How MTV’s Lack of Money Gave Rise to Reality TV

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Oct. 27 2011 9:18 AM

How The Real World Began

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For their new book, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum talked to more than 400 people who played a role at MTV between 1981 and 1992. What follows is an excerpt from the book, adapted from a chapter on the birth of The Real World.

Lauren Corrao and Amy Finnerty are former MTV executives. Tom Freston was the CEO of MTV Networks from 1987 to 2006. Doug Herzog joined MTV in 1984; he is president of MTV Networks Entertainment Group. Dave Holmes is a comic, writer, and former VJ. John Lack is a media executive; MTV was his idea. Jonathan Murray is a TV producer and co-creator, with the late Mary-Ellis Bunim, of The Real World. Eric Nies and Kevin Powell were members of the first-season cast of The Real World. Van Toffler joined MTV in 1987 and is president of MTV Networks Music/Films/Logo Group.

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Amy Finnerty:
I saw flyers up around the halls of MTV for the casting of the first Real World, and I thought, Who the hell would sign up for something like that?

Tom Freston: People asked me, “How did you come up with The Real World? That is genius.” It was just because we didn’t have any money.

Van Toffler: Joe Davola, Doug Herzog, and I looked at statistics about how much our audience watched soap operas during the day. So we said, “Let’s do a soap opera.”

Doug Herzog: We decided to do a teen soap opera, with a rock n’ roll attitude. Fred Silverman, of all people, the former president of NBC, recommended a woman named Mary-Ellis Bunim, who came from the world of soap operas.

Jonathan Murray: When we put together a budget, MTV was like, “Oh my god, we can’t spend this much money. We get our music videos for free, and now we’re going to spend $300,000 for a half-hour of television?”

Lauren Corrao: It would have cost around $500,000 a week. In comparison, Remote Control was about $15,000 an episode.... I’ll never forget, Mary-Ellis said, “What if you could do a soap opera with no actors and no writers?”

Kevin Powell: Jon and Mary-Ellis had an incredible vision. Outside of An American Family on PBS in the ’70s, there wasn’t anything like it. I was really into their idea of combining documentary filmmaking with a soap opera. I thought it was a fascinating social experiment.

When Julie and I had our famous “race” argument on the sidewalk, we were so passionate about our positions that we were oblivious not only to the cameras, but to the crowd of people that had gathered. She was a Southerner, I was a Yankee, and we had completely different perspectives on the world. People have told me that was the first time they’d ever seen race talked about in that way on national television. People have written dissertations on our argument.

Eric Nies: I’d posed naked for a Bruce Weber book, and the producers decided to throw the book on the coffee table in our apartment for everybody to see. They felt they had to create conflict. But for me, it was all good. It grabbed more attention and helped my career. Obviously, that’s what the show is all about.

Jonathan Murray: When The Real World debuted in 1992, MTV was still mostly music videos. In fact, the show sometimes began at three minutes before the hour, or three minutes after the hour, depending on when a music video ended.

Nies: We each made $1,400 for appearing on The Real World. It was completely unfair. That show made millions and millions of dollars for MTV. I made $1,400.

Herzog: To show you what an idiot I am, when The Real World took off, I thought, Well, this can only work once. My thinking was, those kids who did the first season, they had zero expectations coming in. But since they’d become stars, the next group of kids were going to expect to become stars, too, and they’d be over the top and the audience wouldn’t want to see that. Wrong! That’s exactly what the audience wanted to see.

Dave Holmes: Have you seen the first season of The Real World lately? It seems like a fucking Ken Burns documentary from today’s perspective. The scenes and conversations go on forever. It’s like, you can’t believe how much shorter our attention spans have gotten since then.

Powell: Our season of The Real World opened up a new chapter in television history. For our show to be a part of American pop culture, that’s incredible.

Still, it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, I’m proud when people say to me, “Your conversation about race had an impact on my life,” or “Norman coming out and being an openly gay male on TV had an impact on me.” That’s important. But when people ask, “How can I get on reality TV?” I mean, come on, man. I’m in my forties. I’ve run for Congress twice. I could care less about that stuff.

Corrao: I still feel a little guilty about being the one responsible for the non-music shows.

John Lack: The Real World was the end of music as we know it on MTV.

Herzog: We didn’t know what to do with the kids from the first season. We felt responsible for them. We gave Eric Nies a job hosting The Grind. We hired Julie Oliver in HR, but she started looking up all the executives’ salaries and telling Bunim-Murray, so we fired her. Heather B worked on Yo! for a while. I bought a very bad painting from Norm.

Excerpted from I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. Copyright © 2011 by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. Excerpted by permission of Dutton, a division of Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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