The Brains Behind ‘The Real World’ on the TV Show That Changed America
The man who helped invent reality TV reflects on why ‘The Real World’ and spinoff series ‘The Challenge’ still matter more than 30 seasons later.
In 1992, The Real World debuted with one simple, visionary goal: to find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real. More than two decades later, filling an apartment with cameras and inviting seven 20-somethings to move in is textbook reality TV programming. But when Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim of Bunim/Murray Productions first pitched their idea to MTV, it was unlike anything else on air; a dangerously addictive combination of fly-on-the-wall documentary filming and storytelling techniques cribbed from daytime soaps.
According to Bunim/Murray co-founder and Real World co-creator Jon Murray, who essentially helped invent reality TV, the genre “was not the overnight sensation that people assume it was.” Murray tells The Daily Beast that he and his partner Mary-Ellis “went for about five years before The Real World hit the air, quite honestly waiting for the phone to ring. We were out trying to sell reality shows before—well, I don’t think people understood what reality was.”
In fact, when Bunim and Murray first met with MTV, it was with the intention of creating a scripted soap opera called St. Mark’s Place, focusing on the lives of a group of young Lower East Siders. “But then you realize how much a scripted drama will cost,” Murray laughs. “Actors, writers, directors, sets—they wanted to explore it, and we had a great script, but the budget was like sticker shock for them.” Bunim and Murray came back to MTV with a cheaper gamble—still focusing on young people starting out in the city, but throwing away the script.
Murray recalled pitching the unscripted show at breakfast and getting the go-ahead to shoot a pilot by noon: “They ordered a pilot and over a long Memorial Day weekend we shot this pilot, and we had six people in it. We put up little signs in laundromats where you could tear off a number and call it if you’re interested in this experiment of living with some people that you didn’t know…and we set up down on Broadway and Spring street I think—or Broadway and Prince, I can’t remember which. And we were all huddled in a back room watching on little monitors these cameras and the signal coming from them, and it was almost instantaneous that something special was happening here.”
Twenty-five years later, Murray still remembers little things that stood out, from the organic conversations—“not written by some writer who thought that this was the way young people talk”—to the way that the cast members moved, perching on window sills or hovering on the edge of a piece of furniture. “It was just so fresh,” Murray exclaims.
To match the unprecedented footage, Murray and Bunim experimented with the fundamental assumptions of how TV is made. “We broke all the rules of how you edit a show together,” Murray says. “We used jump cuts to get us from one place to the next and we used music right off the MTV channel to score it.” While Bunim and Murray’s creation tested “through the roof,” it took MTV nine months to work up the courage to take such a huge programming leap. “I think on the last day they could pick it up to series they picked it up,” Murray explains. It was an immediate hit.
While The Real World would ultimately be credited with ushering in the reality TV era, at the time, many critics failed to grasp the vision; an emblematic Washington Post review called the series “something new in excruciating torture from the busy minds at MTV,” urging cast members to get “a real job.”
“Nobody could quite figure out what we were doing or how we were doing it,” Murray admits. “And quite honestly we weren’t always completely sure what we were doing either.”
“After it went on the air and was an immediate success, Mary-Ellis and I would be at Warner Bros. or these different places and people would say, ‘So basically you rehearse all week, and then you shoot the show?’ Nobody in Hollywood really understood it,” he says.
But while the rest of the world was still catching up, Bunim and Murray were already working to ensure that The Real World stayed relevant. “At that point we made the decision that each season of The Real World would be a fresh cast and we’d move to a new location. And again that broke the rules of television, because normally you keep the same cast, you keep the same location. But breaking those rules I think is probably why the show has stayed on the air for so long. It’s allowed us to reinvent the show every season.”
Bunim/Murray’s appetite for reinvention eventually resulted in The Challenge, a Real World/Road Rules spinoff that’s airing its thirtieth season finale on Tuesday. The series, which premiered in 1998, was conceived of as a home for Bunim/Murray alums who weren’t quite ready for reality. “The Challenge started because we had all these amazing people who had been on The Real World, and at the end of the season they were done,” Murray explains, “And we were like, wow, they’re just such interesting people and our viewers love them, is there a way we can bring them back to the channel? So we came up with this challenge idea, and the very first one was a six-episode Road Rules: All Stars.
“That’s actually where Sean Duffy, who was in the Boston season, met Rachel Campos, who was in the San Francisco season,” he notes. “And they later went on to get married and I think they’ve got six or seven kids and he’s a congressman now from Wisconsin. Over the years, people have followed these cast members’ lives as they’ve fallen in love, fallen out of love, got married, got divorced…It’s sort of fascinating because the viewers come to each season with so much knowledge about these people and they’re already so invested in them. And then each season, the cast members come into it having experienced other seasons, but in order to keep them on their toes we have to come up with a new game or a new theme.”
