MTV’s “The Real World” The Original “Reality Show”

In the early 90s, Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray were looking for new ideas and watched a 70s show on PBS called An American Family.It was a chronicle of the daily life of the Louds, an upper middle-class family in Santa Barbara, California, but ended up documenting the break-up of the family when the parents separated and divorced during filming.

That documentary prompted Bunim and Murray to create a similar show, reflective of the popularity of other 90s shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson’s Creek.  That idea spawned the massive hit reality show “The Real World” on MTV.  It was originally billed as “This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” Originally designed as a ‘one-off’ experiment, the show grew into a monster almost overnight, and to date, has spanned 33 seasons, including several spin-offs. Bunim had stated, “We knew within 20 minutes of shooting that we had a (hit) show.”

In its early years, the groundbreaking series was often lauded for depicting issues of contemporary young-adulthood relevant to its core audience, such as sex, prejudice, religion, abortion, sexuality, AIDS, death, politics, and substance abuse. However, after a few seasons, it garnered a reputation more as a showcase for immaturity and irresponsible behavior. Initially, the show installments were 30 minutes each week, but moved to an hour after several successful seasons.

In my opinion, the initial season was undoubtedly its finest. More raw, more real, and truly evocative of the times, the New York City cast in the first series gave us a look at the entire premise that made this show truly unique. It consisted of seven people, ranging in age from 19 to 26, most of whom were already living in New York City when the series taped, and was filmed living in a SoHo loft for 3 months, from February 16 to May 18, 1992.

While that first season was heavily panned by critics, it was wildly popular with viewers. MTV rapidly green-lighted additional seasons, and the rest is truly history. The show was a bird’s eye view into the lives of people very similar to its audience and gave us a true glimpse into their daily lives. We shared their hopes and dreams, empathized with their failures, and cheered their successes. 

This very successful show went on to give us another 32 seasons, including a reunion show of the New York city cast from season 1. It was really intriguing to see how much, or in some cases, sadly how little, they had changed in 30 years.

This show has been credited with being the forerunner of today’s “reality television.” However, the hit series is not without controversy. Some cast members have since expressed displeasure with the show, stating that their seasons were very heavily edited, and in a sense, “scripted.” A few felt that the show’s edits depicted them very unfavorably but would only give interviews anonymously due to very strict contracts with iron-clad non-disclosure clauses. To date, only one participant, Tonya Cooley, has ever filed a lawsuit against the reality series. That lawsuit was dismissed in 2012, with most of the details sealed, and MTV’s parent company, Viacom, declining to comment further.

However, you slice it, “The Real World” continues to thrive, even without the vision of co-producer, Mary-Ellis Bunim, who sadly succumbed to breast cancer in January 2004. Her business partner, Jonathan Murray, continues their work today with their company, Bunim/Murray Productions. Other numerous reality programs that Murray and Bunim co-created over the years were Road Rules, Love Cruise, Making the Band, The Challenge, the reality feature film The Real Cancun, the real-life daily syndicated Starting Over, as well as Fox’s The Simple Life. Bunim/Murray Productions are also executive producers on Project Runway for Lifetime and for Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kourtney and Khloé Take Miami, Kourtney and Kim Take New York, and Khloe and Lamar, all on E!.

The recent revival show with the first cast showed us how truly relatable this show is, and has been for over 30 years. Well done.

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected].