With the premiere of its 25th season on March 9, MTV’s The Real World has reached a milestone that precious few television series get to attain. It’s been lauded as the granddaddy of modern reality television, and for good reason. Here, realscreen talks to three of the key figures behind the scenes, including series co-creator and exec producer Jon Murray of Bunim-Murray Productions, about the show’s history, highlights, production challenges over the years and the legacy of one of reality TV’s longest-running franchises.
IN THE BEGINNING
In the late 1980s Jon Murray had moved from a career in TV news to working for a television rep firm in New York City, HRP Inc. Selling an idea for a TV show to New World Television, he first met Mary-Ellis Bunim, who was heading up the company’s syndication efforts following a stint producing the soap Santa Barbara. They then decided to work together and produced several pilots.
One of those projects, brought to them by their agent at William Morris, Mark Atkin, was a pilot for a scripted series for MTV.
Jon Murray: Mary-Ellis really took the lead on this because of her background in scripted, daytime programming. We developed a script with MTV called St. Mark’s Place, after the street in the Lower East Side. It was great – everyone was happy with the script but MTV wasn’t sure that scripted TV was the right thing for them to be doing, and they certainly were concerned with the economics of it. Up to this point, they’d been running mostly free music videos. So they ended up deciding it didn’t make sense for them.
At the same time, we were developing something with Fox called American Families, which was jumping off from the landmark PBS series from 1973 [An American Family]. Our series was about following different families through a crisis or transition, but very reality-oriented in terms of choosing the family. It wasn’t documentary, it was more ‘reality’ because we were stepping in and nudging the story along. So when MTV said they didn’t want to go ahead with St. Mark’s Place, Mary-Ellis and I started talking and asked ourselves, what if we worked on an unscripted show about young people starting their lives in New York? What if we found six diverse young people, stuck them in a loft and followed their lives the way the filmmakers had followed the Loud family’s lives?
We met with Lauren Corrao, the development exec at MTV, at the Mayflower Hotel for breakfast and laid out this crazy idea. And she looked at us and said “Oh my God, I lived that when I first moved to New York.” So we had a receptive audience. She got it.
By lunchtime she’d called us back and said, “I’ve talked to Doug Herzog [then MTV's SVP, programming, now president of MTV Networks' Entertainment Group] and he loves it. Let’s do it.” So on Memorial Day weekend in 1991, we moved six people into a loft on Broadway in Soho and we filmed over the long weekend… There was an energy, there was debate, there was flirting, all sorts of stuff. We were filming them in the house, on the streets, in restaurants… We shot this on Hi 8 and we had the cameras hard-wired to a little control room that we were all tucked away into, in the kitchen. We all just looked at each other and said, “This works. There’s nothing like this on television.”
THE FIRST SEASON
Having tested the pilot with its audience, after nine months, MTV ordered 13 half-hour episodes. This time, to find a seven-member cast, Murray, Bunim and team extended their search to find a wider range of cast members. The search brought them to Austin, Texas and Birmingham, Alabama.
Murray: In Birmingham, that’s where I found Julie Oliver, who would be our ‘fish out of water.’ She came to an open call we did at a radio station and was so candid and funny and open, I knew we’d found our centerpiece for the show. We went home with her as she went to pack up and leave to move to New York, and there’s a great scene where she gets into an argument with her dad. He tells her, “I have people in New York who can keep an eye on you, and they’ll be able to tell me if you’re growing your hair long.” And she says, “Dad, if I want to wear my hair down to my butt, I can!” Then he says, “Julie! When did you start saying ‘butt’?”
It was 10 times better than the pilot. It premiered and shocked the network because it went from a 0.3, which is what the music videos had, to a 0.9. It proved that an MTV audience would show up for a specific show. There was a piece on the NBC Nightly News, there was a two-page spread in the New York Times Arts & Leisure, there was a six- or-eight page spread in Entertainment Weekly… Everybody was talking about it. People were saying to us, “You script it, don’t you? You tell them what to do, don’t you?” And we’d just say, “No, we just shoot what happens.”
The strange thing was no one was sure that we’d do more than one season, as MTV was all about being fresh and new. But it was the people in the sales department there who said, “You have to do it again.” So we went to Venice, California and it did even better.
Then we went to San Francisco, where we had the season with Pedro [Zamora] and Puck [David Rainey]. The show really broke out that season. That’s where we ended up on the news pages, Clinton was talking about Pedro – hell, The New Yorker even wrote a review. At that point it was like, “Okay, this could go on for a while.”
Pedro Zamora, a young man from Miami, wrote a letter to Murray to pitch himself as a cast member for The Real World: San Francisco. Murray was taken with Zamora’s story – leaving Cuba for America on the Mariel Boat Lift with his family, losing his mother when he was 13, and the life-changing event that would bring him to the show.
Murray: From the start the show was about diversity. When we were going to go to San Francisco, it was 1994, and I’d lost a number of friends to AIDS. So I said if we were going there, we’d have to include someone in our cast who was HIV positive, as it was a hugely important issue.
We realized from the beginning that we would need to do outreach for the show, because most of the people who would send us letters or come to open calls would be white, suburban kids because that was mostly who was watching the channel. So we reached out to minority communities and different socio-economic communities, and for San Francisco, we reached out to the AIDS/HIV community.
We got a letter from Pedro, who was in Miami – he’d moved there from Cuba as part of the Mariel Boat flotilla when he was six years old. He’d found out when he was in high school at the age of 17, when they did a blood drive, that he was HIV positive. Rather than wallowing in that, he decided he was going to do something, and he dedicated his life to raising awareness, promoting safe sex and fighting for the rights of HIV positive people, for them to live their lives fully.
