"The Real World" started reality TV as we know it (Bunim-Murray Productions/The Kobal Collection)For the past 30 years, MTV has been a major part of our lives. And on its 30th birthday (which probably puts it soundly out of its own demographic), it seems important to acknowledge that while the show was originally a haven for music videos, the network switched gears in the '90s when it more or less invented something entirely new: reality TV.
Ever since Julie from Alabama met Eric the male model on the first "Real World" back in 1992, the network has been in the forefront of innovation of the genre, creating the candid reality show, the competition reality show, celebreality and a multitude of other subgenres that have transformed the television industry for good and for ill. Here's how they did it:
Seven Strangers Picked to Live in a House
While there was "An American Family" before "The Real World," that '70s PBS series was closer to a traditional documentary than what we know today as reality TV. "RW" really changed the game by casting strangers, as if they were casting a scripted show, and by putting them together in a contrived fishbowl to see what unfolded. It's doubtful that the late Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray imagined the debauchery that would still be happening 20 years later when they launched the program, but those of us who tuned in to that first New York season knew we were watching something special and different from anything else on the small screen — a pop-culture phenomenon in the making.
VH1 may have co-opted the term, but MTV was the first one to take a family of famous people and film their daily interactions. We may have only known Ozzy when "The Osbournes" started, but Sharon, Kelly and Jack all became household names as they screamed at each other and let their dogs have the run of the place. The network shortly thereafter introduced us to the private lives of Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson on "Newlyweds," changing how we considered a can of tuna forever.
Let's Make it a Competition
Before "Survivor" hit the U.S. or "The Amazing Race" took off globetrotting, there was "Road Rules." Basically it was "The Real World" on wheels, but with missions and prizes. That series is now kaput, giving way to the much more addictive "Challenge," but as far as competitive reality goes, it was one of the first in the U.S. to reach any sort of big audience.
"Real" Rich People Do Things
Long before the "Real Housewives" of everywhere invaded cable, we were introduced to an entitled bunch of teens (and to some extent their families) with "Laguna Beach." Seeing how these rich kids spent their time and money was ridiculous. By which I mean, I was glued to the TV... and then was compelled against my better sense of judgment to watch the entirety of "The Hills" as well.
Because Americans Never Tire of Idiots
There were hidden camera shows before "Punk'd," but never one where a quasi-celebrity perpetrated the misdeeds, but still, that show wasn't quite as groundbreaking as "Jackass." The Johnny Knoxville series caused near-riots with the awful and dangerous behavior that it perpetrated, but countless shows have followed in its footsteps. But really, can anything top the first time you see someone staple their own genitals to their legs? "America's Funniest Home Videos" just doesn't hold the same appeal after that.
We Hope You Like Orange People
Again proving that they were television pioneers, MTV unleashed all that is Jersey upon our airwaves. And while there are plenty of imitators, few Jersey-set series have the name recognition or the catchphrases that "Jersey Shore" does. For better or worse, we know about the "GTL" regimen and learned that if we want to party and pee behind a bar, than Seaside is the place to be.
Obviously, MTV aired some reality duds along the way: "The City," "Celebrity Rap Superstar," "Rich Girls" and "Tiara Girls," among them. And the less said about anything Tila Tequila-related, the better. But it's the network's birthday, so why dwell on the disastrous? (We'll save that for another day.)
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