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'The Real World' Keeps Turning: How MTV's Hit Survived to Season 29

"We didn't think the show would last even half of one season," says the reality pioneer Jonathan Murray

February 4, 2014 11:50 AM ET
 Jonathan Murray
Jonathan Murray
Ann Summa/Getty Images

It might be a stretch to call Jonathan Murray the father of reality TV, but it's not a preposterous suggestion. Along with his partner Mary-Ellis Bunim (who passed away in 2004), Murray created MTV's The Real World in 1992 and went on to produce everything from Project Runway to Keeping Up With the Kardashians

MTV turns 30: a look back at the network's earliest days

While it's true that the 1973 PBS television proto-reality show An American Family pre-dates The Real World by nearly two decades, almost no series followed in its wake and Murray and Bunim inarguably ushered in the wave of reality shows that took over American television at the turn of the millennium. Most of those shows lasted just a few years, but The Real World just began airing its 29th season on MTV. That's even more incredible when you realize that few MTV shows even make it to Season Five.

We spoke to Jonathan Murray about all the big changes the show has undergone this season, its watershed moments and its prospects for the future.

When you first started with The Real World all those years ago, did you ever imagine it would last even 10 years?
No. I mean, I don't think we thought it was going last even half of one season. It was a big social experiment, putting seven people into a house to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. What would happen if you put people who don't normally live together into one house?

This came at a time when MTV didn't do a lot of programming other than some game shows and, obviously, music video segments. No one knew what was going to happen. Obviously, it met a need that was there and wasn't being addressed. And for the first time, there was a television show where young people spoke the way they spoke in real life. It wasn't some 40 year old writing a story. It was taken from what really happens when you're at that age, when you're trying to figure out who you are, when you're making mistakes and learning from them. And it worked.

Why do you think it took other networks so long to copy the formula?
At first, people didn't even understand the show. There were so many people who thought it was scripted. They just had no conception that you could put people into a house, film everything that happens and out of that you could actually edit together episodes.  

I also think people thought, "Well, that wouldn't work for us. That's MTV and our audience wouldn't accept that." It really wasn't until the year 2000, when you had the success of Big Brother and Survivor, that the American networks woke up and were willing to take a risk.

Tell me why you made so many changes to the Real World this season.
We're a little bit a victim of our own success. The idea, again, was that we were gonna put seven diverse people together and that would result in conflict , and out of that conflict would come growth. Well, we've done that for so long that our audience is used to diversity.

I like to think that maybe The Real World had a part in making this the most tolerant, open-minded generation ever. So by now, the fact that a gay guy was living with straight people, or that a black woman from Harlem was living with a white girl from the suburbs — it quite honestly wasn't so fresh. But I do still think there's something about the concept of putting people in the same house that normally wouldn't live together. It can still produce good television.

We just had needed a way to get people's attention, especially in a world of Duck Dynasty and Jersey Shore. These shows are just so loud that young people feel compelled to check them out. And so we needed a loud premise. We came up with this idea of focusing on the exes. When you're 21 or 22, your ex is usually your first love. It's the person you're going to measure every future relationship by. There's almost a sense of possession that you have with your ex and that they have to you. It's a really intense thing.

We came up with this idea of casting our usual seven diverse people, all of whom had significant exes. And then unbeknownst to them, four weeks into shooting, they were gonna come home and find out that their exes had moved in. And we knew from our experience at that point we could have two couples in the house. Out of the seven people, two couples had formed. When the exes arrived, it just blows everything out of the water.

Did you approach the exes prior to the start of filming about moving in? How did it all work logistically?
Logistically, it was just incredibly complicated. We had to get the exes past legal. It wasn't like it was back in 1992. Today, everybody has to have a background check. Everybody has to talk to a psychologist. Everybody wants to make sure that the people who do this are ready to have their lives taped and be on TV.

We did all this under the guise that perhaps we wanted them to visit the house at some point. We never said, "Move in." But we had a sense they'd be open to it. It was a challenging situation and definitely rolling the dice. It was taking the high wire without a net, but sometimes the best stuff happens when you take those kinds of risks.

About two weeks before they moved in, we approached them and basically started to talk them through the idea. Amazingly, all of them kept the secret. And for the last several days, before they moved in, we sent the cast out on an off-the-grid vacation so they would not have access to e-mail or telephone calls. Amazingly, we pulled it off. They came back from the little off-the-grid vacation, walked in and found all their exes had moved in.

