Andre, Becky, Eric, Heather B., Julie, Kevin and Norman: “seven strangers, picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real.” Or in shorthand, the first cast of The Real World, MTV’s phenomenally successful reality show that proved to the world that unscripted programming could be a ratings powerhouse.
Reality television was not a new concept: 1973’s American Family on PBS featured the daily activities of the Loud family in a documentary-style program, and Candid Camera started way back in 1948, with Allen Funt playing practical jokes on everyday people. Voyeurism has always had its appeal, but The Real World cemented the formula of spying on the young and attractive as they’re placed in a contrived situation for the pleasure of the viewing public. This recipe has been shaken and stirred over the years, adding desert islands or chances to find love, a la Survivor and The Bachelor, but The Real World showed the world the basics of riveting reality television.
The Real World began as MTV’s project for a scripted soap opera for the younger set, something more akin to Beverly Hills, 90210 than to Guiding Light. Yet MTV did not possess the budget to hire writers for such a show. Executive Doug Herzog suggested simply gathering a group of teens and twenty-somethings to live together under one roof, recording them, and editing a show out of the resulting footage. The Real World was born. Producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray were tapped for the project, the New York location secured, and castmates selected. The first episode aired on MTV on May 21, 1992.
Season one featured several intriguing storylines including: Will Eric and Julie get together? Will Kevin and Julie kill each other because he thinks she’s racist? Will Norman find love? In addition to the documentary-style footage, viewers were treated to cast members’ “true thoughts” in the confessional scenes, where each could have some alone time and speak directly to a camera about the happenings in the house. The first cast also set up character types that seem to be repeated season after season: the naïve/virginal one, the gay guy, the frat boy… The Real World archetypes viewers now expect to see on the program.
Fifteen minutes of fame come with appearing on the show, sometimes extended by participating in MTV’s competition shows, such as Real World/Road Rules Extreme Challenge (Road Rules was essentially The Real World on the road, in which cast members traveled the country in an RV). Some alumni, like Eric Nies of the first season, are repurposed on MTV – Nies hosted MTV’s The Grind – and others have segued their celebrity status into career boosters, like Mike “The Miz” Mizanin of the tenth season who is currently living his dream of being a WWE Wrestler.
Since the original cast’s debut in New York City, the show has filmed in cities all over the globe including San Francisco, Paris, Miami, London, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. Currently in its 26th season, filming in San Diego, The Real World continues its successful reign on MTV. Cast members now also have to work together in addition to cohabitating, but the format of the show largely remains the same as it was in 1992: seven strangers, shouting and a lot of sexual tension.
- Researched and written by Adrienne Faillace
Producers: Mary-Ellis Bunim, Jonathan Murray (Bunim/Murray Productions)
Programming history: MTV, May 21,1992 -