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The concept was simple: Pick seven strangers, make them live in a house and film the fallout. In May 1992, The Real World premiered on MTV as the next wave of the young-skewing network’s attack on primetime. What no one could have guessed was the series’ lasting impact on the genre it spawned and the rule-breaking series that would follow: Road Rules, The Simple Life, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and legions of other original reality programs that have become the hallmark of Bunim/Murray Productions. The Emmy-winning company’s co-founder Jonathan Murray, 57 (Mary-Ellis Bunim passed away in 2004 from breast cancer) reflects on the highs and lows of a genre in flux, his proudest moment from the past 25 years and why patience is the key to a reality producer’s success.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: You came from the world of local news, while Mary-Ellis Bunim cut her teeth in soap operas. What brought you two together?
Jonathan Murray: My then-agent at William Morris, Mark Itkin, suggested we work together on a pilot that I was going to pitch. I was in New York; she was in L.A. We talked on the phone a lot, but I didn’t actually meet her in person until the day I flew out to L.A. to pitch this show with her to these potential buyers. That first pilot was called Crime Diaries. It was a Monday through Friday half-hour strip, which actually was scripted. It was set in a police station with a group of detectives solving cases that were all based on real stories. It was for syndication, and it ended up selling like 51 percent of the country, which was not enough to go forward. We ended up doing 20 pilots that didn’t go forward before we finally got The Real World.
THR: Looking back on 25 years, what scene or moment in your shows makes you most proud as a producer?
Murray: It would have to be our inclusion of Pedro Zamora, a gay, HIV-positive kid who had emigrated from Cuba, in our third season of The Real World. It did one of those things that you rarely get to do. We got to deliver to our viewers entertaining television but also television that would actually change their lives. There were so many people who were affected by getting to know Pedro in a way that reality TV allows you to do. It’s so intimate when those cameras are there 24/7, and when he finally passed away, they felt like they had known someone who had AIDS. As a gay man and someone who has lost friends to AIDS, I’m particularly proud of putting him on the show.
THR: What’s been the most meaningful feedback you’ve received about your work?
Murray: Beyond the thrill of a great rating? Because when The Simple Life premiered with 14 million viewers, it was pretty exciting. On a more serious note, I had the chance to meet President Clinton, who talked to me about the difference he felt Pedro made in people’s lives. He did an intro for Pedro, the film that we made with [Milk screenwriter] Dustin Lance Black. Clinton told me that Pedro being on MTV made more of a difference than anything he could do from the Oval Office.
THR: What are the most meaningful changes the reality genre has undergone since you started in the business?
Murray: Going back to the beginning of time, we’ve always been interested in what the people across the street were doing. We’re gossips! So at the very beginning of The Real World, it was like being a fly on the wall, watching these people lead their lives. Today, we are much more able to quantify different reasons why people watch: to see who’s going to win the competition, whether it’s a psychological situation like Survivor or a talent competition like Project Runway. We’ve grown to have terms like “train wreck TV.” There’s nothing particularly edifying about it, but perhaps we’re watching just because it is fun, crazy television.
THR: The Kardashians franchise found itself in hot water in the fall when Kim’s marriage to Kris Humphries crumbled, calling into question Kim’s and the show’s credibility. What was going through your head during this time?
Murray: We started filming a week after Kim and Kris got back from their honeymoon, and we could start to see the marriage unraveling. And I thought, “This could be a disaster.”
THR: For whom?
Murray: For everyone. But I’m a selfish producer — so, for me. (Laughs.) The amazing thing about the entire Kardashian family is that they are so open to the cameras. They’re willing to trust us to shoot all this stuff that happens in their lives and then put these episodes together in a way that really shows the humanity of the family as well as the craziness of the family. With Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie [of The Simple Life], we never reached that point where they would just trust us to shoot. It often felt like they were doing the light, fluffy story on our show, and then there would be this whole other story about them in the tabloids. For viewers, it began to feel like they got the truth from the tabloids rather than from the show.
THR: Would The Real World sell at MTV if you pitched it today?
Murray: I’m not sure we could sell it today. It’s almost too pure, and it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles. Today you start with a Real World idea of either putting people in a house, then you have to add the additional elements — they’re all bad girls, they’re all from the Jersey Shore — to make it loud enough to capture people’s attention.
THR: What’s the biggest mistake people make when getting into this genre?
Murray: People think you can manipulate all of the drama and conflict. You have to be willing to wait for it. We’re very fortunate with The Real World that we still get to shoot for 16 or 17 weeks, which means we can go three or four days without anything happening that makes sense for us from a story standpoint. When we first started back in the early 1990s, I was scared to death when nothing happened.
THR: What do you think Mary-Ellis would think of the current landscape of reality programming?
Murray: She’d absolutely love it. She loved anything with a good story. I’m sure she’d also be a huge fan of Dancing With the Stars.
25 YEARS OF REALITY TV: The Bunim/Murray moments that made headlines and defined the medium
1987: Bunim/Murray Productions is founded by TV news and documentary producer Jonathan Murray and soap opera writer Mary-Ellis Bunim.
May 1992: The Real World, the show that spawned the modern reality-series model, premieres on MTV to big ratings and critical success.
November 1994: The Real World: San Francisco castmember Pedro Zamora dies from an AIDS-related neurological disorder mere hours after the final episode of his season airs.
July 1995: The first reality-competition show, BMP’s Road Rules, premieres on MTV.
December 2003: The Simple Life, BMP’s reality sitcom featuring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, premieres on Fox before moving to E!
January 2004: Mary-Ellis Bunim passes away at the age of 57 after a struggle with breast cancer.
April 2007: Bunim/Murray’s first film, Autism: The Musical, premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival. It would air on HBO and win two Emmys for editing and outstanding nonfiction special.
October 2007: Co-produced by American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, Keeping Up With the Kardashians premieres on E! The series would go on to spawn several spinoffs and launch a veritable media empire overseen by Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner.
June 2008: BMP takes over production of Bravo’s Emmy-nominated reality series Project Runway in its sixth season.
September 2008: The company premieres its first scripted feature film, Pedro, at the Toronto Film Festival.
March 2010: Bunim/Murray Productions becomes part of the European conglomerate Banijay Group.
February 2012: Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim are inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
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