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The Unreal World of MTV

Sheldon Dutes and Leslie Shumate | Monday, October 9, 2006

This is the true story of a group of suburban teenagers picked to dress well, engage in staged melodrama and have their lives taped to find out what happens when television stops being “scripted” and starts getting “real.”

In 1992, MTV and Bunim/Murray Productions made television history when they launched one of America’s first reality television series, “The Real World.” Compared to the popular sitcoms and prime time soap operas that dominated television during the early 1990s, “The Real World” was innovative and groundbreaking.

However, as MTV became a teenager, its reality programming became less socially conscious and more of a perpetual Spring Break in Cancun. While now dominated by series such as “Laguna Beach” and “My Super Sweet 16,” MTV reality was once good – and “The Real World” led the way.

To produce “The Real World,” a camera crew rigged a house and taped its seven diverse occupants as their interpersonal relationships evolved. While the camera crew documented the roommates’ behavior, the production crew interviewed them to cultivate potential story lines. After several months of taping and interviews, the footage was edited into half-hour weekly installments for MTV’s target audience.

Aside from its novel production scheme, “The Real World” was also innovative in its content. Young adults – not actors – from diverse backgrounds dealt with controversial issues of race, religion, politics and sexuality in a raw, unprecedented manner. From race debates in season 1 to accusations of rape in season 2 to the death of an openly gay HIV positive cast mate, Pedro Zamora, in season 3, viewers were constantly exposed to contemporary issues.

However, somewhere between the early season’s groundbreaking episodes and Teck’s naked escapades in the first episode of Hawaii’s season the show took a sharp turn – arguably, for the worst. Long gone were the average-looking cast members with compelling stories to share. They were instead replaced by promiscuous, attractive airheads who desired nothing more than to have their 15 minutes of fame.

While “The Real World” still deals with such contemporary issues as eating disorders, sexuality and alcoholism, these problems have been clouded by its cast members’ salacious behavior and melodrama. All of the show’s meritorious attempts at social commentary are often overlooked or hard to find amid the hot tub hook-ups and binge drinking.

As much as “The Real World” was a revolutionary series in its fledgling years, it has sent the rest of American television – especially MTV – down a slippery slope. Due to the success of “The Real World,” reality series have saturated the network’s lineup and continue to cheat their audiences out of wholesome entertainment.

Reality television has marred MTV. Instead of attempting to make social commentaries through documentary-style filming, MTV has opted to focus on the lives of melodramatic suburban teenagers in television shows like “Laguna Beach: The Real OC,” “The Hills” and “My Super Sweet 16.”

In 2004, the success of FOX network’s “The O.C.” led MTV executives to adapt the hit show into their own reality series, “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.” The show documents a group of gorgeous, wealthy, Orange County teenagers throughout the course of a year. Viewers are privy to the backstabbing and heartache that characterize the lives of these privileged adolescents.

The first season focuses mainly on the heated love triangle between Stephen Colletti, Kristin Cavallari and Lauren Conrad. The gossip, feuds and juicy love triangles that pervade the show’s plot made “Laguna Beach” an immediate success.

The show’s second season keeps most of the same characters while introducing some new ones. Most of the same dramatic situations and relationships continue into the new season, but one noticeable alteration in the second season is the shift in the show’s narration from Lauren to Kristen. Accordingly, Kristen becomes the show’s central character and the “girl we love to hate.”

Audiences remained faithful to the show throughout its first two seasons, despite that its “documentary-style” filming seems more scripted than reality. Many situations seem altered and contrived with thorough editing. Nevertheless, MTV producers and executives firmly defend the authenticity of their documentary, acknowledging only minor interference on behalf of production.

Following the success of “Laguna Beach,” MTV created the spin-off, “The Hills,” which chronicles Lauren’s new life in Los Angeles. The reality show, which premiered in May 2006, follows Lauren as she attends the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and works as an intern for “Teen Vogue.”

While “The Hills” highlights the new aspects of Lauren’s life, it also integrates old components of her “Laguna Beach” days. Lauren’s ex-boyfriend, Jason, reemerges as a main character when he surprises her by moving to L.A. The show’s plot is refocused around Lauren and Jason’s rocky relationship, which becomes the main allure to audiences.

“The Hills” is similar to “Laguna Beach” in many aspects, but it lacks the spark that made “Laguna” so popular. While Lauren’s new life provides fresh and more interesting situations that relate to an older audience, the comparatively smaller cast of “The Hills” limits the number of subplots that made “Laguna Beach” so irresistible.

The saving grace of the show is the audience’s pre-invested interest in its protagonist, Lauren. As viewers follow her through the ups and downs of early adulthood, they share in her embarrassment, heartache and shining moments while witnessing decisions that make them want to pull out their hair (namely, Lauren’s decision to rent a beach house with Jason rather than work in Paris for the summer).

The next step in the digression of MTV reality shows is its creation of “My Super Sweet 16.” The series features subjects that are spoiled and narcissistic, lifestyles that are unrealistic and memorable quotes such as, “Stop telling me the world doesn’t revolve around me because today, it does!” Overall, “My Super Sweet 16” cannot relate to its audience – the original hallmark of reality TV. Yet, viewers are still intrigued by the over-the-top lavishness and colorful characters.

Each episode follows a privileged teenager who plans and attends her 16th birthday party. The show begins with an introduction of the featured teenager as she takes the cameras on a tour of her hometown, mansion and her designer-packed closet. Viewers accompany the bratty birthday girl as she hands out invitations, previews the hall and shops for the perfect dress. Predictably, her favorite rap artist and a brand-new Mercedes show up as surprises. An average “Sweet 16” can cost upwards of $100,000.

It is clear that “My Super Sweet 16” has completely deviated from any resemblance of reality. However, MTV has successfully ascertained what its target audience wants to watch – how the other half lives. Riding on the success of such shows as “The O.C.” and “Laguna Beach,” MTV aims to expose the lives of the young, beautiful and wealthy. Viewers don’t want to watch the reality that they live everyday – they want drama and extravagance. This is the type of “reality” that “My Super Sweet 16” and other MTV reality shows now present to an eagerly accepting audience.

Regrettably, this type of reality television has established itself as a main staple in this network’s lineup of shows. While some of its documentary shows, like “True Life,” have some merit as reality series, the network has digressed tremendously from the innovative documentary-style genre that started it all. The new wave of MTV reality may be a passing fad, but for now, the network has forced viewers to sacrifice music entertainment and personal edification.

Gone are the early days of “The Real World.” Lauren and Kristen will make sure they never return.