Master of Reality

by Daniel Manu April 29, 2008
The Jonathan Murray Interview

This is the true story... of two strangers... scheduled to speak on the phone... and have their conversation taped... to find out what happens when one-half of the duo that jump-started reality TV's massive success gets real...about getting real.

The seeds of today's "unscripted" programming may have been planted in the notorious 1973 PBS documentary An American Family, but it was producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray who truly changed American television in 1992 with a new series on MTV called The Real World, a full eight years before reality TV went prime-time thanks to the likes of Mr. Mark Burnett, Mr. Simon Cowell, and Mr. Joe Millionaire. Although Bunim passed away in 2004, her partner continues to oversee their company's ever-expanding slate of reality shows, creating new concepts and refreshing old ones for a seemingly insatiable audience (and an even hungrier industry). We spoke to Jon Murray shortly after his most famous hit reached a new milestone.

TWoP: Why has The Real World lasted 20 seasons and 16 years, longer than any other reality show so far and certainly longer than anything else you've worked on?

JM: The same things that [people in] conventional television would say wouldn't have made the show a success, have actually made the show a success. When we first put The Real World on the air, you never changed your cast every season; you never changed your location every season. In fact, we were very scared when we went from Season 1 to 2 that people were so attached to Julie, Heather, Eric, and the group that they somehow wouldn't be interested in watching Jon, Tami, Dave, and that group. But as it turned out, what we discovered is that in the reality television world, while the audience does form emotional bonds with the cast members and with the story that you're telling, they're always ready for a new cast and new stories.

TWoP: Why do you think so many critics and other cultural arbiters still have a negative attitude towards reality TV as a whole?

JM: That's a good question. There definitely is a snotty attitude by some critics towards reality. I don't know if they just feel an allegiance to their brethren who script shows -- I'm not sure. I think there's room for both. Some stories are better told in the unscripted world and some are better told in the scripted world.

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