MTV's Sort-of Real 'World' : Cable: For its docu-soap series, the network put seven young people together 'to see what might happen.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What do you get when you take a documentary producer and a soap-opera producer and ask them to develop a TV show for MTV?

You get the "The Real World," a hybrid new TV series that's part reality, part fantasy and wholly MTV.

"Real World" is MTV's video-verite attempt to add some regularly scheduled entertainment programming to the network's motorcade of music videos. The half-hour series, which premiered last week, features new episodes Thursdays at 10 p.m. (with four repeats during the week).

Here's the invention: Seven real-life, real hip members of the MTV generation, ranging in age from 19 to 25, were offered, like, a totally cool loft in New York's SoHo district to live in rent-free for three months.

The seven, carefully recruited by the show's producers from 1,000 applicants, are all aspiring, artistic-minded individuals whose ranks include a chichi male model, a strong-willed female rapper, a sensitive black poet, an innocent Alabama girl studying dance and a long-haired rocker from Detroit.

"We set up the situation purposefully so there would be conflict and sexual tension," said Jon Murray, 38, a veteran news and documentary producer. "The loft was a real pressure cooker. I mean, there are times in these episodes where people are literally in each other's face screaming at the top of their lungs."

In addition to rent, MTV provided food and some spending money. That eliminated many of the real-world hassles for the "Real World" stars, who were vigorously encouraged to live their lives, pursue their dreams, bare their souls . . . and never mind the cameras that would stick to their heels like bubble gum.

Each week the producers compiled 30 to 50 hours of videotape that had to be edited down to 24-minute programs.

"This was a way to infuse the documentary form with elements of a soap opera," said producer Mary-Ellis Bunim, who has produced some 2,500 hours worth of soaps, from "As the World Turns" to "Santa Barbara."

"Of course, critics might say, 'Oh, this is contrived.' We say, 'Well, of course it's contrived,' " Bunim said. "We designed the backdrop. We designed this family. And then we put them together to see what might happen, hoping for a dramatic effect. And that's what we got."

What Bunim and Murray ended up with is an experimental 13-week series that records its subjects like a documentary, looks like an extended Levi's 501 commercial, sounds like a music-video playlist and plays like a steamy, saucy afternoon soap.

If the low-cost series builds up a following on MTV in the coming weeks, network executives say they will consider duplicating the "Real World" concept in different American locales--Venice Beach has been mentioned as a strong possibility--and around the world.

Lauren Corrao, MTV's vice president of development, said that "Real World" grew out of the network's interest in putting on a soap opera. "We had been talking about it for a long time, just because we figured it was another genre we could tackle and try to put an MTV twist on," she said.

When Corrao first consulted Bunim about the idea, Bunim and Murray were working on "American Families," a short-lived Fox series that profiled families in transition or crisis. That show was a direct spinoff of "An American Family," the 1973 PBS documentary that chronicled--and some argue exploited--the family of William and Pat Loud, a Santa Barbara couple who filed for divorce on the final episode of the 12-hour series.

Bunim liked the idea for an MTV soap, but noted that the ambitious teen-age soap opera "Tribes" was failing to generate ratings on Fox-owned TV stations. So she suggested that MTV try a reality-based approach. MTV quickly latched onto the wish-fulfillment element for MTV viewers.

"To do a scripted soap opera was an enormous investment," Corrao said. "The first year would have cost us several million dollars. That's more than we're used to spending on non-music programming."

For MTV, "Real World" is a bargain at $107,000 an episode, about a third of the cost of most half-hour, reality-based programs. The seven stars were paid $2,600 each, which bought their story rights for the three-month period of the show plus unlimited videotape access into their personal lives.

"They had to agree that every part of their lives were open to us," Bunim said. "If they felt midway (through the series) that they could not continue--because we really fully expected someone to break under this scrutiny--that was OK, as long as they made the decision in front of the camera. Fortunately that didn't happen. But we were prepared for it."

By using songs from music videos that MTV already had clearances to play, the network also avoided expensive music rights for the cutting-edge pop tunes that underscore the adventures of the "Real World" players.

"Real World" bears MTV's unmistakable stamp in other ways too, with its skewed camera angles and lightning-fast cuts. New York was chosen as a location because it's a place where "young people go to sort of find themselves and pursue their dreams," Murray said.

Nor is it an accident that the cast members are all aspiring--several of them quite accomplished--artists.

"We're trying to play to the fantasy of the viewer out there," said Murray, who recruited the "cast" through MTV promos in New York, Austin and Birmingham. "That's what a good soap does. The idea of Andre wanting to become a rock musician, that plays to the fantasy of a lot of 15-year-old kids out there.

"We didn't start with the idea of having all young 'artists.' We interviewed a broad spectrum of people, but the people who were attracted to this project were generally these more open-minded, artistic people. The stock broker, the telephone operator--they didn't pound down our doors. And those who did frankly weren't that interesting."

The series has one unbilled star--the fantastically decorated loft where the cast congregates and spills their hearts. Two lofts were actually leased and an archway cut between them. Because there would be two cameramen wandering the loft whenever the occupants were home, every conceivable area where people might stop, stand or sit was separately lighted before the cast moved in.

Another section of the loft with a separate entrance was walled in where a small TV studio and remote equipment was located. Behind the walls sat a director and an entire support crew.

The camera crews were on standby seven days a week, 24 hours a day to follow the series stars throughout the city--singing in a local nightclub, posing for a photo shoot, taking dance lessons, recording a rap session.

Watching the series, it's never really clear which of the activities the charismatic stars arranged themselves and which were influenced by the presence of an MTV crew. The producers were required to obtain shooting clearances everywhere they went--and they were rarely turned down. The youthful, wide-eyed stars were frequently given choice tables at restaurants or free admission into dance clubs.

"MTV certainly gets more open reception than if you say you are with Mike Wallace and '60 Minutes,' " Murray said.

After discussion in the loft, when the three women complained on camera about how tough it is to meet men, the producers phoned officials at the Jamaican tourist board, who invited the women to Negril, Jamaica, to visit a resort called Hedonism II. The cost of the weekend trip was picked up by Jamaica.

"I can't say the presence of cameras doesn't alter reality," Bunim said. "Of course it does. But we approached this with an eye to do a dramatic show, an entertaining show, not just a documentary."

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