MTV's `The Real World': Sweet 15

Landmark show returns tonight, along with many loyal fans

Fall TV

My, how `The Real World' has turned in 15 years

Fall TV

September 07, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Producer Jonathan Murray wasn't trying to bring a new sense of realism to the screen or change viewers' expectations of television 12 years ago when he created a cable series for MTV called The Real World.

Quite the contrary. Murray and his late partner, Mary-Ellis Bunim, just wanted to create a documentary series that folks under 30 would watch. Toward that end, they blended the spontaneity of documentaries with the artifice and conventions of network sitcoms and dramas. We wanted to "create something that would look great and had enough drama to keep kids hooked" through commercial breaks, Murray said.

The result was a reality show, set each season in a different city, featuring seven or eight carefully chosen young adults sparring, making friends, making out, breaking up and sometimes learning as they tried to get along as roommates. This year, the series, which begins its 15th season tonight at 10, presents a new group of twentysomethings residing in a fabulously restored bank building in Philadelphia.

"Where The Real World differed from what had been done in the past is that we set out not only to document young peoples' lives, but we actually cast them the way we would cast a sitcom or drama [by] looking for people you would root for and like," Murray said.

No matter its roots, it seems clear that Murray and Bunim created one of the rare television series (which twice had two seasons in one year) worthy of being called landmark.

The long-running show is credited by some TV analysts as having created today's enormous audience for reality programming by socializing adolescent viewers to love the genre. Many youngsters who came of age watching The Real World now are part of the 18-to-34 age group so coveted by advertisers - and are among the millions of fans of such programs as CBS's Survivor and NBC's The Apprentice.

The show's audience grew from an initial 1 million in 1992 to 4 million last year - making it one of cable TV's most popular shows. "What we're talking about is a generation learning to love reality TV through its exposure to The Real World during adolescence," said Donna Flayhan, professor of media studies at State University of New York in New Paltz.

"In a way, it's just a matter of the familiar being comfortable, and The Real World is the show that familiarized millions of kids with the reality genre. Can you prove that kind of connection? Of course, not. But talk to any group of college students, and the relationship is pretty clear."

While difficult to prove what role The Real World played in the lives of young viewers, there's no shortage of anecdotal evidence.

"I started watching during Season 5, when the cast lived in Miami, and was a regular viewer every year through middle and high school," said Jamie Talbot, a 21-year-old senior at Goucher College. "It was the first reality TV show that I ever saw, but I didn't know it was any special genre then. It was just TV."

Talbot says The Real World is no longer on her A-list of TV viewing, but she admits that this summer, she watched Seasons 2 and 3 for the second time on DVD. And she has little doubt that the pleasure she found in The Real World once upon a time led her to become a longtime fan of reality TV.

She even likes shows that she considers poor imitations - "the cheesy stuff on Fox, like Temptation Island or Paradise Hotel," she says of the series that follow The Real World formula of asking strangers to live together in a grand setting.

Two of Talbot's peers, Lindsay Freed, 21, and Liz Dome, 22, prepared for the launch of the new season by watching a Real World marathon last weekend. The MTV series offered both a first taste of reality TV and they're still loyal viewers of the genre.

"I'm not a regular, every-week viewer of The Real World any more," Freed said. "But I know The Real World is where I started liking reality TV."

Beyond introducing reality TV to young viewers, the series also introduced a set of themes so consistent one might say it forms an ideology.

One such theme is the notion that anyone can be a star. That belief still drives reality series such as Fox's American Idol and UPN's America's Next Top Model.

"People now realize that reality TV is a way of taking real, regular people and making them stars and celebrities in their own right just by being who they are, versus being an actor or an actress," said Dawn Ostroff, president of the UPN network, describing a legacy from The Real World.

"People have come to understand that there is some fascination in seeing ordinary people suddenly propelled into the limelight - and seeing a real situation unfold as if it were a scripted show."

But the ostensibly natural situations portrayed on reality TV require a good deal of stage managing, Murray acknowledged. In addition to carefully choosing the cast of The Real World, the producers from the beginning selected a house that would film well, then carefully orchestrated the lighting.

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