MTV is in a bit of a rut these days: The TRL reboot hasn't managed to get teenagers to put down their cellphones and turn on the network after school like it's still 1999; ambitious series like The Shannara Chronicles never found a mass audience; and their best "fresh" idea was sending the Jersey Shore crew (minus Sammi Sweetheart) back down to Miami. Other than Floribama Shore, whose connection with audiences caught many by surprise, the latest crop of shows have mostly tanked. (To be fair, the network has experienced an overall ratings boost in the past few year.) But there's one very continual bright spot in the MTV universe that's never got anywhere close to the attention that it deserves: The Challenge.
The competition series began as the Real World/Road Rules Challenge in 1998 – pitting alumni of the two reality shows against each other – but it was renamed since there's been no Road Rules since 2007 and The Real World is on life support. Players in The Challenge now come from other reality shows like Are You The One?, Big Brother, Ex on the Beach and the MTV UK hit Geordie Shore.
Its 31st incarnation – The Challenge: Vendettas – began airing on January 2nd and is consistently near the top of the cable ratings, often beating heavy-hitters like The Rachel Maddow Show, Sportscenter and Tucker Carlson Tonight. Each season is slightly different than the previous one; the twist this time out, players are competing against "enemies" and can earn "grenades" that can cripple fellow players. (Not literally. Yet.) Many of the same players return year after year – the most notorious being Johnny "Bananas" Devenanzio, an ex-Real World: Key West cast member who's been on 16 incarnations, won a record six times and raked in over $685,000. No matter who the producers stick him in a house with, Bananas always winds up running the whole show like he's Don Corleone.
We spoke with co-creator Jonathan Murray along with Julie Pizzi, the President of Entertainment & Development for Bunim-Murray Productions, about the ongoing phenomenon that is The Challenge.
There used to be long gaps between seasons – it now seems like a new season begins right before the last one ends.
Jonathan Murray: The Challenge goes back to 1998, so there actually have been periods where we did one season right after another. We were literally in production on the next one while airing a previous one. We now have the original and also a spinoff [The Challenge: Champs vs. Stars], so I think that may make it seem like it’s on the air more.
Julie Pizzi: Right now we’re shooting two Challenges and two Champs vs. Stars a year. The network has had so much success [with the show] in the last five years – there’s a huge appetite for it, both in social media and on the channel, for it, so they’ve been kind of keeping us in the rotation.
Murray: I think it’s part of a trend where you’ve seen the strength of some of these older formats and recognized names. With The Challenge, you’ve got cast members who viewers have grown up with. They've watched them as they’ve been through various phases of their lives: marriages, divorces, health threats, getting thrown off the show, getting back on the show. It's the longest running soap opera on TV.
It really is a soap opera. New viewers must have such a hard time sorting though everything, since so many of the characters have such long back stories.
Pizzi: What the network tried to do in the last couple of seasons is add some new people, so that there could be some new storylines that started on other shows.
Let's talk about this. This is the first season we're getting people from Big Brother, Ex on the Beach and even Geordie Shore, which didn't air in America.
Pizzi: It was really MTV's decision. They were like, "How do we use franchises that we have across the globe and sort of integrate them [into this]?" We were shooting the show in Spain anyway, so it was like: "We're going to be in Europe…" It was a great opportunity to introduce them. And it was a risk, but we found that they brought so much comedy and they were all very enthusiastic about it. Also, we're lucky because the cast that does The Challenge regularly actually love to do it. They want to be asked back. And it was great to bring on the people from Geordie Shore. The kids that came over from the U.K. really had a great time and they got competitive fast.
How do you know that someone is Challenge-worthy? How do you look at an entire cast of, say, a recent Real World and decide, for example, that Kailah [Casillas from The Real World: Go Big or Go Home] is the one for it?
Murray: In my experience over the years, they have to be a very competitive person – not "Oh, I just like being around. It's just fun." You want a person who takes some ego satisfaction from winning.
There must be times where you don't truly know if someone will work until filming starts.
Pizzi: A lot of times we start with 28, maybe 32 characters. The show has a natural weeding out process – so if you're not competitive and you're not good at the game, you get eliminated. Only the strongest really do survive.
Murray: We sometimes get rid of three guys and three girls in the very first episode. We have conversations where we look back not only at the original season of The Real World or some other reality show, but we're aware of things like their Twitter wars with other regular Challenge cast members. We know when they arrive they're going to have to defend those words. Shane [Landrum] was someone that had been critical of some people on the show; when he showed up, it was exciting since he turned out to be a pretty good player.
But did you worry about bringing in so many people from outside shows?
Pizzi: No. To be honest, I think part of what was exciting for us is that it sort of brings in a new audience and it also freshens it up for our cast. Take somebody like Bananas: He looks at who the competition is based on the franchise that exists. Then you bring in new people that outsize him – and he doesn’t actually know how good they’re going to be. It sort of ups the game for our cast as well.
Let's talk about Johnny. In your mind, what makes him such a great player?
Murray: First of all, he is one of the most competitive people on the show. Bananas comes prepared to win. If you watch him sometimes, he not only gets involved with the drama, he’s a bit of a puppet master [with it] as well. He'll see something developing and he's looking at it purely from a competition standpoint, because if he get these people to fight each other or do something stupid and get kicked off, it just helps him. He’s pretty ruthless in his approach, yet there's something about him that's so likable that he gets away with it.
