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October 6, 2015

A history of reality television (part two): MTV gets real

by Richard Keller, posted Jul 9th 2008 6:00PM

real worldFrom the 1950s through the 1980s, reality television programming was a rarity on the schedules of the Big Three networks. It was more of a novelty that piqued the interest of the viewers for a few months or a few seasons, then was relegated back into the shadows while scripted shows dominated the airwaves. It wasn't until the very end of the 1980s, when FOX premiered COPS, that reality-based programming became a prime-time staple.

It stayed that way for several years. Then, just like that, it all changed, thanks to one show that premiered in 1992. With a simple program on a fairly new cable channel, reality programming went from television rarity to huge success. So much so that, in a few short years, it spawned various direct copies and variations of its concept on both the over-the-air and cable networks. By the early 21st century the airwaves were filled with more reality programming than scripted works, garnering the ire and the joy of many a long-time television viewer.

And, it all began on a network primarily known for its music videos and Pauly Shore.

The late '80s and early '90s brought a number of format changes to MTV. After years of playing nothing but music videos, MTV owner Viacom began to shake things up a bit. Shows like MTV Unplugged and Remote Control, which introduced new programming concepts but kept some focus on the music, were injected into the schedule. Then, in 1992, the network added a soap opera to its lineup. The difference with this soap opera was that it wasn't scripted and it featured total strangers brought together into a unique environment.

The show was called The Real World. Produced by Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, the program featured seven diverse personalities who were relocated into one living space for an extended period of time. Over the course of several months these seven people spent most of their waking hours (and some of their sleeping hours) on camera. Like its influence, An American Family, these times on camera were not narrated by an anchor. They were either voiced-over by a member of the cast or not even described at all -- the actions spoke for themselves.

The first season of Real World took place in New York's SoHo neighborhood and set the format for the show. It was raw, edgy, and, even though many critics mentioned that much of it was staged, it featured real conversations and real arguments about real situations. Some of the topics discussed during the first season were prejudice, racism, homosexuality, abortion, pornography, and sexuality. Sometimes the discussions were civil. Other times they were heated arguments on the street outside of their SoHo loft.

The series was an instant success for MTV and made stars of many of the housemates. It also permitted Bunim and Murray to produce more Real World episodes for the network. The next season the show relocated to Los Angeles and featured the first eviction of a house member. The third season moved up the California coast to San Francisco and featured the first Real World break-out star in the form of David "Puck" Rainey, who also became the second cast member to be evicted from their house during the first seasons of the show.

Many fans of the early days of Real World point to the San Francisco season as the most noteworthy and the most socially relevant. In addition to the trials and tribulations of Puck, the third season focused on house member Pedro Zamora, a 22-year-old Cuban-American who was actively fighting the AIDS virus. Pedro and Puck were very much at odds until Puck was asked to leave the house. However, the other housemates bonded to Pedro, attending his AIDS education seminars and, towards the end of the series, participating in his commitment ceremony with partner Sean Sasser. Sadly, Pedro succumbed to his virus and passed away on the day after the last episode of Real World: San Francisco aired.

With the early success of Real World firmly established, producers Bunim and Murray decided to spin-off the concept to another series: Road Rules. Premiering in 1995, Road Rules took the same concept of Real World -- placing strangers together in an unknown environment -- and took it on the road. This time around it was six people who had never met (five in the first four seasons) getting put into an awkward situation. After being stripped of all of their money, the strangers were placed on a RV and traveled from location to location, guided by a set of clues and a mission to complete.

Road Rules became the precursor for the reality game operas that are strewn all over the schedule today. Shows like Amazing Race, The Mole, and even Survivor. Eventually, as the other shows it pioneered became successful, Rules ended up retooling itself. By the mid 2000s the program became more of a game show than a rolling version of The Real World. By 2007 the show was put on 'hiatus', with an unknown date of return.

However, Road Rules didn't leave without spinning-off yet another show: Real World/Road Rules Challenge. Premiering in 1998 as the mini series Road Rules: All Stars, Challenge pitted former cast members of both The Real World and Road Rules against each other in a series of challenges that would win them prizes and allow them to advance in the game. As the series progressed, and other reality programs became popular, Challenge started to adopt their characteristics. Soon enough, the show featured elimination of players by performance and votes by other players of who should be eliminated. In other words, the show lost some of its originality.

While The Real World remains on the air to this day (the 21st season will premiere shortly), it doesn't have the popularity and importance that other reality series, both on and off MTV, currently have. Yet, without World and Road Rules, the shows that you watch today may have never seen the light of day. Or, at least, may not have been the format that they are currently in now. Hopefully, when they build the Museum of Reality decades from now, both Real World and Road Rules will have a prominent place to show how important they really were.

In Part 3 of this series we will look at the explosion of reality programming at the turn of the 21st century.

References courtesy of MTV and Wikipedia.


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