The "Real World" creator has some explaining to do

The catty MTV reality show heads to New Orleans -- but is it exploitation? Jonathan Murray responds

Published June 30, 2010 2:01PM (EDT)

You may not know who Jonathan Murray is, but if you've turned on a television in the last 18 years, odds are that you've seen some of his work.  As one-half of the production team Bunim/Murray (his partner, Mary Ellen Bunim, died in 2004 of breast cancer), he ushered in the age of reality television, with credits on everything from "The Real World"  to "Project Runway" and "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." 

It's hard to overestimate the impact that "The Real World," which Murray co-created with Bunim in 1992, has had on American popular culture. The show, which threw seven young strangers into a house and documented their lives over the course of three months, not only became one of the first reality shows on American television, it also broke ground by dealing with issues that had often been taboo for scripted network TV, like homosexuality, alcoholism and HIV.  

But over the past 23 seasons, "The Real World" has become a caricature of itself. The once-edgy show is now mostly populated by recognizable types -- the meathead frat boy, the small-town princess, the fame-hungry model wannabe -- and, more often than not, overflows with manufactured drama. After forgettable trips to Cancun and Washington, D.C., "The Real World" returns to New Orleans for its 24th season, which premieres tonight on MTV.

Salon called Murray to talk about the upcoming season, why reality TV has made television better, and just how "real" "The Real World" really is.

There’s a running joke that "The Real World" doesn't reflect the real world. What do you think about that?

Well, we don't restage anything. We either catch it when it happens or we don't. It's funny because there are so many people who find it hard to believe that we get the things that we get and the things that happen really do just happen on their own. But "The Real World" is one of the only shows out there that shoots for 16 weeks. And when you're shooting for that long, stuff happens. Whereas, if you were trying to shoot it in five weeks, you'd have a really hard time getting enough material for 12 shows.

How has the casting process changed over the years? With people growing up with the show, people have obviously become more comfortable with cameras.

Once any show has been through its first season, you have to really examine the reasons why someone wants to be on a program. That first season, in 1992, we were all virgins, the crew and the cast. No one knew quite what to experience. The people did it because they thought it would be interesting -- or because it would bring them some fame, or help them with a career. Eric was interested in modeling, Julie wanted to dance, so even then there were motivations based on advancing their careers. But what we look for are people who do this because they want to be exposed to people different from themselves, want to challenge themselves and grow.

When people are auditioning, what are some danger signs that someone is just looking to be on TV?

Certainly if they've applied to other reality shows then you really want to question if they're just trying to get on a TV show, it doesn't matter which one. That's a warning sign. Our casting process is really extensive. For a show like "The Real World," when you don't have a game format, we live or die on our casting. We spend about three to four months getting to know these people through multiple interviews with their friends, with people who used to be friends with them. We really want to see who they are and know throughout the casting process that they've been consistent with who they are. We want to know who we're putting into that house, and we want to make sure they're not putting on an act for us.

We have found, certainly in the last 10 years, that you want to not only talk to the people who send in a tape or come to an open call. You want to go out and meet people who hadn't thought of applying to be on "The Real World." There was a girl on the D.C. season, Emily, who was working at a Starbucks that was a couple doors down from where we were casting in Columbia, Mo. The casting director went to get some coffee and met her, and found her really interesting, and she was invited over for an interview. We try to reach out to communities whose numbers might not necessarily apply to be on the show. In New Orleans, we have a young woman who is Muslim, because we did outreach to that community. We've done that from the beginning; we did a big outreach to the HIV/AIDS community in Season 3 and we found Pedro.

Why return to New Orleans?

Obviously, a lot has happened to New Orleans since we were there last. It's a city that's being reborn, and in a way, it's a metaphor for what's going on inside "The Real World" house, the way people are changed by the experience.

But isn't it also exploitative?

We actually waited to go to New Orleans for a couple years after Katrina. We didn't want to be a burden to the city. We waited until we felt that the city was back together enough that we wouldn't be a problem; we would be an asset. And we are an asset, I think. There's always going to be people who are suspicious of a TV show's motives for coming to the city. That comes with the territory, and that's always the case, no matter where we are. These are young people, you know? They're going to party too much and maybe grow and learn from that. I think it's easy to forget what we were all like when we were 21 and 22. We judge everyone as an adult now. You forget your own experience.

What does it take to break the fourth wall? What is the threshold you have to cross for the crew to intervene?

Well, there's a curfew for the cast. The curfew is prior to the bars closing in the city. We find that if we can get them back before the bars close, it avoids conflict. It's when the bars close and there are drunk people on the street that most concerns us. It's not always the cast members that are the problem. Sometimes it's that drunk guy down the street who sees the cameras and decides to challenge the cast. When that happens, sometimes the crew will put the cameras down and turn off the lights, hoping that the person will go away. It's only a television show, so the crew is told that if they see a dangerous situation, to put the cameras down and get the cast out of there.

In some seasons the roommates have jobs, and in others they just sort of hang loose. What has your experience been in choosing between those, toggling between being entertaining and imparting some sort of social message?

We've tried different things over the years. For example, when we were in Cancun, it’s very much a tourist city and we ended up working with StudentCity, an organization that books Spring Break trips for students. It provided a safe and fun environment for the cast. When they were on the job they weren't allowed to drink, and they had to be worried about other people's safety and other people having a good time. Whereas, when they were off-duty, they only worried about themselves having a good time. It worked for them because I don't think having them involved in a social thing would have been appropriate in that environment. And it wasn't a city where they would have been able to pursue their own goals.

Whereas in D.C. and in Brooklyn, we let the cast members focus on the things that they wanted to pursue. In New Orleans, because of what's going on, we thought it was appropriate to work with the city to come up with some opportunities for social work. It really depends. They can't just have nothing to do, otherwise the whole show would be partying and hooking up. And the partying is more fun if you have somewhere to be the next morning.

A lot of people think that "The Real World" -- and subsequently reality television -- ruined entertainment. How do you respond to them?

I think that, on the contrary, "The Real World" has reinvigorated scripted programming. I think when we came on the air in 1992, scripted TV was pretty soft, pretty boring, not trying to do something new.  I think shows like "The Real World" have made writers and producers work harder. And as a result, I think both scripted and nonscripted TV is much more vital now, thanks to "The Real World."

By Margaret Eby

Margaret Eby has written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, Salon and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she now lives in New York City.

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