They're so popular, more than 50 now populate the tube.
Many of the viewers are youngsters. And with the contestants going to extreme lengths and doing many bizarre things to win, parents have to keep a close eye on what their kids are seeing.
On The Early Show's In the Family Circle segment, the magazine's editor in chief, Susan Ungaro, offered advice on how parents can help their families get the most from the white-hot TV genre.
Ungaro says a poll in the magazine's November issue indicates that over two-thirds of Americans watch reality TV, getting caught up in and caring about the characters, which, she notes, is what really makes a successful drama on TV.
"Families are watching," Ungaro tells co-anchor Hannah Storm, "because...whether it's good stuff or bad stuff, you can react and, all together, enjoy and get a laugh and sometimes get screaming in the living room as well."
Which reality shows do viewers like most? The Family Circle poll put "Survivor" on top, followed by "The Apprentice."
What about "Fear Factor"? "Teens can watch," Ungaro says, "but I think parents have to decide what can their child take. I think children under the age of 10 should not be watching that show because we have 50 percent of the adults in our poll saying kids will engage in risky behavior.
"But as you're watching real people eat bugs and do other crazy things, you could talk about what's right, wrong and dangerous," Ungaro added.
"Extreme Makeover" could present an opportunity for parents to point out that good appearance is important, but an extreme makeover will not make your life better, Ungaro observes.
Also, in the November issue of Family Circle, co-anchor Storm offers tips for reality TV. Here's a sample:
Ungaro says parent should point out that, "Producers are behind these shows just like dramas. They set up scenarios and circumstances … and our children need to know that even though it's real people being photographed and watched, they're put together in ways and put into situations that aren't real."
"Imagine how awful your friend would feel if you lied to her to win money," and "Imagine how bad your teacher would feel if the principal said, 'You're Fired!'(And made him leave the school right away!)."
Ungaro notes that "Survivor" is a good example: "You're hearing about alliances. You're seeing this season the women against the men and gender factors. Our kids experience cliques in schools and so really we can talk about where teamwork is important and what happens when there is a lot of competition."
"Jackass" and "Fear Factor." Make sure your kids understand that under no circumstances should these stunts be imitated at home or with friends.
understanding that what they are watching is really a game.