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When Jonathan Murray and his late producing partner Mary Ellen Bunim pitched MTV on the concept for the Real World over breakfast in 1991, there was nothing like it on the air.
Now, as it begins its 25th season Wednesday, the show about “strangers picked to live in a house” together is just one of dozens of unscripted offerings in a crowded TV landscape.
Murray, 56, who is often credited with inventing the modern reality genre, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about and the explosion of reality shows, the impact of Jersey Shore and the one reality show that may have crossed the line.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve seen the reality business grow from nothing to what it is today. So what’s next?
Jonathan Murray: If I only knew. In London, there’s a really big series about gypsy weddings [My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding]. It takes you into a certain world that you aren’t familiar with and is a little outrageous. We’ve seen the success of that here with Jersey Shore. It’s about finding these micro worlds and exposing them to the larger culture. Whether we’re sitting in an airport or a bookstore, we all love to watch people.
THR: Your show is a lot different now than when it launched. What’s the biggest change?
Murray: I’m not sure it has changed that much. The Real World is still a bit of an experiment. I definitely think young people are more comfortable with their sexuality and expressing it than they were in 1992 — or at least more comfortable expressing it on television. Maybe this is my adult point of view, but it seems like drinking has become more of an issue among young people. I think we’ve seen a rise in the abuse of alcohol, and Real World has reflected that.
I’d say the show mirrors society and sometimes leads society. You can argue the show has done a lot in terms of young people’s attitudes towards gay, lesbian and transgendered people because it has featured that community from the very beginning. And when we first started, you didn’t see that community on TV — and you certainly didn’t see someone like Pedro with HIV. I think what we tapped into with the idea of people who are different from each other is that with difference comes conflict. I think that shows like Amazing Race, Big Brother and Survivor have since tapped into that.
THR: If you pitched Real World to MTV today, would the network buy it?
Murray: First of all, we were very fortunate that the network bought it in 1992. They were doing very nicely with their music videos and this was a big step from them. None of us knew it would be on the air 25 seasons later; we just thought it was something edgy and a way to give the MTV audience something that they couldn’t get elsewhere.
Today it would be a harder sell because there are so many other shows that do similar things. Certainly with Jersey Shore out there — there’s a show that’s larger than life with these very, funny compelling characters. But it’s also a very different show because nobody expects the cast on that show to evolve and change, whereas with the Real World you expect the cast members to come in at one place and leave in another. They’re going to be affected by the experience.
THR: You mentioned conflict. Curious, what role do you think controversy should play in realty television?
Murray: For reality television, conflict is almost the same thing as plot because the conflict produces the story. So the conflict is crucial show to a show like Real World or Real Housewives. It drives the story.
THR: Is there a line in all of this?
Murray: In the case of the Real World, the line is wherever the cast draws it. We chose the seven people to put into house together and they take it from there. In the first few years, I was always scared to death that nothing would happen. What I learned eventually is that the ship always seems to right itself in this crazy chemistry experiment we do.
THR: Where should that line be? The one that determines whether a reality show is great as opposed to deplorable?
Murray: The show that Donny Bonaduce did [Breaking Bonaduce], where he was having some real personal issues, was close to that line that you weren’t sure that you wanted to watch. But people have the choice to turn it off.
THR: What’s the biggest challenge facing the genre today?
Murray: Trying to not do shows that are too derivative of other shows. How can you be inspired by Jersey Shorewithout re-creating it?
THR: What’s the one show you wish was yours and isn’t?
Murray: I would love to have come up with Pawn Stars. It’s a great show, and it’s so simple. Ultimately, it’s the talent on that show that makes it. You want to watch those guys.
THR: What are the networks looking for now?
Murray: There’s a real desire for things that feel organic and not contrived. So find a competition situation where it feels authentic or take me into a family that feels real. It can’t just be people showing up to win money; there has to be something deeper, whether it’s losing weight or finding yourself again.
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