HRTS Member Profile: Jon Murray
Jon Murray is Chairman of Bunim/Murray Productions and is widely credited with launching the reality television genre. I recently had a chance to sit down with Jon to discuss development, branding and the show that started it all.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and what made you want to work in entertainment? How did you get involved with the HRTS?
-I was one of those kids growing up who watched too much TV and was fascinated with the TV Guide Fall Premiere edition, the one that would lay out the network fall schedules. Then based on the first episode and the schedule, I’d create my list of winners and losers and track how the shows did to see if I was right. To do this, I used to write the TV Guide and ask them for ratings, which they very kindly would send me. This was before newspapers and magazines published ratings. So as you can see, I was always fascinated with television. I didn’t know how a kid from upstate New York gets involved in television so I ended up going to journalism school and becoming a television news producer before finding my way eventually to more entertainment-oriented television.
My first real knowledge of the HRTS was the monthly luncheons at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Mary-Ellis Bunim, my late partner, and I would go to them and then we joined a little while later.
Q: Twenty years ago you pitched your ideas for THE REAL WORLD, how did you prepare for that meeting and what are some of your recollections of it?
-it was a breakfast meeting at the Mayflower Hotel in New York City. It was a pitch to Lauren Corrao, who at that point was a development executive at MTV, her boss was Doug Herzog. We had been working with MTV on an idea for a scripted show about young people starting out their lives in New York City. Ultimately, MTV decided that wasn’t going to work for them so we pitched the network an unscripted show about young people starting out their lives in NYC. At the breakfast pitch, we laid out the idea of choosing six young people, moving them into a loft together and being a fly on the wall with our cameras, taping what happened and editing it together into half-hour episodes.
Lauren immediately got it since when she moved to New York City she lived with a bunch of people and sort of had that experience; we were very lucky since she immediately understood the potential for drama when people that age are starting out their lives and trying to make things happen. It was just a simple verbal pitch, today you’d have to have video and do all sorts of things. We knew that there was nothing else on TV like it and we felt that would be particularly appealing to MTV, whose brand was about being cutting-edge and different and rejecting the status quo. This show very much reinforced that brand. I think MTV bought the show since whether it was ultimately successful in the ratings or not it would get good press, and what it would say about the channel would be important to reinforcing their brand. The show felt as contemporary and current as the videos that were playing on the channel.
Q: What are some of the factors in the continuing success of THE REAL WORLD?
-I think the very things that would normally make a show unsuccessful are the things that make it successful. We broke the rules. The rules for a scripted show are that a show stays in the same location, the cast stays the same from year-to-year, you don’t change things. With THE REAL WORLD, we moved to a different city every year, we cast a whole new group of people to live together each year. We were breaking the rules of television and by breaking those rules the show has remained fresh because every season we’re able to reinvent the show by moving locations, by bringing in new cast members.
Q: How did Reality TV change during the nineties? How has it changed during the 2000s?
-it didn’t change that much in the nineties, BIG BROTHER and SURVIVOR didn’t come about until the year 2000. Our second reality show was ROAD RULES, which was sort of a game reality where we took the young people and put them on a Winnebago and challenged them with a series of “missions” as they traveled around the country. If they were successful, they got a handsome reward. During the 90s, reality TV didn’t change a lot, we were sort of on a little island doing our own thing and certainly there started to be some other things in cable but it wasn’t until the year 2000 that the broadcast networks really embraced it. At that time we did MAKING THE BAND for ABC and it was sort of an early idea where we followed the formation of a band, the casting of a band. We were pitching the broadcast networks all through the nineties - I remember that an early idea we pitched to the networks was THE GREAT AMERICAN ROAD RACE, an idea we had and you can say later, hmm, that’s sort of like AMAZING RACE - but the broadcast networks were pretty steadfast in saying that they didn’t feel that their audience would watch a reality show. They thought it was for cable, that the broad audience of a CBS or an ABC would not be able to watch a reality show, would not be able to make that transition from scripted. It wasn’t until the success in Europe of BIG BROTHER that finally the broadcast networks here felt safe in saying “yes” to reality.
