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So What Do You Do, Jonathan Murray, Father of Reality TV?

'We're just the people who document what happens'

- May 16, 2012
If there were one person who could shoulder most of the credit (or, if you prefer, blame) for the popularity of reality shows, it would be Jon Murray, co-creator of The Real World, one of the longest standing and much-imitated reality shows in TV history.

After the success of The Real World, which premiered on MTV in 1992, Murray and his business partner, Mary-Ellis Bunim, went on to innovate the reality genre further with the development of the first reality game show, Road Rules, for MTV and the first reality sitcom The Simple Life on E! in 2003. After Bunim's death in 2004, Murray continued to lead the company they founded together, Bunim/Murray Productions, and produced a slew of successful shows, including Project Runway, Keeping Up With The Kardashians (and the family's whole line-up) and The Bad Girls Club.

Today, you'll find the executive producer working on BMP's current slate of shows from conception to casting to editing, or funding independent film and documentary projects like Autism: The Musical and Pedro, a scripted film based on the life of Real World cast member and AIDS activist Pedro Zamora. "Our main business is always going to be reality and nonfiction," Murray said of his production company. "But, if it's appropriate, we'd love to do other things that still fit our core DNA."

Name: Jonathan Murray
Position: Chairman and founder of Bunim/Murray Productions
Resume: Worked as a news producer at local TV stations before joining HRP, a television rep firm in New York, where he helped local stations buy and schedule their syndicated programming. Started pitching and developing his own ideas and was paired up with Mary-Ellis Bunim by his agent Mark Itkin in 1987 to work on a pilot called Crime Diaries. Bunim and Murray liked working together so much, Murray moved out to Los Angeles and the two founded Bunim/Murray Productions. Today, the company also produces documentaries and independent films and has a music management arm.
Birthday: October 26
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Education: Two years at SUNY Geneseo before ultimately getting a Bachelor's in journalism from University of Missouri
Marital status: Has a partner, Harvey, and a son Dylan
Media Idol: Grant Tinker, television producer and former NBC CEO
Guilty pleasure: British costume dramas, like Downton Abbey
Last book read: History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason

When you were first pitching Real World, it was a unique idea. Were you surprised when it initially got picked up?
We only pitched it to MTV, because we had been working with MTV on an idea for a scripted show about young people starting out their lives. And when the network decided they didn't want to do a scripted show, we pitched the idea to do an unscripted show of young people starting out their lives and sort of laid out our ideas... We were thrilled when they agreed to do a pilot. And we did that, and then they took a long time to pick up the show's first season as they struggled with whether they wanted to do something more than music videos. At that point, most of their programming was very inexpensive, because it was mostly free or it was studio-based. So this was a big step for them, so they took it very cautiously. When they decided to pick it up after about nine months of debating the merits on whether they should or not, we were thrilled. And then we did the first season, and it was an immediate success, and then we had to figure out how to do it again and again.

"The networks just didn't understand [reality TV]. We would go to various places and people would ask us, 'So basically what you do is all improv, right?'"

Why do you think it took so long for the broadcast networks to start including reality TV on their schedules?
The people who were in charge of the networks had all come out of scripted television, and they just didn't get it. They just didn't understand it. We would go to various places and people would ask us, 'So basically what you do is all improv, right? You bring everyone together and you improv the shows? You have a script and you improv?' There was just no understanding of how we did this. They just couldn't understand that if you chose the right people and put them in a house together and just filmed what happened you would get something as compelling as The Real World turned out to be. It just took a while. Quite honestly, most of the people who run broadcast networks are conservative and cautious and live in fear of getting fired, so it took the success [of Big Brother] in Europe before they felt they could take a chance on this... It was a slow process.

How much of what ends up on the air is actually what happened, and how much is prompted by producers, staged or edited to be more exciting?
Well, everything is edited. Every journalist, every writer edits things to make them more exciting. That's the nature of storytelling. You're going to leave boring stuff out. So, that's always a false charge. The Real World is pretty pure. We don't prompt them; we don't tell them what to do. We didn't tell Tami [in Season 2] to find herself pregnant and we didn't tell her to terminate her pregnancy. This is what happens. In some seasons we'll give them a part-time job, but we don't tell them what do to, how to react to each other; we don't tell them to fight; we don't tell them to drink alcohol.

