The Real World premiered on MTV 30 years ago: Thursday, May 21, 1992, at 10 p.m. ET.
In the years that followed, The Real World provide hours of entertainment, weekly and in weekend marathons; showed us how things like abortion, racism, and HIV affected real people; and produced a spin-off, Road Rules, that led the way in competition reality TV, and then a cross-over show, The Challenge, that lives on today.
The Real World also changed television forever. That’s one heck of a resume for 30 years.
Thanks to the brilliant reunion series The Real World: Homecoming, we were able to spend more time with the original cast last year. They showed us the impact the experience had on them, and how much some of them had changed, while others remained frustratingly stuck in the past.
Their season of The Real World was not the first nonfiction or unscripted TV show.
PBS’s An American Family, which co-creator Jon Murray frequently cites as one of the inspirations for the MTV show, aired in 1973, almost two decades earlier, and followed an ordinary family in their lives, turning it into episodic—and riveting—television.
But even that wasn’t the first to follow real people, or connect audiences to the stories of their neighbors, as NBC’s Queen for a Day did in the 1950s.
The groundbreaking documentary Seven Up!, which started in 1964, checked back in with its subjects every seven years, so five films had already come out by the time The Real World premiered.
The story of The Real World’s origin has been told many times in the past 30 years: MTV wanted a soap opera; Mary-Ellis Bunim came from soap operas, and Jon Murray from documentaries, pitched MTV a real-life soap opera instead, in part because a scripted show would have been too expensive.
I was late to the party: The Real World Los Angeles was the first season I watched, and I found that in the middle of a mid-season marathon. But as soon as I tuned in, I was hooked.
The Real World was undoubtedly responsible for the 23 years I’ve now spent writing about reality TV, never mind all the time I’ve spent watching it.
So on its 30th anniversary, I thought it’d be interesting to look back at what other people wrote about the show back then, before I was paying attention.
Mid-1992 was, of course, a different time in media, with most TV critics employed by local newspapers. The Internet was so young that Netscape Navigator was two years away from being released, and its predecessor, Mosaic, wouldn’t be released until early 1993. Those of us who were online accessed walled gardens of the Internet through Prodigy, CompuServe, and American Online.
Because of that, in the ’90s, I often spent my lunch breaks in the school library—I was lots of fun—looking through microfiche to find articles about things that fascinated me.
I returned to library databases recently, searching for 1992 mentions of The Real World.
What the media said about The Real World in 1992
Alas, the changes in media, and the dumb decisions so many media organizations’ leaders have made, meant that articles from newspaper archives aren’t just a Google search away. So I dug into databases of newspapers.
I ultimately read through about 40 or 50 articles, and found The Real World covered with reporting, TV criticism, and a mix of both. There was curiosity and judgment—including from some people I did not expect!
Critics used different phrases to describe the show, because “reality TV” was not yet a common word. Articles inform readers that the show wasn’t filmed in real-time—something that still confuses some viewers, who think what they see on, say, Survivor actually occurred this week.
I was surprised to learn that MTV gave a surprising amount of access to journalists; more than a few stories had reporting from the control room, with journalists watching what was happening alongside the producers in that New York City loft.
And I loved hearing directly from Mary-Ellis Bunim, who died in 2004.
I’ve included brief but revealing excerpts from 19 articles here, paragraphs that for me offered insight into the show, the genre, or both. (An ellipsis in brackets […] denotes a place where I’ve cut text out from the original.)
While some of these articles made me laugh or roll my eyes, I don’t include them to shame or mock their writers—especially those who panned the show and genre.
After all, I doubt most of my observations about reality TV will hold for 30 years, if they hold up in 30 days. Those critics were doing what I try to do, which is to explain what they were seeing in the moment, and how they reacted to it. I’m appreciative of their work, which offered me with a window back to the dawn of a new era.
‘no freaks or actors’
The New York Times, Jane Hall, Jan. 17, 1992:
In a recent newspaper advertisement, the producers said they were “desperately seeking humans to share their lives with several million TV viewers—no freaks or actors.” The six young people chosen—three men and three women—will share a 3,000 square-foot loft. In exchange for MTV paying the rent, their daily lives will be videotaped and edited into a weekly program.
