Why MTV is Turning to Exes to Save Its Relationship with ‘Real World’

For the first time in the show's history, a major format change is descending upon the 'Real World' house

MTV The Campaigners

The latest season of MTV’s venerable unscripted series “The Real World” won’t just be seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped.

No, “Real World’s” return to San Francisco, set to debut in 2014, will see an overhaul of the show’s iconic format, as exes of the housemates are integrated into the loft.

Per MTV, “Things take a dramatic turn when exes of the original seven roommates surprisingly take the house by storm and move right in. In the midst of new relationships that started to brew before their exes arrived, the roommates find out very quickly that things can get complicated as loyalty is tested, tempers flare and romances sizzle and fizzle.”

“Real World: Ex-Plosion” marks the first major format change for the program in 21+ year history. After “Real World: Portland” — the 28th season of the skein — failed to deliver strong ratings for MTV, questions swirled as to whether the net’s flagship reality show could continue to stand the test of time in the face of juggernaut programs like “Duck Dynasty.””Portland,” as previously reported, seemed to focus mostly on the noise factor of the show, with brutal, drunken fist fights serving as the main attraction for the season.

In fact, when “Real World” was renewed for its 29th season in August, sources in the reality biz remarked that, should this latest trip to San Fran not produce higher viewership than recent runs, it would likely mark the sunset for the Bunim-Murray Prods. program.

Adding an ex twist to what has remained one of the purest reality formats on television could read to some fans of the franchise like a last-ditch gimmick to drive up ratings. In a way, it is — MTV’s programming topper Susanne Daniels, who joined the cabler just a year ago, remarked, “We wanted to give our audience a fresh take on the series,” but a fresh take would not be necessary had recent seasons — San Diego, St. Thomas, Portland — accrued decent viewership.

Ex play has served “Real World” spinoff “The Challenge” well in recent years, as “Battle of the Exes” continues to be a great draw for the net, offering auds its own version of unscripted, serialized storytelling as exes of relationships forged on the “Real World” franchise shows are forced to team in a competition setting. What’s more, the relationships that housemates on “Real World” have with those back home — often manifested by nothing more than grainy calls, should a trip not materialize — have always been a point of drama for those in the “Real World” house, and a point of interest for viewers tuning in. Other reality shows, including “Big Brother” in 2003, have added ex-boyfriends and girlfriends to the mix to spice up the series, as well.

What this format change is truly exemplary of, however, is the difficulty in casting a pure house reality show in today’s unscripted market. As Jonathan Murray, co-creator of “Real World” said in a statement to EW, “When ‘The Real World’ went on the air in ’92 you put seven diverse people together and you get conflict, and out of that conflict would come change, and then you have a story. Now that it’s 21 years or so later, maybe we’re a bit of a victim of our own success. Diversity is a fact of life today. A lot of young people date people of different races, or have friends who are gay. The world has changed.”

Indeed, creating a melting pot of cultural backgrounds and lifestyles is not as novel as it was years ago on television. “Real World” came close in its return to Las Vegas, where one housemate revealed that, though he is heterosexual, he has a past of working in the gay porn industry. But twists like the one Dustin possessed in Vegas are not as easy to come by these days.

House reality shows — “Real World” being the granddaddy of them all — must rely on compelling casting for a season to produce interesting drama and twists, since the simple format does not propel storytelling the way, say, a competition format would. And even the best casting intentions can result in so-so results — insiders say that “Real World: San Diego” was not as captivating as it could have been because cast members at times froze up, or muted their personalities in the presence of rolling cameras.

Thus, in 2014, “Real World” will be relying on rather inorganic means to stimulate clashing in the house, something that, in the ’90s, unfolded naturally. While indicative of the state of reality TV, it still moves “Real World” away from its initial bottom line and towards a more romantic relationship-centric show — something that some may argue has been the new, unofficial bottom line for a decade or more.

But, even if the “Ex-Plosion” produces solid ratings for MTV, “Real World” will not be out of the woods. The trouble with a “surprise” gimmick launched at housemates is that, come hypothetical next season, new cast members may be expecting such a twist — the ex element will already be out of the toolbox, and a new one will have to be used. Thus, “Ex-Plosion” may place MTV and Bunim-Murray on the hamster wheel of format tweaks as they try to refresh the show each season.

Nevertheless, MTV and Bunim-Murray are confident in their new spin. Journos were invited to the San Francisco loft recently to peep the digs and meet cast members, and media screenings will be held to introduce writers to the new format.

“Real World: Ex-Plosion” will undoubtedly provide a slew of fascinating moments throughout its run, and feed the talent pipeline for “The Challenge,” which was also recently renewed. But the symptoms of aging, like the iconic opening credits go, eventually stop being polite and start getting real. It turns out that, as far as formats go, 21 years means huge generation gaps in the reality TV biz.

But here’s to 22.