FEF: Murray reflects on 20 years of “The Real World”

Bunim/Murray's Jonathan Murray reflected on 20 years of The Real World at the Factual Entertainment Forum in Santa Monica, telling attendees that he knew within the first 30 seconds of shooting in 1991, "we had something."
June 3, 2011

(Photo: Rahoul Ghose)

Bunim/Murray’s Jonathan Murray reflected on 20 years of <i>The Real World</i> at the Factual Entertainment Forum in Santa Monica yesterday, having being inducted into the Factual Entertainment Awards Hall of Fame the day before.

Speaking on the “Living In The Real World – The Evolution Of The Docusoap” panel moderated by realscreen editor Barry Walsh, Murray told attendees that he knew within the first 30 seconds of shooting in 1991, “we had something.”

The Real World is considered the original reality program, which has launched a legion of docusoaps since its first series launched in 1992. The show came about when Murray, chairman of Bunim/Murray Productions, and his late producing partner Mary Ellis Bunim, determined that they wanted to make a soap opera-type program, but that a scripted version was too expensive.

They showed a pilot to MTV, with the premise of seven young people put together into a house to see what happens, which is still the core of the series today, which has just seen its best ratings in four to five years for its 25th, Las Vegas-set season.

“In 1991, we put six people in a loft and started shooting. We knew within 30 seconds that we had someting,” said Murray.

After 25 seasons, the series has captured many dramatic moments. This season, one of the castmates’ gay porn past comes out to haunt him when his roommate girlfriend finds out, and in past iterations, memorable scenes have included the moment Danny from the Austin-set season found out his mother died on camera.

“We tell people when we cast them that we’re shooting everything for 17-18 weeks. Something might happen,” said Murray.

MTV Networks’ head of programming, David Janollari, said of the show: “It was the architect of modern reality shows today, especially on our channel.

“Not many shows in the history of TV have had 25 seasons and are still going strong. It’s so relevant and incredibly important,” he added. “Jersey Shore has to tip its hat to The Real World for inspiration.”

Murray was clear that not all 25 seasons were sunshine and roses. “Failure is a big motivator. Our DC season was soft creatively – we felt we’d missed the mark.”

After that season, he sat in on focus groups to retool the series and learn what audiences were really thinking, including the fact that they didn’t want to see arguments about politics or religion.

What he also discovered is that where, in previous seasons it was enough to have two or three characters with an interesting back story, now it was important to have almost all of the characters with great stories. “Every single person needs to have a homerun,” he said.

Janollari added: “Audiences could’ve [moved on to] Jersey Shore now, but they respected the show [The Real World]. It speaks to them a little bit more specifically.”

For Murray however, comparing his show to the pop culture juggarnaut Jersey Shore was like comparing apples to oranges. He said that on The Real World, audiences expect the castmates to learn from each other and grow over the course of the season, while on Shore, “they are who they are.”

Jim Johnston, Bunim/Murray’s VP of creative affairs, said that the series has never strayed from its documentary, fly-on-the-wall roots. “Over time we learned to have surveillance cams and that we needed to film 24 hours.”

Murray added that they try to be discreet when filming, and said you wouldn’t see trucks and vans parked out front of the Real World house. “Except at night you’ll see a very well lit house. It’s almost too well lit. From my house in Van Nuys, I can see the Bad Girls house,” he joked.

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