Allen Funt showed the way, but nobody followed.

Not right off, at least.

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When the Age of Television flickered to life in the late 1940s, Funt was there with Candid Camera, the show he created and hosted.

Using a hidden lens, Candid Camera recorded the frustrated response of ordinary people to absurd situations that Funt and crew had secretly set up: a mailbox that talked, a car with no engine, a "restroom" door that opened onto a closet, an elevator that moved sideways.

"Smile," Funt told America. "You're on Candid Camera."

And smile America did, widely enough to keep the show on the air intermittently for more than half a century after its premiere in 1948.

Candid Camera looked a lot like current reality television, which TV historian Tim Brooks defines as "real people in extraordinary situations."

But don't call Candid Camera the progenitor of reality TV. Nobody copied Funt's formula, despite the television industry's propensity for ripping off any idea, good or bad. Candid Camera is more godfather than grandfather to modern fare like Survivor.

It was cable, with its lust for low-budget 24/7 content, that begat reality TV, according to historians of television.

There might have been elements of reality TV in such broadcast shows as An American Family, the 12-part 1973 PBS series detailing the daily life of the Loud clan of Santa Barbara, Calif., or the Fox series Cops, which debuted in 1989. But those lacked one of reality TV's prime requisites - a "completely artificial environment," says Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

Another network show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which debuted in the summer of 1999 to huge success, "was a wake-up call to the broadcast networks" about the potential of unscripted shows, Brooks says.

"The contestants were much more real than had been seen before," Brooks adds. "It was a quasi-reality show because of the way they cast it. Everybody and his brother could get on the show."

But cable did the real work. "By the '90s, cable had started to experiment with different kinds of programming," says Brooks, coauthor of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present.

Out of cable's lab came The Real World in 1992, crackling with dramatic possibility and instantly popular. The MTV series, still going strong, throws seven or eight attractive young strangers together in a house to live under the TV camera's eye. Unlike the Candid Camera dupes, they know they're being watched.

With The Real World, reality TV "becomes a fully fledged art form," Thompson says.

"Real World arguably introduced one of the most unique new ways of telling a story since the novel had been invented centuries before," Thompson says enthusiastically.

"It was less art as drama and more art as a chemistry experiment," Thompson adds. "It was like getting a jar of nitro and pushing it to the edge of the table and turning on the camera and watching the fireworks. Often, it was fascinating."

Yet, nobody ripped off The Real World, says Thompson, just as no one had ripped off Candid Camera. The age of reality would have to wait.

Finally, in 2000, CBS reluctantly went with a reality show called Survivor - added only after the Eye received assurances of sponsorship, Brooks says.

Network president Leslie Moonves "was underwhelmed" when his lieutenants presented Survivor to him, says Gary Edgerton, chair of the Communication and Theatre Arts Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. "He said, 'This is a cable show,' " but his staff was able to convince him that was not a bad thing.

"With Survivor, for the first time, TV realized that reality was the universal blood donor," says Thompson. "You could marry reality TV with any other genre or any other topic."

Why did it take more than half a century to get from Candid Camera to Survivor?

America in the 1940s and '50s wasn't ready for reality TV. "The networks' internal standards were so prissy," Thompson says. "They didn't want to offend anybody."

Then, in the mid-1950s, TV shifted its base from New York to Hollywood, abandoning live broadcasts in favor of scripted shows from big studios, says Brooks. The result, he says, was a barrier between TV and its audience that created "a desire for something that seemed real" - one that was fulfilled only decades later.

When viewers saw the first reality shows, he says, "it seemed to be drama that happened in real time."

Contact staff writer Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com

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