We got this amazing letter from him and he was so charismatic.
I had dinner with him before we cast him to make it clear that being on a reality show is stressful, and that he needed to give it a lot of thought. He immediately came back and said, “I’ve laid down in front of the White House to protest the Reagan administration. This is no more stressful than anything I’ve done.”
MOVING FORWARD AND CHALLENGES
Tragedy struck the program and Bunim/Murray Productions when, in 2004, Mary-Ellis Bunim passed away at 57 after a long battle with breast cancer. In a statement, Murray said the company would endeavor to “honor her memory by remaining committed to her ideals of creativity, adventure and excellence, both on the screen and in our lives.”
Here, we meet two long-serving EPs for the series: Jim Johnston, executive producer and showrunner for seasons six and 16-25, and Jacquelyn French, EP for MTV from season eight to present day.
Johnston: I knew the show really well by season six. I knew Jon and Mary-Ellis before they’d come up with the idea for the show, and we had offices close to each other in LA. They’d tell us what they were doing and it sounded like a really interesting project to me. And those first three seasons, I watched religiously like everybody else.
Murray: Part of what has kept The Real World fresh is we broke the cardinal rule of television – we change our cast every year and our location. So to the producers of Two and a Half Men, I say: it is possible (laughs). We were all scared to death going from season one to season two and wondering if people were going to embrace the new cast, but they did. To some extent, that’s played out in other reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor – we sort of set that trend.
French: [In terms of a challenging season] Chicago comes to mind. If I remember correctly, they didn’t want us there and it made production very difficult. There were small riots during the build.
Johnston: I tend to say that whatever season I’ve just finished is my favorite location. I’m the showrunner, the guy on the ground, and I go there for eight months. You end up making great relationships with the people there and when you leave you say to yourself, “Wow, I was beginning to call that place home.” I have to say that in the last year, we did season 24 in New Orleans and that city really stole my heart.
I even liked Key West. We were there during that fateful hurricane season. During the eight months, we’d experienced five hurricanes. First day of shooting was when Katrina hit Key West unexpectedly on its way to New Orleans. We were there for Rita and probably the one that did the most damage, Wilma… part of the show was that we had to evacuate and keep shooting. We evacuated to Fort Lauderdale only to find out that the eye of Wilma actually hit the hotel we were in and the hotel had to be shut down – [we had] rather dramatic footage.
Murray: It’s sort of like working without a net. We’re documenting the kids’ lives and we as adults don’t want to step in and make the tough decision for them, yet we do want everyone to make it safely through.
There was the time we got a call from Danny Jamieson’s father in Austin, and he said that Danny’s mother had just passed away and he needed to talk to his son. We said that he was out and not reachable but that he would be coming back and he should call again in an hour. So then you’re thinking, “Oh my God.”
We say to the cast when we go through the interviewing process, “We’re documenting your life and anything can happen in that time – you could lose someone who’s important to you, you could be injured, and that’s all part of our story. We’ll try to be sensitive, but we want to be there for that.” So when that call came in, the cameraman stayed, gave Danny some room, recorded it and followed him into the main room when he told the other roommates.
FINDING THE RIGHT CAST
French: People have often suggested that we cast for stereotypes, but really, we’re just looking for the most interesting people with the most interesting stories. No two people are alike… We look for diversity and for people who will be able to learn and grow – or not – from each other and from the experience. It’s often about the aggregate.
Of course, the first thing we look for is [a group of] people who will be willing to open up their lives for the cameras.
Murray: In general, we look for people who are verbal, charismatic, attractive and have something interesting to say. They don’t have to have “model” looks, but they do have to have an interesting or intriguing look that makes you want to spend time with them. It’s great for docusoaps like The Real World if they arrive with an interesting story that is already in motion, like Ryan [Conklin] who arrived at Brooklyn still coming to terms with his recent service in Iraq or Katelynn [Cusanelli] who recently had sexual reassignment surgery. Generally, we want a diverse cast, from different backgrounds and life experiences as it always adds energy and potential conflict which results in story and growth.
French: We definitely come across people who are just looking to “perform,” but it becomes evident pretty quickly in the casting process. I think we’ve been successful at weeding those people out.
Also, you can’t perform 24/7 for three months. The real person will always come out.
Murray: I think TV was a little sleepy when we first went on the air, and The Real World – and later Survivor, Big Brother and American Idol – have added some needed energy. I think it’s raised the competition level and made the people who do scripted do it better.
I’m proudest of the stories that our cast members have brought to our viewers. Whether it’s Pedro dealing with HIV, or Ryan dealing with the after-effects of having served in Iraq, these stories have made our viewers more understanding of people who have had different lives than themselves. In its inclusion of gays and lesbians the show was a trailblazer and I think has done a lot to promote tolerance and inclusion. Interestingly enough, other reality shows like Survivor and Amazing Race have continued this.
French: I think our legacy will be twofold. First, we introduced our audience to new people and new situations. And second, we reflected their own lives back to them. Maybe people don’t think of it this way, but real life happens to these kids while we’re in production. In Austin, Danny lost his mother in the middle of taping. It doesn’t get more real than that, and our viewers went through the grieving process with him.
In Brooklyn, Ryan was unexpectedly called back to Iraq. For those of our viewers who had friends and family in the military, it was a very relatable experience. And for those who didn’t, I’m sure it made war just that much more real.
Johnston: The show could go on forever because the format works. We’re not really making that big a deal about 25 seasons because the audience changes every several years. It’s for young people and that group keeps changing. But it’s funny – there’s always a season that someone relates to from their teens and twenties.
Going from child to adult, those years are always challenging. That’s where you learn about life, that’s where you make mistakes. And that drama is always inherently there.