“This is the true story… of seven strangers… picked to live in a house… and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real…The Real World” (The Real World).
Many people consider the release of MTV’s television show The Real World (1992) to be the birth of modern reality television.
Inspired by 1990s youth-oriented shows, the original producers of the show, Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, decided to cast regular people and tape their daily interactions as roommates in an apartment. The Real World delved into a realm never touched before in television by being an unscripted series.
Each season of The Real World takes place in a new city with a different cast of seven (or eight) people. People from all over the United States apply to be on the show and the “lucky seven” are chosen after being auditioned and interviewed.
I argue that the show evolved into a pursuit of raising viewership and increasing ratings, and that The Real World serves as the primary influence of the reality TV industry. The people on The Real World are presented as one-dimensional, stereotypical characters in order to create the perfect environment for drama.
Season 1’s NYC Cast of The Real World
For example, “the cast (of the first season) includes a young, innocent [virgin] Southern women (Julie); an African American [ghetto] female rapper (Heather B); a long-haired aspiring rock star (Andre); a bisexual artist (Norman); an all-[European] American jock—turned professional model (Eric); a sexually free budding musician (Becky); and the young angry Black man (Kevin)” (Orbe).
The Real World: Season 1 Episode 1
Excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:
Is MTV’s The Real World really creating the youth of America? The characters on the show are solely defined by one of the traits they possess – and that is what they are remembered as. The show did not display a raw truth of what America’s youth was like, but instead, The Real World defined it through its deliberate use of cast selection and editing.
- Cast selection: “The producers of the show select cast members who have the greatest potential for cultural clash and conflict. Within the process of cast selection, for instance, viewers hear comments like, “She has a personality that polarizes others, we have to keep her.” ” (Orbe).
- Editing: The camera crew of The Real World follows each season’s cast closely, recording their interactions for three months. The footage ultimately gets edited into 30-minute episodes that make up the season. Through its process of editing, the producers of the real world are synthesizing a reality of American youth. Ironic, right? They have the power to decide how the characters are portrayed to its viewers.
The producers have the ability to edit clips in such a way that makes the characters’ behaviors seem habitual, as if one aspect of their life happens all the time. The editors obviously give screen time to the incidents that are most entertaining and dramatic when the reality of it is that the selected clip(s) occurred once over the span of three months.
After the first season of the show, critics mostly wrote negative reviews about the show because it wasn’t real enough nor was it very entertaining. Despite this criticism, viewers loved the show. And it ran for 32 more seasons. What does this suggest about American culture?
Answer: Drama is entertaining and sensationalism gets results.
Next question to consider: how real is reality TV? Is it truly “the real world” if the characters are presented as one dimensional rather than the multi-faceted beings that all humans are? Does being conscious of a camera crew at all times compromise the authenticity of the characters’ behaviors?
“Some cast members discussed how MTV manipulated the footage by editing it in a way that portrayed them in certain ways. Others focused on the unrealistic nature of the three months of taping: Being surrounded by cameras, living rent-free in a beautiful house/apartment, and having access to special events and places. However, other cast members maintained that the initial novelty of the cameras wore off and explained that no one could maintain a certain media persona without revealing their real selves” (Orbe).
Cutting down three months of interactions and experiences through a deliberate editing process will deprive the characters of any persona outside of their depicted stereotype. The scenes that will receive screen time reinforce each character’s one defining trait on the show.
Another excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:
Moreover, the mere fact that the characters become aware (after season 1) of their viewership has caused a change in the future casts’ behavior to appeal to its audience by actively trying to be entertaining. If picking fights and overreacting to everything will give characters more screen time, then they will behave as such.
Consider this clip:
The Real World developed into Real World: the typical reality TV show that exaggerates drama, fights, and conflicts involving the lenses of race, homosexuality, and gender.