Dubbed the “mother of reality television” by the New York Times, Mary-Ellis Bunim emerged in the 1990s as one of the medium’s most innovative and influential producer. Teaming with unlikely partner Jonathan Murray, she created a hybrid genre blending the artfully crafted human drama of soap operas with the unpredictable authenticity of documentaries. As cocreators and executive producers of MTV’s phenomenally successful The Real World (1992), Bunim and Murray pioneered “this new genre drawn from real life, a decade before the current flood of Survivors, Bachelors and Apprentices,” Emily Nussbaum wrote in the NY Times in 2004, following Bunim’s death. “Together, they sucked a whole generation through the fourth wall, democratized the nature of celebrity, and permanently altered the way networks thought about programming.” Bunim had broken into television through soap operas twenty-five years before The Real World as a secretary while still in college and went on to become the youngest executive producer in the history of daytime television. Commenting on her success in 2003, Bunim said it was during these early years that she learned a valuable lesson about producing for television that she never forgot: “The most important thing I learned about [TV] is to keep it emotional. It’s not about fancy production values or bells and whistles. It’s about characters and how believable they are.”
Bunim was born on July 9, 1946, in Northampton, Massachusetts, the daughter of a rice importer and a nurse. Her career aspirations were clear by the time she entered Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, where she watched her favorite TV shows religiously, including Search for Tomorrow, with ideas for improving the venerable soap already brewing. In 1967 she was hired as a secretary for the show, eventually moving up to booth promotion director. After graduating, she became associate producer, and not long after, executive producer. Over the next ten years, Bunim supervised production for Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, Santa Barbara, and Loving, leaving significant innovations in her wake. In her push for glamour, Bunim introduced on-location shooting from around the globe to daytime soaps and also was the first to suggest using original orchestral music to give each show a distinctive undertone. She subsequently worked for New World Entertainment as vice president of tape programs, developing shows for children, daytime, and late-night audiences.
In 1987, William Morris agent Mark Itkin introduced Bunim to news/documentary producer Jonathan Murray; the two clicked instantly and formed a partnership. Despite vastly different professional backgrounds, they shared a fascination with confessional storytelling and envisioned a new genre combining the raw energy of unscripted documentary and the manipulated human drama of soap operas. They spent years developing pilots—including Crime Diaries, featuring fictional detectives solving real crimes (which never aired), and American Families, a six-part series inspired by the landmark PBS vérité series An American Family (aired briefly on Fox). “Unlike previous cinéma vérité, we wanted to make it very commercial; we wanted a hook at every act break,” Murray told Emily Nussbaum of the New York Times. “Each scene advanced the story. We wanted you to come back next week.”
In 1992 MTV—hoping to diversify its predominantly music-oriented programming—asked Bunim to create a scripted soap about young people, but the cable channel backed off after seeing the budget for the show. Bunim and Murray countered with The Real World, a cheaper, unscripted reality series without actors, featuring-as the now-famous opening relates—“seven strangers, picked to live in a house, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” The show was an instant phenomenon, and is MTV’s longest-running series. “By concentrating on real, compelling people, we thought at the time it would be a fresh approach to TV and address the economics of cable,” Bunim said. “It turned out to be the first show to speak to a generation of people, in their vernacular, on their terms.” The Real World reimagined vérité for the MTV generation, complete with rock and rap music, fast editing, and an innovation now known as the “confessional”—a designated area where each cast member bears his or her soul to the camera “in confidence.” By giving “normal” teens and twenty-somethings the opportunity to display their insignificant quirks for thirty minutes on prime-time television, The Real World pioneered a new era of media democratization and empowerment for young people, foreshadowing such current Internet staples as MySpace and YouTube.
“It was perfect for MTV, because we have an audience that loves to see themselves, to be on television, to find out what tribe they belong to … and Mary-Ellis perfectly tapped into this,” Judy McGrath, president of the MTV Networks group, told the New York Times in 2004. “She was funny and thoughtful and adult, but I always felt like there was a 14-year-old girl in there.”
While some have criticized The Real World as a narcissistic showcase for the fecklessness of contemporary youth, the show has captured genuine confrontations between people with different values and backgrounds and in that sense has offered an arena of anthropological lessons on race, sexual identity, and political preference for both the audience and the cast members. The most famous example of this came in the San Francisco-set season three, in which cast member Pedro Zamora struggled with AIDS, becoming one of the first openly gay men in popular entertainment to be depicted confronting the disease. Zamora not only enlightened his housemates on the subject, but raised awareness about AIDS among viewers across the globe. “[Mary-Ellis] brought the world groundbreaking and unforgettable television and taught generations of viewers how to transcend differences, to love each other and to, quite literally, live together,” said MTV and VH1 president of entertainment Brian Graden.
The Real World also helped usher in a whole new era of reality programs like Survivor, Big Brother, The Bachelor, American Idol, and The Apprentice, many of which have unabashedly co-opted such Real World innovations as the confessional, MTV-style editing, and the dramatic concept of requiring cast members to live with one another in the hopes of stirring up human drama. Bunim and Murray themselves capitalized on the success of The Real World by venturing further into the reality genre with such other docu-soaps as Road Rules, Making the Band, and The Simple Life. In March 2003, Bunim and Murray produced The Real Cancun, a theatrical film depicting the unscripted lives of sixteen students on spring break.
A reality about Bunim’s life that was never shared with the public was her ten-year struggle with breast cancer, which ultimately took her life in 2004. But even after her death, the spice of her vivacious and driven character remains fresh in the production company she cofounded. “Mary-Ellis was a one-in-a-million partner and friend, and I will always treasure our incredible years of collaboration,” said Murray. “Even as the family at Bunim-Murray Prods. mourns her loss, we will honor her memory by remaining committed to her ideals of creativity, adventure and excellence, both on the screen and in our lives.” Bunim’s career ended prematurely, but her legacy will live on for generations to come.