Wives” (2010-)


Another uncommon kind of marriage is polygamy, in which one person is married to many. “Sister Wives” spotlights this kind of union through patriarch Kody Brown and his wives: Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn. Opinions are fairly divided on “Sister Wives.” While some find it to be an informative glimpse at a different kind of marriage, others find the concept to be both legally and morally questionable. Some have even likened Brown to a cult leader, and television journalist Nancy Grace has called for him to be prosecuted. Having aired on TLC for more than a decade now, viewers still find themselves married to “Sister Wives.”

#9: “The Moment of Truth” (2008-09)


We love game shows for how they test knowledge and being able to stay cool under pressure. But this unpleasant Fox show was rooted in embarrassment. Contestants were given lie detector tests and asked extremely personal questions. If their responses were deemed truthful, they could win huge cash prizes. Based on a Colombian game show, “The Moment of Truth” left too much room for humiliation that made it impossible to enjoy. At times, it felt like both the contestants and the viewers were being punished. We’d be lying if we said we ever wanted a return of this show.

#8: “Who’s Your Daddy?” (2005)


Meeting the father you’ve never known can be an incredibly emotional and personal experience. In other words, it shouldn’t be used as fodder for a reality show. But that’s exactly what Fox did with “Who’s Your Daddy?” The uncomfortable premise is that a woman who’s never known her father must guess who he is among a group of men in order to win $100,000. Adoption groups protested the show for cheapening a powerful experience, and viewers just weren’t interested. Only one episode of the show aired, as it was apparent that “Who’s Your Daddy?” was a dud.

#7: “There’s Something About Miriam” (2004)


For decades, the only depictions of transgender people you could find on TV were exploitative ones, like on this British reality show. Six men vied for the affection of model Miriam Rivera, whom they didn't realize was a transgender woman. The show was derided then and now for its humiliating nature as well as the potential damage it could bring to the trans community. While mainstream understanding of trans identity and issues was less developed then than it is today, it still doesn’t excuse just how cruel and offensive this show was and always will be.

#6: “Teen Mom” (2009-12; 2015-)


Teenage pregnancy is an important issue that shouldn’t be ignored. But maybe it shouldn’t be the focal point of a reality show, either. Chronicling the lives of young mothers, this MTV show has earned both high ratings and high controversy for potentially glamorizing teen pregnancy. While MTV has argued that the show’s purpose was to show how demanding teen motherhood can be, others have felt the show has promoted it by making stars out of its subjects. A study did find that the show’s airing correlated with a decline in teen births, suggesting that it might be having some positive effect after all.

#5: “Bridalplasty” (2010-11)


Weddings are considered sacred ceremonies in many cultures. However, when it comes to reality TV, nothing is sacred. Enter “Bridalplasty,” a show so shallow, we don’t know how to begin measuring it. On this E! Network show, soon-to-be brides compete in various challenges in hopes of winning plastic surgery procedures to get the “perfect” body for their wedding day. We can’t begin to describe how problematic that is, and the show was seen as both an indictment on reality TV in general as well as the impossible beauty standards put upon women. Anyone who’s been married knows it takes trust and honesty for a marriage to last, not cosmetic surgery. Thankfully, “Bridalplasty” was given the knife after one season.

#4: “Jerry Springer” (1991-2018)


To call “Jerry Springer” trash TV would be an insult to garbage. This daytime talk show was seen by many as epitomizing everything wrong with modern society. Hosted by former Mayor of Cincinnati Jerry Springer, the show specialized in sensationalistic topics and outrageous guests. Things would often turn ugly, leading to bouts of physical violence. TV Guide named it the worst show of all time in 2002, and there was also controversy about whether or not aspects were staged. After thousands of fights and perhaps millions of bleeps, “Jerry Springer” ended for good in 2018, much to the relief of many.

#3: “Kid Nation” (2007)


The use of children in reality television is already controversial, but “Kid Nation” stokes that controversy even further. The premise of this CBS reality show is that forty children, between eight and fifteen years old, are tasked with creating a functioning society in a New Mexico ghost town. While things didn’t reach “Lord of the Flies” levels of chaos, the show still drew plenty of concern over safety and exploiting child labor loopholes. Many advertisers opted not to be associated with the show as well. However, the controversy didn’t translate into ratings, and “Kid Nation” was canceled after one season. We’re not kidding when we say that this show was a bad idea.

#2: “Fear Factor” (2001-06; 2011-12; 2017-18)


Before Joe Rogan was sparking political debates, he was causing a different sort of outrage. Well, it was less Rogan and more the show he was on. “Fear Factor” was a game show that asked just how far contestants would go to win money. The answer: pretty damn far. Much of the controversy was around the show’s disgusting food challenges, in which contestants would eat things that could make you ill on sight alone. There were also concerns about animal welfare, with some trainers refusing to be involved. Ths shock factor ended up attracting viewers, even if many of them were watching through their hands, and the show was revived multiple times. The scariest thing about “Fear Factor” might be just how popular it was.

#1: “Toddlers & Tiaras” (2009-16)


Unsurprisingly, the show that gave us Honey Boo Boo is controversial in its own right. “Toddlers & Tiaras” brought viewers into the world of child beauty pageants and showed just how uncomfortable of an institution they can be. The young contestants were depicted as being dressed provocatively and having procedures such as eyebrow waxings done to them. It might have been the parents making these decisions, but “Toddlers & Tiaras” still managed to get a national platform. For instilling dangerous beauty standards at a young age and other problematic aspects, “Toddlers & Tiaras” is the most controversial reality show to ever air.
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