“I’ve sat through so many ceremonies with Project Runway where we are always the runner up, you know? It was so exciting to actually hear our named called and it was thrilling to go to the stage with our cast,” the veteran television producer and founder of Bunim/Murray Productions tells realscreen of the experience at the Creative Emmy Awards earlier this month where Born this Way took home the top prize for outstanding unstructured reality show.
Personal victory aside, Murray says it was the warm reception from his industry peers in the form of a standing ovation for the show’s seven young stars — all of whom have Down’s syndrome — that brought the evening’s sweetest moment.
“There was just such love for this show in that room. It was truly overwhelming.”
With the season two finale set to air Tuesday, Sept. 27, and a third season having just been picked up by A&E, Born This Way has steadily won over audiences with its positive message and groundbreaking vision of diversity on screen, according to Murray.
In season one, the series saw viewership trend upwards by 67% over the six-episode arc. It resonated particularly well with adults 25 to 54-years-old, growing 84% over the season.
The series is also among A+E Networks’ factual offerings at the upcoming MIPCOM in Cannes (Oct. 17-20), with the company making 10 new one-hour episodes available to the global marketplace.
At the heart of the show, Born This Way follows the lives of a diverse cast of stars, including Elena, Megan, Cristina, Rachel, Stephen, John and Sean, as they work to overcome challenges and achieve various life goals.
It’s the first time people with intellectual disabilities have been given a primary voice on a TV reality series — a deliberate move by producers, and one that echoes the early days when, in 1992, the now-iconic unscripted series The Real World (produced by Murray and Mary Ellis Bunim) first aired on MTV.
From the beginning, Murray says he’s felt a strong pull to put people on TV who aren’t normally given the spotlight.
On The Real World, for instance, that meant casting gay, lesbian and transgendered people, as well as those representing an array of American racial and social-economic diversity.
“I think you saw the power of that when we included Pedro Zemora in season three in San Francisco,” he says. Zemora, a Cuban-American, was the first openly gay, HIV-positive man on television.
Fast-forward to 2009 and Murray, already with a string of hits to his name, including Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Simple Life and Project Runway, was looking to recreate some of that same TV magic. He produced a pilot for A&E at the time called Perfectly Normal, which focused on a group of people with intellectual challenges.
The concept ultimately was not picked up, but it would prove to be the template for what is now Born This Way.
It would take another few years for the network to ask Murray to take another shot at the show.
“This was right after (the network) had success with Duck Dynasty and they were trying to find, what do they do now? They had tried some other shows trying to appeal to the Duck Dynasty crowd and it didn’t work, so they went back and went through everything they ever developed and realized they needed to come out with what felt 180 degrees away from Duck Dynasty, something that felt completely authentic and fresh,” he recalls.
“That’s when they said, ‘You know, we think the timing is right,’ so they gave us an order to do Born This Way.”
Looking back, Murray says the first iteration of the show was more contrived than the authentic, family friendly environment created on the current series. While the original pilot had everyone living together in a single house, Born This Way is deliberately shot more like a documentary and incorporates dual storylines featuring not only the cast of young adults, but also their parents, whose struggle to let go as their children seek to craft independent lives for themselves has proven as compelling as the show’s main stars.
Born This Way also focuses solely on individuals with Down’s syndrome, rather than those with a mixture of intellectual disabilities.
“What we found in the casting process is that there is a very tight-knit community of families who all have adult children with Down’s syndrome and it traverses the county line between Los Angeles County and Orange county, and we realized we would have a much stronger show if we focused just on that community,” says Murray of that choice.
But, even there, the show was careful to showcase families that brought diversity within the Down’s community.
Elena, for instance, was born in Japan “and, as her mother, Hiromi, says, there was almost shame for her for having a child that was not perfect in her society’s view. It’s taken Hiromi nearly 20 years to be comfortable with that, and you see that on the show. You see her trying to work through those issues,” says Murray.
John, meanwhile, is African-American from Los Angeles with a strong family unit, and Stephen has mosaic Down’s syndrome, a slightly different form of Down’s.
Murray says casting unknown people into starring roles is always a risk. But he also felt confident the show would find its audience given enough time on the airwaves.
“There are so many cable networks and so many shows, it is very rare for a show to go on the air and be an instant hit,” he says. “Even going back to (Keeping up with the Kardashians), which our company does, that was not an instant hit. That built to hit status.”
The show also required more nuanced adjustments to protect and respect the well-being of the cast, including working shorter hours compared to the 14-hour days some reality shows demand, and sometimes backing the cameras away during particularly emotionally difficult moments.
In a season two episode, for instance, Megan had a seizure while at the beach in Trinidad with fellow castmates Elena and Rachel. The situation was so serious, a showrunner had to jump into the water to pull the young woman to safety.
Rather than exploiting the immediate drama, says Murray, the cameras instead focused on Megan’s mother, who ran over to comfort her embarrassed daughter, reassuring her that she had nothing to apologize for.
“It was a powerful moment,” he says.
At the same time, Murray says the cast is not coddled — a direction affirmed by Anthony Shriver, an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities.
“(Shriver) told us that you cannot treat this cast as special. You treat them as you would any other cast member of a reality show.”
As the interview nears its conclusion, Murray reflects back on the Emmys and the lingering optimism he believes the experience has delivered to a broad world of television viewers. In his acceptance speech, he gave special credit to the network for supporting a program that is both entertaining and inspirational.
“I think so much of network TV, they are still so afraid of something being too earnest. The beauty of Born This Way is, yes, at times we are a little earnest, but we always puncture it with humor. If you watch our show, (the cast) is very funny,” he says.
But, no doubt, the ultimate power of the show runs much deeper than any trophy or triumph.
Murray recalls a moment, 17 years ago, when he and his partner Harvey were expecting their first child through an open adoption.
“If, at that time, I’d been told that that child was going to be born with Down’s syndrome, I would have stood back and been very fearful of what our future would be and what our child’s future would be,” he says, noting 80% of pregnancies are terminated following a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.
Today, his reaction would be totally different — an emotional change that has everything to do with the show’s young cast and their families. And he’s not the only one who feels this way.
“I know, because we are hearing from women and couples out there, who are finding themselves with a diagnosis that their baby will have Down’s syndrome, that they are having a different reaction than they would have before this show,” he says. “It is having an impact.”
Born This Way is produced by Bunim/Murray, with Murray, Gil Goldschein and Laura Korkoian as executive producers. Kasey Barrett serves as co-executive producer. Executive producers for A&E Network are Elaine Frontain Bryant Bryant, Shelly Tatro and Drew Tappon.
Pictured: The cast of Born This Way, courtesy of A&E