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Reality TV series make a summer comeback

Sunday, July 01, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

This week, the granddaddy of "reality" TV and the Rodney Dangerfield of the genre have their season premieres. Tuesday at 10, the 10th edition of MTV's "The Real World" begins to unspool, and Thursday at 8 brings the return of CBS's much reviled "Big Brother."

Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jon Murray, who created "The Real World" a decade ago, continue to serve as executive producers for the series, which this year returns to New York, setting of the first "Real World."

Given the show's success on MTV (ratings continue to rise), it's surprising it took broadcast networks so long to get into the reality series game. But Bunim and Murray said it was the networks' conservative corporate culture that delayed the current trend. Bunim and Murray tried pitching reality shows to the networks as far back as 1996.

"The younger development people at the networks were really excited about 'The Real World' and wanted to create something like it for their network," Murray said. "But the more conservative network people, most of whom are gone now, didn't know how to deal with us."

Despite the advent of unscripted dramas like "Survivor," Bunim and Murray said they're not concerned about saturation hurting "The Real World." Murray said the show has become a rite of passage, "both as an opportunity to participate and to watch it."

He called it the "60 Minutes" of MTV.


"The Real World"

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday on MTV.

"Big Brother 2"

When: 8 p.m. Thursday on CBS.


" 'Beavis and Butt-head' and 'Jackass' may come and go, but 'Real World' could go on forever," Murray said. "This show is entertainment first and foremost, but it makes a contribution to young people in terms of opportunities to experience diversity."

Diversity has been a hallmark of the reality genre, with programs ranging from sublime "Survivor" to embarrassing "Chains of Love." "Big Brother" easily falls closer to the latter.

Arnold Shapiro, best known for producing CBS's "Rescue 911" and the landmark documentary "Scared Straight," signed up for the challenge of reinventing "Big Brother." He wasn't a fan of the first series, either.

"I did not watch much of it because, like much of America, I didn't find it as satisfying as its potential suggested," Shapiro said in a phone interview last month.

He joked that working on "Big Brother" isn't much different than "Scared Straight," his '70s documentary about prisoners who shared with teens stories of their not-so-pleasant experiences in the slammer to scare them away from a life of crime.

"My most famous documentary was about a group of people, and it happened to be 12, who were confined in a limited space and were not able to leave and with many reduced privileges," Shapiro said. "We'll have 12 people in the 'Big Brother' house. I'm not implying they're similar to convicted criminals, but the setting is kind of interesting."

This year the 12 confined to the "Big Brother" house will face an array of changes from last year's program, including:

House guests will evict each other weekly, rather than allowing viewers to vote who should be ousted.

Competitions in each episode will be relevant to living in the house.

They'll live in a house that's 2,400 square feet compared to the 1,800 square feet of last year's house.

Men and women will share bedrooms.

The chicken coop has been replaced by a basketball hoop.

In addition, the show will air three times a week instead of five, and in the live show Thursday nights, host Julie Chen will be stationed in a mini-studio constructed in front of the house (which got a facelift inside and out) and there won't be a studio audience. The prize for the winner at the end of three months living in the house remains $500,000.

"The show is vastly different this year from last year because we have the opportunity to learn from the things that went well and didn't go well last summer," Shapiro said. "The house itself has been totally redesigned and redecorated. There are more cameras and it looks nicer."

Shapiro said a greater emphasis was put on casting "Big Brother 2." Cast members, who were announced last week, will be key to the show's success this time around, Shapiro said. "I feel so good about the casting. I just know based on that and nothing else, it's going to be a better show this year."

Shapiro said this year's group is fiercely motivated to win, something that was lacking from last year's group who were willing to forfeit the money and considered walking out of the house in protest of the show's concept. That won't happen this year.

"They're highly competitive and fiercely intelligent," Shapiro said. "Among the many tests they take [during casting] are IQ tests. We were told by the psychologist who administered the test to the 40 finalists that this was the highest-testing group that he had tested, and he also does 'Survivor.' "

Brainiacs on a reality TV show? We'll let the viewers be the final judges of that.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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