The other thing I would say about him is he is that I'm not sure many people would have had the guts to basically take all of the money and leave Sarah [Rice] with nothing that season when the two of them won as a pair. Most people would have done the politically correct thing and Johnny just said that it's a job to him. He shows up, it's his job, and why would he walk away form that money?
Pizzi: He's just unapologetic.
Murray: I also think he knew he would become infamous from that decision.
You're talking about the finale of Rivals III where Johnny was given the chance to steal his partner Sarah's money after the final challenge. Was he just given that opportunity because she had screwed him over in a prior season?
Murray: No. That was set up in preproduction. But we thought it was a delicious twist in that these rivals had to come together to run, but this would be the true test of their relationship. Had they reached the point where they could do something selfless for each other?
Is he guaranteed a spot for the indefinite future?
Pizzi: No, but we do enjoy him.
Murray: It has to work for the format. It generally has for him, but we put out a lot of calls to a lot of people. Sometimes we're in the process of putting out calls and we are also sort of narrowing down what the concept will be. We might have two or three concepts we may be going to potentially use as we're making those calls and whose available sometimes also influences which concept we end up going with.
In the past few seasons, we've seen a lot of faces we haven't seen in long time, like Derrick [Kosinski], Veronica [Portillo] and Brad [Fiorenza.] Are you purposely trying to bring back veterans that have been absent for a while?
Murray: I think we had probably been reaching out to some of those people for awhile and they just weren't available. With Veronica, it was just the right time for her. She was out of a relationship, she had finished up a job and was trying to figure out what she was going to do next. For her, her coming back was intriguing because she had a lot of close relationships with people from the show. So, she initially did the Champs vs. Pros and that was sort of sticking her foot back in. I said, "You know, we would really love if you would consider coming back for the next Challenge."
Do you see any age limit for competitors on the Challenge? Mark Long from Road Rules' first season would love to come back even though he's 46.
Pizzi: I don't think anyone is ever too old.
Murray: We never ever say never.
How do you avoid spoilers getting out when so many people on the forums are determined to get them?
Pizzi: We're all working on it all the time. We've put filters in place. The cast has contracts. It's just that we can only do so much, but we work really hard at trying to keep it for the show.
Murray: The cast understands that to betray it only hurts them because if the ratings go down, the show potentially won't come back. I think usually it's more inadvertent. Sometimes they tweet to their friends that they are back and don't realize that they are spoiling something. But we do have fines and penalties that come into effect if they release information. And we have serious talks about it.
Is Champs vs. Stars on a completely different track? Will it keep going?
Pizzi: It did really well. It's a lot of fun and it's a much shorter show, a much shorter shoot.
Murray: I'm going to regret saying this because my phone is going to ring if you put it into the article ... but I can see that as an interesting place for Mark Long to make a reappearance.
How far in advance do you plan out future seasons?
Pizzi: We do one at a time, so we are working on [Season] 32 right now and the next version of Champs. But I don't believe those have really been announced. Every time we're doing one, we're thinking about the next one.
Murray: There's probably four or five ideas that we would be considering the next one and only one of them will be used. We might have an idea that doesn't make sense for 32, but it's perfect for [Season] 33.
Your show predates Survivor and so many other reality TV shows. Do you feel you paved the way for them?
Murray: Yes. And we don't get enough credit. [Laughs] We're doing well enough that we can't feel bad for ourselves. But ours was the first to introduce themes. We had Battle of the Sexes back in 2001 – this was way before Survivor started doing themes. A lot of what we've done, starting with The Real World, The Simple Life, The Challenge – it has been sort of an incubator for other shows. It's the nature of the industry where people borrow from each other.
I'm always amazed when I see Republican Congressman Sean Duffy on the television. Not only was he on the Real World: Boston, but he met his wife Rachel on the first Challenge.
Murray: It's sort of amazing. I've been to visit Sean in Washington and he walked me around the Capitol. He's still one of my favorite people and I think that what made him appealing on The Real World is what made him appealing as a candidate. I disagree with him on most major issues, but I just can't help but like the guy. He's a good guy.
What's up with The Real World? There hasn't been a new season for over a year. Is it over?
Murray: No. Um … We have been … um … in the process of evaluating what it needs to be in this environment. I think when it comes back, there will be a new twist to it or an evolution. That's something we've been working on with MTV.
Do you feel like the last season didn't quite work out?
Murray: No. Starting with The Real World: Ex-Plosion about five years ago we began doing these theme seasons. We sort of realized it was a trap to have to come up with a different theme, a different reinvention, every year. I think what we'd like to do is come up with an evolution of the show to get it to where it needs to be today, but not something where we have to have a major theme change every year.
The Challenge gets very nice ratings ... but you hardly ever read about it. Why is that?
Murray: I'm happy to harp on that again. [Laughs] I think that T.J. Lavin is one of the best hosts around and he just gets better every year. The fact that he overcame a brain injury and came back to the show was incredible. It's frustrating because every year you see The Voice win an Emmy or a Television Critics Award – and The Challenge isn't even nominated. Generally, it's the shows on networks that get those.
How far along is the planning for next season?
Pizzi: We're pretty deep. I'm not going to lie. We're pretty deep. We know where we're going. We've pretty much cast it. We have a theme. It's a really exciting season. I can't wait until we can share it.