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Violence on MTV: Why Did Producers Stop Intervening on ‘Real World’?

As violence becomes part of MTV's reality show offerings, 'Real World' and its spinoffs drift further from their original experimental missions

Real World Portland Fight

On one of the final episodes of “Real World: Portland,” viewers watched as a cast member wrapped the cord of a blow dryer around its handle and hunted down another member of the house.

“All day, every day, I’m banging on you and your bitch,” housemate Nia shouted at Johnny.

Nia’s makeshift weapon served as a step up from her bare hands, which she’d already used to repeatedly strike a fellow cast member on the back of the head over 10 times after an argument escalated. As Nia swung with blow dryer in hand at Johnny’s head, Johnny’s girlfriend Averey intervened, throwing blow after blow at Nia’s face while ripping out her hair extensions. Several cast members attempted to break up the altercation, but the two women had tight grips on each other’s hair, and refused to stop throwing punches. The situation continued, as Nia later sucker-punched Averey in the back of the head.

It was one of the most brutal fights in “Real World” history, and very difficult to watch.

But, missing from the brawl were not only producers, but also the familiar “Real World” franchise phrase, “It’s not worth it.”

Throughout “Real World’s” tenure on MTV, there has been an understanding of an unofficial “no fighting policy,” one that often leaves heated members of a show talking themselves down from physical violence because they don’t want to be kicked off the program. Whether on “Real World” or its spinoffs including “Road Rules” and “The Challenge,” housemates have avoided coming to blows due to the belief that, in doing so, they’d lose their coveted spot on the season, and have managed to talk out their disputes in more level-headed ways.

(In other situations, cast members have dubbed fighting “worth” getting kicked off, and thrown punches only to be swiftly put in a production van and hauled off set. A standby cast member would later be brought in from the wings to sub in.)

Many viewers assumed that Nia’s actions on “Real World’s” 28th season would lead to her being promptly expelled from the house, and were surprised when a quick, informal vote between cast members left her with bags still unpacked. Averey and Johnny, fearing for their safety, decided to spend the rest of the season in a hotel nearby.

As it turns out, there is no contractual policy against fighting on “Real World,” contrary to what many viewers and cast members may have thought. Bunim-Murray, the shingle behind MTV’s flagship reality show, told Variety it handles each situation on a case-by-case basis, at times ejecting a cast member, at times holding a house vote to see if a cast member should remain.

“As a general rule,” the production company said, “the roommates are told that any physical aggression can result in their removal from the house.”

But, as seasons progressed on the series and its spinoffs, producers have stepped further and further away from their involvement in physical altercations, leaving cast members with fewer concrete consequences for their actions while cameras roll.

The evolution of the illusory “no-fight policy” can be seen most clearly when 2013’s “Real World: Portland” brawl and its subsequent house vote are compared to a physical altercation on 2003’s “Road Rules: South Pacific” between cast members Abram and Donnell. After the fight was broken up, producer Kevin Lee emerged from behind the camera to guide the voting process.

“How we handle these things is I need to look at the video, you guys need to talk about what happened,” Lee explained to the cast. “And you need to tell me if you feel safe moving forward with the trip with the present group intact… There can’t be anymore fighting. I won’t allow that to happen.”

While the cast members discussed the dispute, Lee even went so far as to provide them with an immediate tape of the fight so they could better assess whether they wanted Abram to stay.

These lengths now seem outdated on the Bunim-Murray MTV shows. No producer mediated the “Portland” house vote, which lasted all of three minutes. On seasons including “Real World: Seattle,” cast members allowed to stay in the house did so while agreeing to attend anger management classes after striking another housemate. Nia was handed down no consequences for her violent behavior, nor was Averey. The Portland season came to a close, with deep tension and a bad aftertaste.

Even on competition series “The Challenge,” violent behavior seems to be condoned more and more by the production team. Notable fights on 2009’s “The Ruins” and 2011’s “The Duel 2” led to male contestants being promptly ejected, but on a recent episode of this summer’s “The Challenge: Rivals 2,” cast members simply laughed and shrugged off Anastasia repeatedly striking CT.

Tolerance of Anastasia’s behavior perhaps underscores the insidious nature of violence on the “Real World” franchise, especially since she hails from the ultra-violent “Portland” house where anything — including fists and blow dryers — would fly. Older vets of the “Real World” franchise are not so quick to place their hands on a fellow housemate, having seen people get kicked off programs for that type of behavior. Anastasia’s actions and the lack of consequences raise questions: Is slapping worthy of a house vote or expulsion? It was 15 years ago on “Real World,” but evidently not now. And are Anastasia’s actions towards CT condoned because she’s a female, and he laughed it off? If so, where do producers draw the line? Is this inherently a sexist way of dealing with violence?

The murky nature of handling on-camera altercations is influenced no doubt by MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” which saw several in-house fights during its six-season run. Produced by 495 Prods., “Jersey Shore” flaunted its drunken brawls in teasers, and significantly upped the noise factor for MTV’s slate of reality programming, specifically on house reality shows. With “Jersey Shore” pulling massive ratings for MTV, and Bunim-Murray’s Oxygen reality show “Bad Girls Club” thriving on unruly, violent behavior, it’s unsurprising that the tonal qualities of these programs would seep over to “Real World” and its spinoffs.

And, without a doubt, auds lap up such brutal fights. Websites including Grantland offered detailed breakdowns and point systems for Nia’s brawl with her housemates, and Twitter users took sides after the fight, trolling Averey, Nia and Johnny and offering slo-mo recaps of each blow in debates about “who won.”

Though they increased Web chatter for the show, the drawn out fights on “Real World’s” Portland run did little to boost the show’s slumping ratings, which have been more than halved since “Real World’s” 2011 return to Las Vegas.

As “Real World” becomes more known for its drunken hookups and fist fights, it slips away from its original intention of serving as a social experiment between young twenty-somethings, and moves towards being a mere boiling pot for brash drama. It is reassuring, when watching “Road Rules: South Pacific,” to see a producer step in front of the camera to address a serious fist fight, but that may never happen again, given the franchise’s trajectory.

What’s more, while some may say that fighting on these shows without intervention is true to the reality of tense social situations, that argument seems to ignore the fact that the reality of these shoots is that there are cameras surrounding these cast members, and their spot on a show is a privilege, not a right.

To allow that privilege to hang in the balance and be questioned — and even taken away entirely — is far more dramatic and real than letting cast members repeatedly duke it out until one parts ways with a production over fears of another attack.

Consequences are a part of the real world. Why doesn’t “The Real World” feel the same?