‘the intimate scoop’
The Los Angels Times, Susan King, May 17, 1992:
Told in documentary-style, “The Real World” follows the adventures of seven young adults—age 19 to 25—in New York City. The action and dialogue, MTV promises, will be spontaneous as the group, which consists of real people not actors, discusses the real careers, backgrounds, dreams, loves, hates and ambitions of its members. People in the cast will address the camera, giving viewers the intimate scoop on themselves and their roomies. “The Real World” also will boast the “unmistakable style of MTV,” which, roughly translated, means it will be fast-paced, have a rock ‘n’ roll score and a contemporary attitude.
‘of course it’s contrived’
Los Angeles Times, Daniel Cerone, May 28, 1992:
“This was a way to infuse the documentary form with elements of a soap opera,” said producer Mary-Ellis Bunim, who has produced some 2,500 hours worth of soaps, from “As the World Turns” to “Santa Barbara.”
“Of course, critics might say, ‘Oh, this is contrived.’ We say, ‘Well, of course it’s contrived,'” Bunim said. “We designed the backdrop. We designed the family. And then we put them together to see what might happen, hoping for a dramatic effect. And that’s what we got.”
‘it’s a documentary’
Los Angeles Times, Libby Slate, June 21, 1992:
Lauren Corrao, MTV’s vice president of series development, calls the show a “hybrid,” produced like a documentary and edited like a soap opera. “Aside from the initial setup of bringing people to that loft, it’s a documentary,” she said. “But we chose storylines to follow that have some arc, some interest, with a hook before each commercial. We looked for real people with charisma, who weren’t concerned with cameras and had some drama in their lives.” As for more traditional soap drama, though, most daytime serials began tapping the youth market only recently; two ABC shows have been going after younger viewers for years.
‘$2,600 to each roommate’
The Orlando Sentinel, Denise Salvaggio, July 11, 1992:
The cable channel paid the loft’s $8,000 per month rent, as well as $350 per week for food to be prepared on the premises and $2,600 to each roommate.
A free-lance artist and furniture designer, [New York City designer Brian] Bigalke was discovered by MTV producers at his own SoHo loft during a party. The producers just happened to be scouting locations for the series and thought his style meshed well with MTV’s visual look: a pastiche of postmodern, retro and techno elements.
After designing a set for the show’s pilot—for which he was given a budget of $2,000—Bigalke was hired as production designer.
[…] Although his working budget (outside of construction) was $15,000—a moderate sum considering the New York City location and loft size—Bigalke did much of the work himself and negotiated with friends who could supply the rest.
‘considerably more bickering and dissension’
The Washington Post, Paula Span, May 7, 1992:
At the moment, nobody outside the project can ask the Loftlanders much of anything. From the time they all moved in in February, strangers to one another, until they leave the loft, their stories belong to MTV. It can be reliably reported, however, that the loftmates have generated considerably more bickering and dissension than the producers had expected, that forcing seven people to share a single phone caused such problems that model Eric Nies had to install his own line to keep track of bookings (after which everyone else began using his phone too), and that the household’s weekly food allowance had to be raised from $350 to $400.
‘current issues for this age’
Sun Sentinel, Diane Werts, May 21, 1992:
The Real World tries harder to consider questions than to reach resolutions. “A lot of the issues are the current issues for this age,” says Bunim, who views it from the perspective of a “40-ish” mother with adolescent kids herself—”the conflicts with parents, the stresses about the choices they’re making in their lives, and the pressure to make those choices; the struggle with the economy, and the insecurities that are natural for that age.
“The racial issues, too, were fascinating,” she adds. “These kids experienced the L.A. riots on television together and were really able to articulate where they were coming from. I don’t think there are many television programs that give you such a frank perspective.”
‘a compelling portrait’
The New York Times, John J. O’Connor, July 9, 1992:
MTV’s ‘Real World’ is real largely by accident, and its seven principal players are far too independent to be stuffed into a tidy little soap opera. Yet this force-fed documentary series, reaching the 9th of its 13 half-hour episodes tonight at 10, has been steadily evolving into the year’s most riveting television, a compelling portrait of twenty-somethings grappling with the 90’s.
