Ranked: TV's Best and Worst Reality Competition Shows

Making it work

ImageNobody's voted him off yet

When Survivor and Big Brother premiered in 2000, the competitive reality show was all but unheard of. By 2003, the Emmys had created an award for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, which followed on the heels of the award for Outstanding Reality Program, created in 2001. In 2008, the hosts of reality programs were honored with a category of their own.

Today, there are schools for people who aspire to be contestants on reality competitions. And there are competitions that test virtually everything -- from one’s kitchen skills to modeling chops to design expertise, with prizes that include professional contracts, cash money and even the chance to marry your soulmate.

Below, we select some of the best and worst examples from a cluttered field of reality competition shows. (Note that talent competitions such as American Idol and Dancing With the Stars, which feature contestants performing on a stage each week, have been excluded from consideration.) Unlike most lists we post on this site, these choices represent one person's opinion, rather than the critical consensus -- so feel free to add your own opinions at the conclusion of the article.

The 10 Best Reality Competition Shows
Show Network(s) Year(s)
1 The Amazing Race CBS 2001-present
What they're competing for: $1 million (shared by two people)

Arguably the best reality-based competition ever created — if you take into account those eight Emmys for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program — CBS’ The Amazing Race manages to be engaging, educational, and plain old interesting. Beyond the allure of the $1 million prize, contestants get to travel around the world while completing physical and mental challenges with a partner of their choosing. The couples rush from one international checkpoint to the next with an infectious sense of urgency that makes each episode pass in a flash. Embraced by critics and fans alike, The Amazing Race is that one reality show everyone has considered auditioning for.

2 Top Chef Bravo 2006-present
What they're competing for: $125,000 ($100,000 in earlier seasons), among other prizes

Competitive cooking never looked as good as it does on Top Chef, a foodie favorite that educates as much as it entertains. Its contestants are a truly talented bunch (well, maybe not this season), whose mouth-watering dishes make stomachs growl — and, occasionally, gag — via ingenious challenges that range from cooking with food out of a vending machine to setting up a full-service restaurant in 24 hours. Add to this some impressive guest judges of the Anthony Bourdain variety and you have the one show that could upset The Amazing Race’s eight-Emmy domination in the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program category.

3 Survivor CBS 2000-present
What they're competing for: $1 million

As the show that started it all, Survivor’s high ratings offered a convincing proof of concept that seemed to flood the reality competition field overnight. It also created a framework for the genre through its early experimentation with alliances, immunities, challenges and eliminations. Ten years and 22 seasons later, one would think that Survivor may soon be running out of exotic locales and tropical diseases to build its show around, but CBS has reportedly renewed it for another two seasons — proving that this old dog still has some new tricks to share.

4 Project Runway Bravo/Lifetime 2004-present
What they're competing for: Varied between seasons, but has included $100,000, presenting at New York’s Fashion Week and an editorial feature in Marie Clare, among others

Few series can boast creating catch phrases that enter the popular lexicon, but Project Runway’s “make it work” is one such battle cry. As the colorful contestants face design challenges that border on the impossible and picky judges whose criticism borders on the sadistic, making it work is the only thing that keeps them in the competition. Thankfully for the show, its producers managed to make negotiations with the networks and cast work well enough to return for an 8th season, which premieres this Thursday at 9pm on Lifetime.

5 Big Brother CBS 2000-present
What they're competing for: $500,000

With a version of the show airing in almost 70 countries, Big Brother might be the most popular reality competition on the planet. What makes it compelling is the fact that episodes are filmed by way of cameras that are implanted in the walls and ceilings of the Big Brother house, which encourages contestants to act more naturally than they would with a boom guy standing over them, and lets them whisper their secrets and betrayals in perceived privacy. It also gives audiences a very fly-on-the-wall feel that’s missing from other shows in the genre. The results should have psychologists scratching their heads for years, as Big Brother’s rats-in-a-cage format produces some very Lord of the Flies moments.

6 The Apprentice / The Celebrity Apprentice NBC 2004-present
What they're competing for: A $250,000 contract to run one of Trump’s companies / Money for charity

As a businessman, The Donald rarely missteps when it comes to making money. As producer and star of NBC’s The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice, he lets his benevolent side shine by helping others make money for charities, businesses and themselves — until he fires them. Though ratings have slipped in recent seasons, the two Apprentices still pack enough boardroom finger pointing, shifty project managers and marketing plans gone awry to make for compelling reality entertainment. Plus, Ivanka is really hot.

7 The Mole ABC 2001-04, 2008
What they're competing for: A six-figure cash prize, which varied depending on the competition

ABC's The Mole was easily one of the smartest reality shows on television, which probably led to its demise as all the rules surrounding its penalties, executions, eliminations, quizzes and missions were too much to keep track of. Still, it had its moment in the sun, including two celebrity seasons and one season hosted by Anderson Cooper. And, if petitioning fans get their way, it could be resurrected yet again.