Did you worry some of them would be so horrified they'd just walk off the show?
Absolutely. We were prepared for that. We had our producers there and our field team was absolutely ready to deal with that. There was definitely a three- or four-hour period where people were talking about quitting and going home. They said, "This isn't what I signed up for" and all that. But we talked them through it and made them understand that this was our way of looking at exes and people's relationships to their exes. Ultimately, they all stayed. 

The show also feels very different this season. You can frequently see the camera crew and the sound guys. You can hear the producers ask questions to the cast during the interviews. The cast also talk about the fact they're filming a show.
In a world where TV seems to be getting more unreal, we wanted to sort of show off the fact that this is still very much a docu-series, a fly-on-the-wall kind of approach where we give them a place to live. Yes, we set up the premise in that we've given them a place to live and, yes, we're going to have their exes move in with them. We don't give them lines to read. We don't orchestrate things. We wanted to show that off. We decided to show some of the interviewing, because often what is not said to a question is more interesting than what is said.  

It's refreshing. So many reality shows pretend they're not reality shows and they feel phony. It's nice to see an acknowledgment of the camera.
Lately, people who are doing reality shows are trying to be cinematic. They're shooting the scene from two different directions, like they were making an independent feature. And to me, it starts to feel false. I think some of the things that made Real World so fresh is that we don't do re-takes. 

As Jersey Shore went on, the cast got more and more famous, but they never even hinted at that. It just felt increasingly phony.
Right. And we're up against Duck Dynasty, which clearly is as very different kind of reality show. It's shot beautifully and the interviews always have a punchline. We wanted to show how we were different than that.

Did you worry that the show was going to be canceled before this season? I know the ratings weren't great last year and 28 seasons is an eternity for MTV.
Yeah. We're on Season 29, so we've been living on borrowed time for a long time. We had a great show last season with Portland. The cast was great. I just think our audience was saying, "We've seen this. You need to give us a new reason to watch." We had to make it relevant for today's audience. We were still getting women in their 30s and 40s. We needed to get back into the game with people in their teens and 20s. 

Are you seeing signs that it's working?
Yeah, we're actually seeing great growth. This season started up above Portland, ratings-wise and it's grown every single week. We're way up as far as online buzz and every other way you calculate success. We're all feeling really good, and the exes haven't even moved in yet.

Are you worried it's going to be hard to pull off a surprise next season? The cast is going to show up suspecting there's some kind of twist coming.
They do keep doing Undercover Boss over and over. . .We are looking at ideas. There were ideas that we considered for this season that were very good.  We've raised the bar and we will have to come up with something that is exciting and engaging, but still meets the core DNA of the show. We don't want to jump the shark. I think this year we succeeded in doing something fresh that didn't jump the shark.

The Challenge is still going strong, right?
Yeah. As long as there's an audience that wants to watch it and MTV wants to keep it on, we'll keep making it. 

Is another season of The Real World green-lit yet?
No, nothing has been confirmed yet. But the ratings have being good and growing, so we've started having some internal discussions. If MTV wants another season, we want to be prepared.

It's crazy to think about a 30th season. Does anything else on MTV even come close to that?
There was a period when Laguna Beach and The Hills were the fresh, shiny things, or the periods when Jersey Shore or The Osbournes were new. We'd occasionally get notes from the network saying, "Can you make it look a little more like The Hills? Can you maybe have more musical montages? Can you shoot it cleaner?" It's funny to think we've gone through as many periods as they've gone through.

At some point, we took it to an hour from 30 minutes because that's where shows went. Ultimately, we've found that if we go back to what we do really well, which is telling relatable stories of young people figuring stuff out, that's what our audience really wants. And this year we just put it into a shinier package with a bigger hook. 

I think back to that original cast in New York. It would be nice to see something with them again. Maybe put them all back into a loft for a week or something, though I can't imagine that would make any sense.
I don't know doing it that way is best and I'm not sure they'd be willing to do it. We've had some reunions over the years. If we're fortunate to get renewed for Season 30, I'm sure they'll be talk of a reunion. I'm not sure, however, the current audience on MTV is interested in seeing a reunion of those people. 

It's funny. I'm at Realscreen right now, which is this TV convention they do in Washington, D.C. I just ran into Jason Cornwell, who was on Real World: Boston and he's a successful casting agent now for reality shows. We caught up over coffee and he was telling me what an impact the show had on his life. He sort of credits everything that happened to him afterwards in terms of where he's ended up, the women he met, the fact he had a job, with being on Real World. It's actually nice to hear that. Sometimes people tell me that being on the show ruined their life. 

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