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20 reasons why MTV’s Challenge has endured for four decades and 500 episodes

20 reasons why MTV’s Challenge has endured for four decades and 500 episodes

What began with a fun competition between the casts of The Real World and Road Rules in 1997 has morphed into a reality competition series, The Challenge, that will be airing its 500th episode tonight as part of season 37.

The Challenge’s longevity is an impressive accomplishment. The 500-episode count, MTV told me, starts back with season 1 in the 1990s, and does not include spin-offs.

Few reality shows have lasted that long or aired in four different decades. The Challenge is the longest-running reality show on the air right now; the only competition it has are The Real World and Cops, but neither of those have not aired seasons as consistently, and of course The Real World only exists in spin-off form now.

Episode 13 of Road Rules: Islands was a series of competitions between its cast and The Real World: Boston, with the winners receiving small cash prizes, and the Boston group amassing the most wins, for which they received pedicures from the other cast as their prize.

After another face-off in 1998 between the Seattle and Road Rules: Down Under casts, Road Rules: All Stars was born. The 1998 series was hosted by The Real World San Francisco’s Puck—yes, really—and had just five cast members: Jon Brennan, Rachel Campos, Sean Duffy, Eric Nies, and Cynthia Roberts, all of whom were Real World alumni.

That’s technically the first season of The Challenge despite having a different title, while The Real World/Road Rules Challenge premiering a year later, in 1999. It’s aired at least one season every year since.

It had a variety of hosts, including Dave Mirra and Jonny Moseley, until TJ Lavin joined as host in 2005’s The Gauntlet 2, which was season 11.

The Challenge has morphed and changed over the years, dropping most of the words from its title and also losing both of the shows that fed it contestants—plus the conceit of two different casts battling each other. Eventually, it started drawing players from other reality TV shows, on MTV and elsewhere, and has become an ongoing soap opera. Storylines and formats now span multiple seasons.

During its long life, the The Challenge has spun-off other series, including the latest series, Paramount+’s The Challenge: All Stars, which features alumni who haven’t been on the show in years.

It’s permeated pop culture so much that it’s been called “America’s fifth official sport” and “America’s finest sport,” and is the subject of far too many podcast episodes and recaps to count.

During its life, the MTV series also “incentivized physical violence” and had a “hostile work environment” with “unwanted touching,” according to one of its longtime cast members.

And then there were the details in this horrifying lawsuit, which was settled out of court.

Those kinds of stories, along with the violence and drunkenness, drove me away. I used to watch religiously—for the drama and the janky challenges, and to gently mock the cast and TJ’s stilted hosting, though he certainly has improved over the years.

So I was curious: If you’re a Challenge fan, what’s kept you watching for its 23 years?

Why the Challenge has endured for 500 episodes

Theo, Paulie, Challenge 33, episode 3
Theo and Paulie wrestling for a ball in the Challenge episode 3 competition “Search and Destroy.” (Image from The Challenge via MTV)

As I was writing this, and because I haven’t watched regularly in years (I tried to watch The Challenge: All Stars, but it wasn’t for me), I asked on social media why fans of The Challenge keep watching, and what’s kept you as fans.

Thanks to everyone for responding—I appreciated reading your memories and thoughts! Here’s a selection of 20 of those terrific comments:

Eric Reynolds, reality TV producer: “I just love that Bunim/Murray have been able to create a world as big as The Challenge with so many players/stories that span years, decades etc.”

Jon Collins, reality TV producer: “Because it’s a great amalgam of competition series and docu-soap. It’s characters who have decades-long histories competing in intense games with high stakes. It’s my comfort food show. I became a fan by working on it. Watched every season since.”

Jane McGonigal, game designer and writer: “The prize is life changing, romantic relationships are fun and surprising, contestants do things I can’t imagine being brave enough to do, the game rules evolve in ways that stop boring gameplay or dominant strategies (in a game theory sense) from being playable. … Obviously there have been horrendous issues with racism, sexual assault and concussions. I don’t know why I have been able to stay with it given all that but somehow I always want to watch every season. I’m not even watching survivor now but I am watching the challenge!”

Dr. Janie Filoteo, sociologist: “Been watching since TRW so part of it is nostalgia. However, I’m perpetually amazed that some of their competitions are really simplistic. Here’s a stick and a circle and brings all the drama and tension of Survivor’s swim, find a puzzle piece, win chips boring competitions.”

Annie A Aalto-Harvey: “Once I outgrew the Real World, I started to watch the Challenges. Watching the Challenges, I got to follow the Real World castmates I liked. I agree whole heartily with previous posts, watching CT grow up has been interesting. The challenges they have the cast do are entertaining.”

