By Tim Parks
This is the true story of a man who changed the landscape of television forever and helped popularize the modern reality show genre.
In 1991, Jonathan Murray and Mary Ellis Bunim pitched an unscripted drama series to MTV. Upon its debut in 1992, The Real World afforded audiences a new way to view life on the small screen.
Through their Bunim/Murray production company, this pioneering duo worked together to create a string of successful series such as Road Rules and Making The Band. In 2004, Murray lost his business collaborator to breast cancer and proved to be the embodiment of the adage, “The show must go on.”
Lately, Murray has kept himself busy Keeping Up With The Kardashians and its companion series Kourtney And Khloe Take Miami. He is also producing the sixth season of Project Runway, a two-hour Project Runway: All-Star Challenge special and the upcoming Models Of The Runway for the Lifetime network.
As if all of those endeavours weren’t enough, Murray enlisted Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) to pen a moving portrayal of late AIDS activist Pedro Zamora from The Real World: San Francisco for the film Pedro.
In his own real world, Murray is an outspoken activist for gay marriage, has been with his partner for over 17 years and is a father to a ten-year-old son.
We spoke to the man, who has single handedly created and executive produced over 2,000 hours of television viewing, about his many accomplishments.
How does it feel to be considered the “father of reality television?”
“Well thank you for saying father and not grandfather [laughs]. I know some people say that, I’m not sure it’s accurate. I am, I think, one person who is part of the evolution of reality television.
Certainly we do get credit for being the first people who really took the documentary form and, sort of, stood it upside down and made it very commercial to compete with scripted programming.
Because what we did was, rather than find seven young people who were living together in New York, we cast those seven young people for diversity. We chose the loft that they were going to live in and art directed it, so that wherever they stood they’d be in the light and look good.
The episodes, we structured them the way you’d structure a drama, with an A and a B story.”
Were you surprised at the initial success of The Real World when it debuted in 1992?
“We knew from the moment we started shooting the pilot for the show that we had something very special.
When it premiered, we didn’t know what to expect. We prepared ourselves for the fact that it might be 13 lovely little episodes and it was a great experiment.
But that very first show aired and the channel was averaging a point three or a point four with its music videos, and bang it tripled to a point nine – it tripled the normal audience.
For the first time in MTV history there was appointment television, people were showing up at a specific time to watch something; they weren’t just using the channel as a sort of wallpaper.”
With the series in its 22nd cycle with the Cancun edition – why do you feel viewers are still so drawn to the program?
“Part of the strength of the show is that we have a new cast every year, a new location – it keeps the show fresh.
It’s interesting; the viewers are not the same viewers who were watching in 1992. Every young person watching MTV has that point where they see The Real World for the first time.
I think that’s partly why it continues to be a successful show, because we’ll pick up that person when they’re 15 or 16, and they’ll stay with the show for four or five years. Our hardcore audience is that 15 to 20-year-old kid.”
Do you think each locale lends itself to the show as much as the participants themselves?
“The location is very important. When we shot in London some of the young Americans were intimidated by that city, I don’t think they really ever got out and explored. So, yes, the city is very important.
Generally, the bigger the better – New York, L.A. are cities where we are not the biggest thing that are happening in that town. It’s great; we’re just like a nobody, as far as production when we’re shooting. So the cast members are left alone to do their thing and meet people.
Whereas when you shoot in a smaller city, often the radio station and newspapers are talking about you – it’s like you’re the big news in the town, which is not what we want to be.”
Since MTV has picked up the show for four more seasons, and Washington, D.C. has been announced for the 23rd cycle – have you figured out beyond that where the show will be situated for the remaining outings?
“I haven’t and I’ll get around to it. Usually we like to see how things are playing.
You know we did Brooklyn and Cancun’s on the air – both seasons have done really well in the ratings – Washington will be a nice contrast to Cancun.
So I’m not sure where we’re going to go next, whether we’re going to revisit a city we’ve been to or go somewhere new. It will probably be in America.”
What was the idea behind combining the two shows The Real World and Road Rules into Real World/Road Rules Challenge?
“The Challenge is really the place where people who you’ve enjoyed getting to know, you can check up on how they’re doing in their life.”
You’ve had your hands in a lot of reality-based projects – are there any that are particular standouts for you, aside from The Real World?
“One of the things that we try to pride ourselves on as a company is to try and be innovative.
Simple Life was really the first network reality-comedy that was successful – that was a pretty cool little show we came up with. We had as many as 13 million people watching it each week.
There are some other shows that I’m very proud of, which didn’t necessarily have a lot of ratings success. I loved The Rebel Billionaire, which we did for Fox with Richard Branson.
We did a documentary that appeared on HBO last year called Autism: The Musical, it won a couple of Emmy Awards and we’re very proud of that.”
How important is it for you to further tell the story of Pedro Zamora in the new film Pedro?
“It was a promise that we made to him not to let his story die.
It was something that we wanted to do for at least ten years, and it was just trying to figure out how to get it made.
Ultimately, my dear friend Brian Graden, who runs MTV and LOGO – I hit him up for some money [laughs], and we ended up putting the rest of the money in ourselves.
We got a script from Dustin Lance Black before he had done Milk, and found Alex Loynaz to play Pedro the moment he walked into the audition. I just found like I was with Pedro, it was strange, when he started reading the lines – it just all flooded back.”
What do you hope viewers take away from watching the movie?
“I would hope that people will take away the fact that any individual can make a difference.
I would hope that it would inspire people who see the film to make a difference in their own way – and that’s whether you’re gay or straight or black or white.
Pedro’s story really speaks to everybody, and that was true when he was on The Real World.
I think that’s an important message, and I would also hope that it would remind young gay men to be responsible and value themselves.
As Pedro said, ‘If you don’t value yourself, then you’re not going to protect yourself.’”
Pedro is available on DVD, and also features three episodes of The Real World: San Francisco, Zamora’s original audition tape, and bonus footage not shown in the theatrical release.
This article was first published in July 2009.