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The Reality of ‘Real World’: A Falling Star?

MTV's pioneering reality show struggles to stay fresh in a sea of similar skeins

When “The Real World” returned to MTV’s lineup Wednesday night, the program debuted a new cast of seven young adults excitedly picking out beds, scoping out their Portland digs, and drinking copious amounts of booze from red Solo cups. Hookups, arguments and cast member tension have already arisen.

Typically, this is cable’s recipe for success with reality TV.

Only problem?

No one was really watching. Not like before, at least.

Now 21 years deep on the cabler, “Real World” is undoubtedly an iconic program, one that has paved the way for fresher reality series that use souped-up houses as Petri dishes for social conflict. But with only 720,000 viewers tuning in to the 10 p.m. preem (444,000 in the key 18-34 demo), one has to wonder: is the skein running on fumes?

The Bunim-Murray-produced show is in its 28th season, a feat for almost any program on cable or broadcast given modern auds’ vast range of content options and short attention span. And, the strength of the program comes from defiantly basic format: let these men and women live together for three months — that’s it. Don’t make them compete for things. Don’t make them vote each other off. Just let them live together, and film them.

Given that a great deal of contemporary reality shows rely on complex rules, challenges and wannabe celebs hoping to launch their careers, the “Real World’s” simplistic, enduring take remains a refreshing format in the unscripted space.

Back in the ’90s during “Real World’s” fledgling seasons (when it was still a half-hour program), this approach was groundbreaking: by placing young twenty-somethings from radically different backgrounds under one roof in a new city, the “Real World” casts became microcosmic examples of broad social issues of that era.

The San Francisco iteration covered a range of topics that included homosexuality and HIV, still taboo in the media in 1994. “The Real World Los Angeles” cast found themselves debating racism and bigotry, just one year after the LA riots in ’92. 1999’s “Real World Hawaii” featured an openly bisexual cast member struggling with alcohol abuse and, ultimately, finding herself in rehab during the show’s production period. As the real world changed, so too did “Real World.”

But then, reality TV shifted. Competition shows like “Survivor” became household names, as did words like “alliance.” Noisy shows like Bunim-Murray’s “Bad Girls Club” on Oxygen entered the space, upping the ante for on-cam drama and debauchery. “Jersey Shore,” which had shades of “Real World” in its structure, made alcohol and casual hookups a permanent fixture in reality TV, one that may never be uprooted in the coming years.

“Real World” has tried to keep up with the rapid-fire pace in the unscripted realm, offering two seasons in Las Vegas that were hotbeds for conflict and drew strong ratings for the series. Since the 2011 Vegas run, however, ratings have steadily ticked downwards: San Diego averaged around 1.4 million viewers, and St. Thomas barely 1.1 million. The Portland season debut to under 800,000 viewers is a testament to the show not being as groundbreaking or relevant as it once was to MTV’s core audience.

Can it last?

It should be noted that digital numbers most likely provide a boost to these sliding numbers, however. MTV makes episodes of “Real World” available on multiple platforms including its website the morning after a premiere broadcast, and the show’s targeted aud tends towards digital viewership.

Bunim-Murray doesn’t have much to worry about when it comes to its current slate of shows. With the “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” franchise and “Project Runway” in its wheelhouse, the reality shingle is sitting pretty as a key player in the unscripted space. But should it still hope to keep its veteran series “Real World” alive — and thriving — it may have to rethink its approach to casting and even editing.

For one, by casting loud personalities who like to party, “Real World” certainly invites dramatic story arcs and more material to tinker with in post-production. But, the move also fades the show into the background of similar programs that rely on 80 proof to accelerate narratives. (Case in point: how high is your tolerance for breaking glass and shrieking arguments in reality show sizzle reels? Does it even faze you at this point?)

The Portland cast, while hailing from different parts of the States, all seem to be amalgamations of one another: good looking, prone to wear bathing suits, down to drink. It’s a boozey mixture that served “Jersey Shore” well.

But “Real World” is — or, at least used to be — more than that. Perhaps it’s time to cast people not because of their penchant for scream fests, but because their lifestyle and background have not been delved into much on TV. Given the success of “Catfish” — which taps into the raw, unfiltered elements that “Real World” once was known for — MTV may benefit from this take.

It’s when the casting team hits the sweet spot that magic happens on “The Real World.” Is the show dead? No, it’s not. But it is withering on the cable vine, in need of a renewed perspective in order to draw viewers who see reality shows as one big, shouting blur. As a decade-long fan of the show who will tune in to every episode, I hope it remains the fixture it’s been on MTV, but that it evolves to the changing TV landscape.

Otherwise, the program may soon meet the ax when it sees continued ratings that stop being polite, and start getting real.

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