In 2000, reality TV started to explode with BIG BROTHER and SURVIVOR and gradually AMAZING RACE and AMERICAN IDOL and you just got these big, strong shows that have remained incredibly resilient. Clearly, cable was there first, for cable it was initially less expensive and it was offering something that you couldn’t get on broadcast television so it helped the cable networks to define themselves. With broadcast, the shows had to be really big, they had to look huge. With the broadcast networks there was also this feeling that they needed shows that guaranteed that something would happen. They felt more comfortable with the competition shows since they knew someone was going to be eliminated at the end, they had something to build to, whereas with a docusoap there was a fear from the broadcast community that you don’t know if you have that big, dramatic moment that you’re building towards, you just have to trust that it’ll come. If it’s a five-act structure, the broadcast networks want to know that the viewers are going to stay around since they know that someone’s going to be eliminated at the end of the show.
Q: How would you define the Bunim/Murray brand?
-the Bunim/Murray brand is young, it’s great casting and storytelling, it’s great use of music and it generally appeals to women 18-34. Our shows, whether it’s THE REAL WORLD, THE BAD GIRLS CLUB (Oxygen), the Kardashian shows (E!), even PROJECT RUNWAY (Lifetime), they all appeal to that audience and in the case of the MTV shows also to the 12-17 demo.
Q: What is your decision-making process when considering a potential new series?
-we have a development team, headed by Scott Freeman, and they take pitches from the outside, sometimes agents come in with talent or someone will come in with access to an interesting world or will come in with something’s that intriguing to us. More than just an idea, it’s got to have access to a location or talent attached, it’s got to have something since virtually every idea has been thought of at one point or another so it’s all about the elements of that idea. Our development department also generates a lot of ideas for shows and then they meet with me and with Gil Goldschein, our President, and we sit down and talk about the ideas – first of all, are we excited about it? Are we passionate about the idea? Does it feel right for the Bunim/Murray brand, does it feel like a show that Bunim/Murray should be going out to the market with? What are the buyers for this idea, is there a place we can sell it, is there more than one place? We also like to go over to networks and develop shows with them, with Oxygen we developed THE BAD GIRLS CLUB specifically for them as a show that could help brand that network, just as the Kardashians help brand E! and THE REAL WORLD helped brand MTV.
Q: Where do you want your company to be five years from now?
-we went through a big thing last year when we became part of the Banijay Group, which is a collection of production companies. All the companies are very entrepreneurial, we share ideas with each other, we exchange formats, Banijay handles the international distribution of the shows. This is something new for us, after being a pure independent for 23 years it’s very exciting to be part of a larger group. Over the next five years, Bunim/Murray will continue to develop relationships with networks that we haven’t been on and do programming with them. We’ve definitely set a goal to get more formatted shows on those Big Four broadcast networks. We want to keep THE REAL WORLD on the air and keep it fresh, we just got renewed for two more seasons, which will take us to Season 28. PROJECT RUNWAY is going into its ninth season, THE BAD GIRLS CLUB is going into its eighth season. We have a new show on VH1 called SADDLE RANCH, it’s about the restaurant and bar and the young people who work there and it’s really good and then we also have on Oxygen a spinoff of THE BAD GIRLS CLUB called LOVE GAMES and that’s going into its second season this month.
Q: Anything you would like to add?
-I haven’t heard anybody say this year in the press that reality is just a passing fancy, that it’s going to go away. For the first years, from 1992 until recently we were constantly hearing this refrain from people in the press “is reality here to stay?” and I think finally people have stopped asking the question since they realize that reality is here to stay and it’s an important part of the landscape. Reality television when it’s done well is exciting, it’s unpredictable, like on AMERICAN IDOL when someone got eliminated who people thought was the frontrunner. That’s the excitement of reality TV, when something unpredictable happens and when a reality show becomes predictable then you’ve got a problem. I’m excited that reality has finally been accepted as a permanent part of the landscape.