Jonathan Murray -- For reality TV, some people have stopped being real

By Jonathan Murray
Sunday, November 1, 2009

When I heard about the Colorado family and their runaway helium balloon last month, I took a deep breath. Richard and Mayumi Heene, in search of television fame, had apparently filed a false report that their 6-year-old son was alone and in danger in the balloon. I knew that wasn't going to be good for anyone -- not the kid, not the family and certainly not the reality television genre, the field I helped create 20 years ago.

Reality television did not invent hoaxes. Before shows like "Wife Swap," where the Heenes may have gotten their taste for life in front of the camera, dishonest people concocted tricks to sell stories to magazines and books to publishers. What was different this time was the apparent calculating attempt to use a child as a pawn to play the media and reality television for monetary gain.

It wasn't always like this. When my late partner Mary-Ellis Bunim, a producer of daytime soaps, and I came together in the late 1980s to create MTV's "The Real World," reality television, as we know it today, was nonexistent. Our plan at first had been to do a scripted series about young people starting out their lives in New York. But a scripted show was prohibitively expensive, so we took the documentary approach instead. We quickly realized that an unscripted, real-life show would be much more relevant to MTV's young audience.

Our model for "The Real World" was the 1973 PBS documentary "An American Family," which turned a year in the life of a Santa Barbara, Calif., family into compelling television that captured real people's lives. In 1992, we put seven diverse young people together in a loft in New York City to, as the series's now-famous introduction promises, "find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real."

Julie Oliver, from Birmingham, Ala., was one of them. She wanted a chance to get away from her overprotective father, live in New York and pursue a career in dance. Her roommates were three singers, a model, a painter and a writer. All of them were in New York because it was the place to go to make their dreams come true; being on television was secondary. None of them saw it as a way to get rich.

In later seasons, some cast members sought spots on the show to shed light on issues they cared about deeply. Pedro Zamora, an HIV-positive man, used the show in 1994 as a vehicle to educate young people about safe sex. More recently, Ryan Conklin, an Iraq veteran, used the show to offer a window on the war that has left many of his friends dead or injured.

While "The Real World" chronicles something very real, it does it in a contrived way. Rather than find seven young people already living together, we cast the roommates for ethnic, gender and regional diversity, and the stories they bring with them. The fact that they are all attractive personalities doesn't hurt, either.

We also design and light the environment the roommates will be living in, making it a fantasy house; we don't need a dumpy apartment as part of the reality. When we came to Washington for our 23rd season, which begins airing in December, we chose a beautiful, century-old house on S Street near Dupont Circle. We don't tell the cast what to say, but we do edit the episodes to contain stories with a beginning, middle and end.

When the show premiered in 1992, no one at MTV -- or anywhere else -- realized the impact the series would eventually have on television. It wasn't until 2000 that the broadcast networks embraced reality television with such shows as "Big Brother" and "Survivor." For those networks, a reality soap such as "The Real World" doesn't guarantee explosive conflict and big ratings. They want reality television with a competition or format that ensures drama.

No matter what's happening -- a home being drastically remodeled or young housemates fighting -- the key to a show's success is the same: casting. It's the strong personalities and divergent backgrounds of the cast that ensure conflict, and conflict is the primary requirement of a story, whether scripted or unscripted. The first season of any reality show is usually its best because the cast doesn't know what to expect; and as producers, we're not always sure, either. It's this spontaneity that has the cast living in the moment rather than trying to play a role.

Our challenge is to cast people who can't help but be themselves. That's getting harder and harder as people become more knowledgeable about what makes a good reality show. One young woman told us in a casting interview that she'd be the "biggest bitch" the show had ever seen. What she and others like her don't realize is that we're looking for complex and nuanced people who haven't completely figured themselves out. We go to extremes during the casting process to avoid people who have applied to be on other reality shows or play the reality TV game like the Heenes may have.

We're not looking to cast perfect people, but we do want honest people. We thought very carefully about what we were doing when we brought cameras into that New York loft in 1992. We wanted to capture that messy time in a young person's journey, when it's possible to try on different identities and make mistakes and be forgiven for them. The title of the show, "The Real World," was chosen to reflect that unique time in life and to reinforce the documentary nature of the program. By staying true to our title, we aim to stay relevant.

Some will blame reality television for the Heene family's actions -- and the lengths to which people will go for a small taste of fame. But that's not fair. Trickery in the name of gaining a little attention didn't start with television, and it certainly wouldn't end if we stopped every camera crew currently following someone around a house, on a date or on a deserted island.

Our job -- whether we're reality producers, book publishers, magazine editors or cable news executives -- is to ask enough questions to be confident that we're not being taken in by someone who wants an easy route to money and fame.

The genre is called "reality television" after all. It's supposed to be real.

Jonathan Murray is the co-creator of "The Real World" and the producer of numerous other reality television shows.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company