8 The Bachelor / The Bachelorette ABC 2002-present
What they're competing for: Marriage to a reality TV soulmate

Shockingly, after 14 seasons of The Bachelor and six seasons of The Bachelorette, only one couple redeemed the prize and married the recipient of the final rose. The other couples have been less lucky, instead enduring messy breakups, tabloid tell-alls, embarrassing mugshots stemming from a domestic violence dispute and one notorious case of the bachelor dumping the winner in favor of the first runner-up, whom he ultimately married (in a televised ceremony, of course). Thankfully for audiences, the episodes are just as dramatic as their eventual fallout, rose ceremonies aside and included.

9 America's Next Top Model UPN/The CW 2003-present
What they're competing for: A $100,000 contract with Cover Girl Cosmetics, and a cover of Seventeen magazine

A show with probably as many detractors as fans, America’s Next Top Model has inspired a generation of girls to practice sashaying down the catwalk in hopes of becoming the fickle fashion industry’s next breakout star. The hopefuls must endure awkward challenges masked as modeling lessons, uncomfortable photo shoots (e.g., posing with a tarantula), runway competitions in ridiculous heels and the pressure cooker that comes with living in a mansion with 12 other wildly cocky yet insecure girls, which produces hilarious high drama that’s so wrong it’s right.

10 The Biggest Loser NBC 2004-present
What they're competing for: $250,000 (originally $100,000)

The Biggest Loser may be the most inspiring show on television, no doubt motivating countless American couch potatoes to join the gym and drop the pounds. Guided by two overly enthusiastic trainers, contestants are put through the physical wringer, with weekly weigh-ins and daily workouts that exercise them to the point of collapse. It can be brutal to watch -- and sometimes even boring as episodes tend to feel like a spy session at your local gym -- but few shows change their contestants’ lives as drastically as The Biggest Loser, whose drama, sweat, tears and smiles are as real as reality television gets.

The 5 Worst Reality Competition Shows
Show Network Year(s)
1 Paris Hilton's My New BFF MTV 2008-present
What they're competing for: Friendship with the socialite

Safer than being her new lover, Paris Hilton’s My New BFF has so far crowned four forever friends for the socialite -- two American, one British and one from Dubai. Given these chances, it’s a surprise that thousands of people are not auditioning for the coveted position, whose prize does not seem to extend beyond bragging rights. (Seriously, no cash incentive?) It’s also a surprise that the show has been turned into a global franchise, with versions slated for taping in Canada, Germany and Russia, ensuring that the jet-setter will have a friend for all seasons.

2 More to Love Fox 2009
What they're competing for: The heart of bachelor Luke

Renamed The Fatchelor by fans and critics, Fox’s More to Love followed chubby chaser Luke’s quest for love with 20 plus-sized women, who proved that you don’t need to be thin to be catty. The format parroted ABC’s The Bachelor to the letter, but with rings instead of roses and far more scenes of the contestants eating during the dinner dates. Predictably, the show ended in a engagement, which even more predictably ended after the cameras stopped rolling.    

3 The Swan Fox 2004
What they're competing for: Various prizes, including $50,000 cash

In this Fox series, “ugly ducklings” consult with plastic surgeons, personal trainers, cosmetic counselors and dentists to create a specially tailored, three-month program aimed at transforming them into beautiful “swans” for competition in a pageant. Too bad no one told them that this meant looking like tacky Vegas showgirls with big hair, bad highlights, fake boobs and sequined dresses.

4 Flavor of Love / Rock of Love VH1 2006-09
What they're competing for: The heart of Flavor Flav/Bret Michaels

In VH1’s ghetto-fied version of The Bachelor, rapper Flavor Flav looks for love in all the wrong places before finding it in season 3 with the baby mama of his seventh child (whom he married on that season’s reunion show). But don’t despair, because Flavor Flav’s propensity for procreation left us with plenty of spin-offs to keep us company, including Poison frontman Bret Michaels’ own sorry attempt at the same format, repackaged as Rock of Love.

5 Tool Academy VH1 2009-10
What they're competing for: $100,000

In VH1’s Tool Academy, self-centered douche bags are tricked into entering a competition for the title of Mr. Awesome by their equally shallow girlfriends. As it turns out, they are really entering the Tool Academy, which aims to turn them into decent boyfriends through a series of instructional counseling sessions. Think of is as a reform school for the men of Jersey Shore, which, now that we consider it, isn’t such a bad idea after all.

What do you think?

We've presented one person's picks for the best and worst reality competition shows; now, tell us yours: Which reality shows are your favorite and least favorite? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Comments (33)

  • Jayme  

    RuPaul's Drag Race is the best!

  • Mitch Tough  

    Average Joe rocked. And the European version was pretty cool, too. It's fun turning the tables on the "contestants." The Bachelorette has taken itself too seriously this year. No wonder all the dudes already have ladies on the side.

  • bob_newman  

    Where's Last Comic Standing? Great show...

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