O’Connor didn’t think the show would continue, but also effectively suggested the idea for The Real World: Homecoming:
Should ‘The Real World’ be kept going much beyond these 13 episodes. I doubt it. There really isn’t much happening. Arguments about house smoking rules have limited appeal. But, as has been done before in television, it would be fascinating to come back to these people periodically, every 5 or 10 years, to see how things are turning out for them. Most viewers of this series will find themselves caring more than they expected.”
‘the camera doesn’t just record’
Newsweek, John Leland, May 25, 1992:
As in Madonna’s “Truth or Dare” documentary, the camera doesn’t just record the action, it generates it. The show’s sexual conversations begin with questions from a book called “Love & Sex” planted in the loft, and many of the most revealing moments come not from group interaction but from semiformal interviews. We learn that Norm is bisexual, for example-and that his roommates consider this no big deal—in a talking-heads segment obviously set up by the producers. What’s missing from “The Real World” is often the natural, fascinating process of identities exposing themselves other than for the camera.
For all the show’s shortcomings, though, the difference between “The Real World” and the traditional network-sitcom view of young adults is clear. In sitcoms, good-looking young adults talk about parents and morals and goals. In verite, good-looking young adults talk about sitcoms. Welcome to the real world.
‘might even become a hit’
Time Magazine, Richard Zoglin, May 25, 1992:
The Real World may improve as the subjects get used to the camera and fed up with one another. With a little more psychic turmoil, the show might even become a hit. Imagine the possibilities: young viewers turn off Beverly Hills, 90210 for Tales of the SoHo Seven. The gang gets back together for a sequel. There’s a reunion after seven years, then 14, then 21.
‘it’s here to stay’
The Denver Post, Joanna Ostrow, May 21, 1992:
MTV has a finger on the pulse while it pushes the envelope.
Sounds like the makings of a nasty paper cut.
Actually, the network has arrived at a new blend of two old ideas: the documentary series mixed with soap opera.
Enter the docu-serial.
“Reality” has become a loaded TV term since then. The trend is clear. “Reality” programming is less expensive than scripted dramas or comedies, so it’s here to stay. Expect more “real” or almost real video offerings in the future.
‘This is a joke, right?’
The Orlando Sentinel, Greg Dawson, May 31, 1992:
For those who missed the first three episodes of The Real World (10 p.m. Thursday, repeating 8:30 p.m. Sunday), here’s the setup: MTV recruited seven young people of above-average looks and talent, ages 19 to 25, housed them in a palatial New York apartment, covered their expenses (food, rent, mousse, etc.), let the candid cameras run for three months and called it The Real World.
Fasten your shoulder harnesses for we’re about to learn what happens “when people stop being polite and start getting real.” This is a joke, right?
[…] There are many words that could be used to describe the world inhabited by Kevin and friends – all aspiring artists, writers, musicians and models – but “real” is not one of them.
‘airheaded navel-gazing at its weary dreariest’
The Washington Post, Tom Shales, June 7, 1992:
If we’re really worried about the values that television imparts, especially to young people, let’s find some way to shut down MTV.
Or, failing that, at least pull the plug on “The Real World,” the pretentious new nonfiction serial that MTV recently introduced, a celebration of airheaded navel-gazing at its weary dreariest.
This is the generation that is constantly being told, by MTV especially, that the greatest goal they can have in life is expressing themselves. Never mind contributing to society or being a good neighbor and citizen. You’re special, and expressing yourself is really, really cool.
The twin ironies are that: (A) they seem to have nothing to express, and (B) they are so inarticulate that they wouldn’t know how to express it if they did.
San Diego Union-Tribune, Robert P. Laurence, May 21, 1992:
MTV’s experiment is interesting to a point, but ultimately self-defeating as a picture of how life is really lived, because the subjects spend so much time talking to the camera, and seem self-conscious even when simply talking to each other. The sense of reality is not helped when the producers, in an effort to get the conversation off to a spicy start, leave a copy of a paperback called “Love and Sex” lying around as an ice-breaker.
‘many viewers had become habitual ‘Real World’ followers’
The Baltimore Sun, Steve McKerrow, Aug. 7, 1992:
For a time after the taping period, says MTV’s Tina Exarhos, Heather, the rap artist, and Julie, the aspiring dancer, moved into Heather’s New Jersey apartment. But Julie has since moved back to Manhattan alone.
