One Network at a Time
The Real World co-creator Murray pioneered the reality genre
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/29/2004 8:00:00 PM
When Jonathan Murray was a kid, he was sure he knew what people wanted to watch on television. "I would cut up the TV Guide and reprogram the networks," Murray says. "I'd write to them, and they would send me the ratings." In fact, Murray was so passionate about television he climbed on his roof and mounted a TV antennae to get Gilligan's Island from another source. His local CBS affiliate was preempting the show.
Today, Murray has reprogrammed the networks to a degree that probably exceeds his own expectations. After working for years in local TV, he came to Hollywood and took his shot. Mark Itkin, then a young agent at William Morris, had an idea: He partnered him with soap-opera producer Mary-Ellis Bunim.
"She was looking to go out on her own and do something new. He was moving to California and needed a mentor. That's why I introduced them," says Itkin, now executive vice president, worldwide head of syndication, cable and nonfiction programming for William Morris.
The duo pitched shows for three years before learning MTV was looking for a prime time soap in 1991. "We both told MTV that a scripted soap would cost a lot," Murray says. They spent a year working on an idea, only to have it rejected due to its hefty price tag. That's when Bunim and Murray came up with the idea of casting real kids and documenting their life together in a house.
"It was a riff on a show called American Family for Fox," Murray says. "We were following families through crisis and transition in their lives, then editing them like a drama. We took the pilot from the Fox show we did and showed it to MTV.
"We pitched it over breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel in New York. By noon, they called and said they wanted it." Over Memorial Day weekend in 1991, Bunim and Murray sublet a Manhattan loft and moved six kids in.
"It was apparent from the moment the second kid walked in the door that this was magic. By the end of the first night of taping, the MTV executives and both of us knew we had a pilot that worked. It tested through the roof," he remembers. The Real World was born, and TV was never the same.
The Real World was such a phenomenon that Bunim-Murray spun off a road-tripping show, Road Rules. While TV has always aired non-scripted shows, The Real World and Road Rules were pioneers in the dramatic, documentary-style reality-TV format.
MTV launched The Real World in 1992, and season 15 in Philadelphia premieres this fall. Still, even though Bunim-Murray Productions were innovators in the genre, they weren't the first to hit it big in prime time. "For years, we pounded on network doors with reality shows. They all said it wouldn't work," Murray says.
"It took the success of Survivor and Big Brother overseas for the Big Four to wake up." In fact, Bunim-Murray didn't get to demonstrate their talents in prime time until The Simple Life, starring Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, scored last December.
Today, Bunim-Murray Productions is busier than ever, with The Real World and Road Rules MTV staples, Simple Life on Fox, Starting Over in syndication and The Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best coming this fall on Fox. But this year, Murray was dealt a terrible personal blow. Mary-Ellis Bunim lost her long battle with breast cancer. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't miss her," Murray says quietly.
Two years ago, he hired Joey Carson as COO and recently promoted him to CEO to handle the company's business affairs. "Jon is almost like a father figure," Carson says. "He is there to provide guidance and support." And he's still doing what he does best: reprogramming the networks, one show at a time.
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