Marianne Schwartz: “The challenges themselves. I get sick of the drunken antics but I love the competition. Main reason I loved the OG season so much! Focus on the challenges”

Christie Keyes: “Been watching for over 20 years. I love that it pulls cast members from all different shows that I also watch. I love [that] it boils down to true athleticism in the end to succeed on this show, but a strong social game just to get to that point. And also, CT!”

Raul Fuentes Jr: “I’ve been watching since the beginning, it’s been fun to see the series evolve throughout the years. Even though it had its problematic seasons it’s shaped up to be a really good reality competition show. It’s really cool they have incorporated reality contestants from throughout the world also. I’ve been a fan of most of the OG’s so with All Stars on Paramount Plus It’s been a fun trip through nostalgia and makes me wanna go back to the first 12 seasons.”

Douglas: “TJ Lavin. He is one of the all time great reality competition hosts. He has zero tolerance for quitting and pushes the players hard every season. He always seems like he is having a good time and it translates into great TV. Also, the show isn’t afraid to change up the format.”

Dr. K: “They don’t shy away from the ecosystem that has been built outside the show. People seem to take the competition/show seriously but still recognize it’s a game. Seems less heavily ‘produced’ than other reality shows. Not afraid to make changes or try new things to keep it fresh. … The Challenge also helped me choose my PhD program because I bonded with someone over it during my interview visit.”

BadMitten: “I like the high level competition mixed with the strategy/social game. It’s also nice to see familiar faces from other reality shows and see them develop as characters over multiple seasons on the challenge.”

Lauren Sheftell: “TJ & the need to never disappoint him, the evolution of CT, the messiness, the hardcore competitions both physical & mental, the rivalries even when they are just for game and they do a decent job of incorporating new blood like Big Brother peeps to add more tension consistently”

Chad Pettis: “It’s definitely interesting to see the dynamics morph throughout the series. Watching them go from friends to allies, and back and forth from season to season. To truly see rivalries play out… And then to think there are actually relationships (friendships, dating, etc) that cross into the game is really interesting. Plus the challenges, for the most part, are epic.”

Susan Stockard Reed: “Watching CT grow up has been so interesting. The challenges are different than anything you see anywhere else. And up until this season, the casting has been pretty great.”

Matt Munson: “My wife and I love it. I think the challenges are very well designed. The locations are always amazing. TJ cracks me up as a host (he loves watching the contestants fall off of things). The athleticism of the contestants is highly respectable and even if the cast can be a little trashy at times, I enjoy having a fairly consistent crew to root for/against. The twists aren’t overly complicated like Survivor’s either, but instead keep the game fresh and evolving in a good way. I think it is a relatively underrated show as a whole.”

Susan Crimson: “My husband and I are older now, but started watching the Real World, Road Rules and now the Challenge from their very beginnings. There are so many players that have been fun to watch over the years, and several we’d like to see again. Our interest is starting to wane bc we do not watch the other shows from which the players are drawn, with the exception of Survivor and Big Brother. And we’re rooting for the Miz every week on DWTS!”

Tanya Lynn: “Honestly I don’t know why I do sometimes but I do think it’s part nostalgia, longing for the pure days of the Real World. It’s predictable but they also keep it interesting with the insane physical challenges. I think there is something to be said about the decent diverse casting too, compared to shows like the Bachelor franchise.”

Marc Goldberg: “Simply put. It’s a guilty pleasure. They have a lot of great challenges you don’t see on other shows, especially the really physical ones. I like how there are some players who come back year after year while introducing lots of new folks I’ve never heard of who you grow to love. Or hate. The show is rarely the same format two seasons in a row which i like. Just when the cast has it figured out, they are thrown a curveball. There is backstabbing, alliances, friends, enemies, fighting, love, naked people and CT who like others said has become my all time favorite.It’s a show I look forward to every week and really miss when it’s in between seasons.”

Will Williges: “I really like the character arches of people. What show can you say that you followed someone from hot head young gun. To being in love to losing his love to him being a dad. (Talking about CT). The challenges are truly well put together. The hooking up has never really kept me around”

Weston Ashley: “I have been watching the Challenge since it began airing in 1998 and it was just a group of Real Worlders in an RV essentially living their Road Rules dreams. What I love most about the Challenge and the reason why I have kept up after all these years is the same reason why I keep up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You can watch each individuals original season or origin story (The Real World or Road Rules or today… Big Brother/AYTO/Survivor) and then follow them over to their Avengers-like Team Up on The Challenge. Some heroes and villains rise and fall. At this point, The Challenge is like an epic poem where dedicated fans can casually give up lines from the past without thought, ‘I don’t wrestle, I — beat bitches up (Coral, Inferno).’ The Challenge has become legitimized by some as ‘the Fifth Sport’ but for me it will always be the continuation of Bunim/Murray’s docu-soap, The Real World which created reality television as we know it today.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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