Puck and Pedro were the unlikeliest of TV stars: Puck was an infuriating lout who turned his housemates against him, while Pedro was an activist living with AIDS and open about his sexuality. But these weren’t characters, they were real people: two of the seven strangers assembled in 1993 for the third season of MTV’s reality-genre progenitor “The Real World.”
It took almost a decade for the reality bug to infect network TV, but now de rigeur reality elements such as the confessional first debuted in “Real World,” the brainchild of producer Jonathan Murray and his late partner Mary Ellis-Bunim.
“When you get people who come from two completely different places and put them in the same house you’re going to see them have to deal with their own stereotypes and biases,” says Murray. “And that kind of conflict is great drama.”
At the time, MTV wanted to do a kind of soap opera for its audience, one that would star people in their young demographic, speaking their language and dealing with situations they understood. The network was willing to experiment with the approach because execs thought it was innovative and because they thought it would save them money.
“We explained to them that creating a soap opera meant a whole crew and that they amount they wanted to spend at the time just wouldn’t cover that,” says Murray, who recently won his first Emmy for the daytime reality show “Starting Over.”
The longevity of the show came from something else, though. “I think it was the first time that age group heard people of their generation talking how they really talk and not how writers think they talk,” says Murray. “They were also dealing with problems that everyone watching the show immediately got. These were the lives of people like them.”
Today’s reality shows continue to present people under pressure and living close together. Shows like “The Apprentice” have found success with the format by adding something unique — a high-paying job with Donald Trump as a reward for the winner, for example. “People love to watch the kind of competition you see on our show and it taps into people’s hopes and ambitions,” says Trump. “You’re watching some of the smartest people in the world and I think you can learn from them and their mistakes as a viewer.”
While no one can know the future of something as fickle and fast-moving as television, most think reality television is here to stay.
“It’s going to cycle up and down,” says Mike Darnell, executive vice president of alternative programming and specials for Fox Broadcasting and the man behind shows such as “When Animals Attack.” “One genre will pop or another genre will suddenly be unpopular. Right now we’re having great success with ‘American Idol’ but who knows about the future. But reality television will always be there because it’s always been there in one form or another. It’s part of the landscape now and I would say it’s destined for at least 20% of the network programming schedule.”