Noting the network’s large teen-age audience, she says MTV found that many viewers had become habitual “Real World” followers. In fact, discussions have begun on the idea of a second installment, with new people.
“I think it was the closest thing to actually seeing people at that point in their lives,” Ms. Exarhos says. “Whether or not they’ll move to New York, everybody has an idea about what that stage of their life will be like. It was like playing out their fantasy.”
$100,000, not $500,000, per episode
Broadcasting, Steve Coe, July 6 1992:
Both producers and MTV executives say it is probable that The Real World Part Two will be made with the setting in either Los Angeles or London as opposed to New York. MTV originally planned to do a soap opera geared to their young audience until cost estimates put the proposed project in the $500,000 per-episode range. “That would have required an enormous upfront commitment of several million dollars—or more—that the company wasn’t ready to make,” says Lauren Corrao, vice president, series development, MTV. “So we decided not to go ahead with the traditional style. Then Mary-Ellis [Bunim] and her partner came in and pitched us on this idea.”
Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jon Murray are the partners of Bunirm-Murray Productions, which produces the show for MTV. Bunim has produced more than 2,500 hours of daytime soap operas, and Murray brings six years of news and documentary production. The pair have managed to keep costs for the show at between $100,000 and $110,000 an episode. “I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t a Real World Part Two,” says Bunim.
‘the art of cutting and splicing’
The Boston Globe, Traci Grant, Aug. 15, 1992:
The cast actually went their separate ways about three months ago, before the show went on the air. At least one cast member was more than happy to move on.
“The people were selfish, inconsiderate and had no respect for people’s differences,” said Kevin Powell, the angry young poet from New Jersey. “I would never, never, under any circumstances, do it again.”
Why did they do it in the first place? Now that it’s all over, this is one of the major questions that persist. There are other things that viewers demand to know: Was something going on between Julie, the dancer from Alabama, and Eric, the hunky New Jersey model? Were all of those arguments staged or was the camera actually capturing little bits of real-life drama? Was Powell, whose numerous fallings-out with his roommates were documented in at least three episodes, an antagonistic jerk or was he justified in his cutting remarks?
“I know people are going around discussing my personality,” Powell said. “But they need to understand that the medium is manipulative. People don’t take this into account. I had no control over the editing process. You never get to see the things that they took out.”
According to Powell, among those things deleted from the screen was a sense of context. Audiences will never know that the day of Powell’s infamous argument with Julie, wherein he was accused of throwing a candlestick at her, was the day the verdict in the Rodney King case was delivered. They will never hear Becky thanking Powell, after the big blowout between them, for opening her eyes to African-American culture. They will never see that the presumed romance between Julie and Eric was created through the art of cutting and splicing.
‘transformed fiction into reality’
The Boston Globe, Ed Siegel, May 21, 1992:
This attempt by MTV to impose music-video mythology onto reality would be beyond perversity if it weren’t so transparent—and so well done. Bunim and co-producer Jon Murray apply such an energetic rock score and angular camera technique (somewhere between “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Do the Right Thing”) that there’s little chance that any but the most gullible will mistake what’s happening in “The Real World” for the real real world.
Or are we missing the point? If everyone is the star of his or her own novel, feature film or TV series, then these seven have indeed transformed fiction into reality. They play real guitars instead of air guitars; they fall in love with people with perfect bodies; cameras chart their every thought and feeling as if they were Madonna.
As Warren Beatty said of Madonna in “Truth or Dare,” reality has no meaning unless it’s on camera. Maybe “The Real World” is the final fruition of corporate culture’s merger of dreams and reality, conscious and unconscious.
‘infatuation with ourselves’
The Wall Street Journal, Mark Robichaux, May 18, 1992:
MTV hopes to grab the video-obsessed young with this version of reality. But the staged approach is the problem, contends Craig Gilbert, who produced the Loud family documentary. “It’s absurd,” he says. “Artificial reallty,” agrees producer Alan Raymond, who assisted him.
“‘It’s the latest bizarre manifestation of our country’s preoccupation with itself,” says Lance Loud, the family’s son, who is now a 42-year-old writer In Hollywood. “We are in a deep-trance state of infatuation with ourselves. Reality really just isn’t what it used to be,” he says.