As Bunim/Murray Chairman and CEO Gil Goldschein notes, The Challenge was also ahead of the reality TV curve, premiering a few years before Survivor. “That was the first reality competition show in the ’90s,” he boasts. “Then the networks got involved with Survivor and Big Brother and other competition shows.”
While Bunim/Murray pride themselves on adaptability, their core techniques are more or less unchanging: recruit an interesting, diverse cast, and get out of their way. According to Murray, “We were always going to cast for diversity, and we were going to reach out to marginalized communities who hadn’t been featured on television.” This was partly an issue of corrective representation, since “in 1992 television was still pretty white, there weren’t gay people on it.” But it was also a matter of making good television; according to Murray, “If you cast diverse, interesting people, they will bring interesting stories with them.”
One of The Real World’s most groundbreaking story lines came courtesy of a daring casting decision; 1994’s The Real World: San Francisco famously featured Pedro Zamora, an openly gay, HIV-positive contestant. While Murray was actively looking to work with the HIV/AIDS community at the time, Zamora’s application was unsolicited. “AIDs was the big health issue at that time, and at that point there really was no treatment other than AZT which wasn’t doing much of a job to help people,” he recalls. “So we felt we had to include someone and we did a lot of outreach in San Francisco looking for someone, but then I got a letter out of the blue from this kid who called himself Peter Zamora from Miami, who was Latino, who had come in the Mariel boatlift, whose mother died when he was a high school student, and he was just exploring his sexuality and he ended up contracting HIV, and he found out at his high school blood drive.
“When he wrote us,” Murray says, “at that point he had sort of turned that around by trying to wake up his fellow young people about this disease and the importance of safe sex and was campaigning for better treatments. And in his letter he just wanted a chance to go to San Francisco, perhaps fall in love, and just talk about this issue. And he included a couple of pictures of himself. He was matinee-idol good looking, and I handed the letter over to Mary-Ellis and we knew that he was going to be the center of our show, and that we just needed to find the other six people.”
While Murray is proud of the cultural conversations The Real World has sparked, he credits his cast with keeping the series on the cutting edge. “We cast Danny Roberts on Real World: New Orleans, a young gay man, and between the time we cast him and the time he showed up, he got a boyfriend who happened to be in the military. The boyfriend wanted to come visit him. It was during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, so our director was out on the street negotiating with the boyfriend that we would blur him, and I was on the phone to MTV saying look, we want to have this guy on here, will you allow us to blur him on the show because we cannot reveal to the military who he is? And MTV said of course. So that story came to us and was a very powerful story, and showed just how stupid Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was.” He concludes, “We just followed the cast where they took us. And the key was being brave about how you cast a show like this, and be willing to take chances.”
The Real World premiered decades before conversations about sexual assault and reality TV exploitation reached a national level. On October 27, 2011, Real World alum Tonya Cooley filed a complaint alleging that she was raped by her Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Ruins cast-mates on set. According to Jezebel, “The complaint says that production ‘condoned, encouraged, and ratified’ inappropriate behavior of the male cast members toward female cast members and provided copious amounts of alcohol and little food to get ‘participants to engage in scandalous behavior that would increase viewer ratings.’”
Murray is candid about the relative lawlessness of the early reality TV landscape. “There were a lot of years where we were sort of doing it ourselves,” he says. “As reality matured, networks started to have risk management people, and other people who would set certain standards for that network, basically how they wanted you to handle different situations. All with the idea of, if it’s only TV, we don’t want anybody to get hurt while making it.
“But for us, on The Real World, we also wanted to capture what it’s like to be a young person, so we don’t want to sanitize it too much,” he continues. “We don’t want it to be the story of the cast plus the producers who are making all their decisions for them. So it’s a delicate line and it’s a conversation we’re always having with MTV, because we do want to capture the reality of being 18, 19, 20, 21, but we want everyone to be safe.”
With a slate that extends from The Real World and The Challenge to Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Project Runway, Bunim/Murray is still up on the latest reality TV trends. Goldschein even offered The Daily Beast a brief overview of the industry’s past few decades, summarizing the evolution from “pure docu” to reality-competition shows to music and dancing showdowns in the 2000s. “Then I think you also saw reality get to the point where you had these [shows like] The Hills, some of those more produced shows that were really more lightly scripted,” he continues. “Within the past two years I think the pendulum has begun to swing back, back to those early days where it is more docu”, he notes, citing Netflix’s Making A Murderer and Bunim/Murray’s Born This Way.
“Probably in the early 2000s, those shows would have been too earnest, or those shows from a network or buyer perspective might not have brought enough drama,” he muses. “I think if you look at today’s audience, the millennials, I think they want authenticity, they want genuine programs. So you look at some of those docu-series that are performing very well, I think they’re performing well because that’s what the audience wants to see right now.”