Other shows, like Kardashians, are shows where it's stuff that goes on in these people's lives. We usually sit down at the beginning of the season and figure out what they're going to be doing and then we cover it. While we were covering the current season of Kardashians, Kris Jenner had come out with a book, and in it she talked about a relationship she had during her marriage to Robert Kardashian and how that hurt her family. That book and that story in the book, a lot of stuff has happened since that came out that has prompted a lot of stuff in their lives, and we've covered that as part of the new season.

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With Kim and her marriage, she showed up for Kourtney and Kim Take New York a week after the honeymoon, and we just documented what happened, and it was pretty clear that these two people maybe weren't exactly right for each other, that they didn't have as much going for them as a couple as they thought they had when they entered the relationship. Every reality show's producing method is different. I can't speak for other people's shows, but I find, generally, the closer you stick to the truth, the better the show. I think when producers try to prompt stuff or stage stuff, it usually falls flat. These are not actors and staging stuff, in my opinion, usually ends up with bad acting.

Maybe you can put to rest, once and for all, whether the show's producers had any involvement in Kim's decision to get married. Or was that a decision she came to all on her own?
No, of course not, Kim did not seek us out as to who she should marry, nor should she. All we're doing as producers is saying, 'Kim, we want to cover it.' We want to shoot the marriage, hell, if they'd let us we'd go on the honeymoon with them. (They didn't let us.) We're just the people who document what happens. I would not want the responsibility of telling Kim what to do in her romantic life.

"Kim [Kardashian] did not seek us out as to who she should marry, nor should she. "

On the latest season of Kourtney and Kim, it seemed there were moments when Kim was dealing with her relationship with Kris and trying to escape your cameras. When stars try to escape the cameras during a crucial moment in their storyline, what's going on for you as a producer of the show?
We are sympathetic to the people on our shows, and with Kim there are times when, yeah, we leave the room. She needs some privacy, so we give it to her. But, overall, the Kardashians as a family have been incredibly trusting in their relationship with us and their openness to the camera. And that's why I think the show is so good because they do not yell, "Stop filming!" They are very much supportive of our need to film it as it happens and then, if we have to, we'll sit down afterwards with the network and decide whether something should air or not air. But it's really important that as much as possible they let us do our jobs as producers so that we can gather the story, because it's so much better when we have that freedom. I think that's why the show works. It's not just a bunch of phony set-up stuff. It's really stuff that happens in this family's lives and they let us shoot it.

What do you think Mary-Ellis would think of the current state of reality TV and TV in general?
I like she'd be excited by it. I think she would love the fact that reality has become a larger genre for many different kinds of reality programs. I think she'd love that there are so many networks from History Channel to A&E to Style to E! to Oxygen that embrace reality programming. And that even networks like TNT and TBS that have done a lot of scripted programming have embraced reality. AMC is embracing some reality programming. So I think it's an exciting time.

What advice would you have for someone who wants to work in or create reality TV?
I get asked that question a lot by young people, and I [tell them] if you really do have a passion for reality programming when you come out of college, you have to work in it and you need to get that first job. I think we hire 20 to 30 young people each year to start out as PAs and loggers and all these different entry-level jobs. And I always tell them that you really need to work in it to understand it. Get a good liberal arts education. I'm always looking for people who think well, who are curious, who can write well, who are well-read, who understand story, and then we can teach them most of the rest of the stuff as a company. They come to us and we help them figure out where they're going to go with their career, whether they want to focus on story editing, or editing or they want to be in production. It's the only way I think you can really create reality programming... I think it's something that's best learned while you do it and you work your way up.

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Amanda Ernst is a freelance writer living in New York. She also manages business development and social media marketing for B5 Media, the publisher of five women's lifestyle sites.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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