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'The Real World' turns 20

By Stephanie Goldberg, CNN
updated 10:30 AM EDT, Wed May 23, 2012
"The Real World: New York" premiered on May 21, 1992.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Having aired 532 episodes, "The Real World" celebrates its 20th anniversary this week
  • The September 2011 premiere of "The Real World: San Diego" drew nearly 2 million viewers
  • Co-creator: "(It) was definitely the first show to put people into a house to live together"

(CNN) -- "The Real World" has now been on TV for longer than some of MTV's viewers have been alive.

Having aired 532 episodes filmed in 21 cities over 26 seasons, "The Real World" celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.

Despite being one of the longest-running reality programs on TV, it seems viewers still aren't sick of seeing "what happens ... when people stop being polite ... and start getting real."

The September 2011 premiere of the series' most recent season, "The Real World: San Diego," drew nearly 2 million viewers. Clocking in as the No. 1 original cable series of the night, the premiere marked the show's best debut in five seasons, according to TV by the Numbers.

But "The Real World's" cultural significance extends far beyond the number of people who tune in these days.

"'The Real World' was definitely the first show to put people into a house to live together," said Jonathan Murray, co-creator and executive producer of the series. It also introduced the "confessional" -- a room where cast members can go to speak directly into the camera and comment on their actions, Murray said.

CBS' "Big Brother," which began airing in the United States in 2000, borrowed "The Real World's" format, adding a competitive element.

Even MTV's shinier and newer reality program, "Jersey Shore," which attracted between 4 million and 7 million viewers throughout its fifth season, can attribute some of its success to the long-running series.

"We've seen certain shows like 'Newlyweds' or 'The Osbournes' or 'Jersey Shore' come along, and somehow, 'The Real World' keeps coming back while some of those other shows have their super bright nova in the sky," Murray said.

The show had somewhat humble beginnings. A 2007 USA Today story noted that MTV originally wanted the series to have a soap opera-feel. Then MTV chief Brian Graden told the publication that the show is "quite simply the undisputed granddaddy of modern, commercial reality television."

Murray says the same things that originally made the series such a dark horse, including featuring a new cast and location each season, are what inevitably led to "The Real World's" longevity.

"The fact that we do change the cast every season, and we do change the location," he said, "it keeps it fresh and it allows the show to very much reflect what's in the minds of young people."

In some ways the show was groundbreaking.

In 1994's "The Real World: San Francisco," cast member Pedro Zamora shared his struggle with HIV/AIDS. After Zamora died in November 1994, President Bill Clinton said the Cuban-born reality star "changed the face of HIV and AIDS in America forever."

"'San Francisco' was just, for most of us who've worked on the show, an incredibly important season because of Pedro's involvement," Murray said, adding, Zamora's story took "The Real World" out of the entertainment section and placed it on the front page.

That season, the series' third, is when Murray said he knew "The Real World" was special. He said he remembers thinking, "Maybe we'll get another five seasons."

Since then, the show has tackled a number of previously taboo issues.

Perhaps one of the series' most memorable cast members, Ruthie Alcaide, appeared on season eight, "The Real World: Hawaii." Alcaide's drinking problem, which eventually resulted in her temporarily leaving the show to enter a rehab center, shed a light on how young people cope with substance abuse, Murray said.

"The show, from the very beginning, was built on the idea that we were going to put seven diverse people into a house together," Murray said. "And so, the DNA of the show has always been diversity. ... And over the years, we've explored that diversity in every way possible."

Murray's current goal is to make it to 30 seasons, which is just around the corner considering that the 27th season, "The Real World: St. Thomas" is set to air on MTV this summer. And he said a 28th season has already been ordered.

"What's amazing about 'The Real World' is that every four years, in a sense, a new audience grows up into it," Murray said, adding that he always hears people say things like, "'That Vegas season was the best (yet),' and they've never even heard of that first Vegas season (which premiered in 2002) with Trishelle (Cannatella)."

But Murray's biggest fear isn't that the series won't hit its silver anniversary: "I'm scared for the day that we actually have someone apply to be on the show who's the son or daughter of someone who has been on the show."

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