If Mary-Ellis Bunim were to cast herself in a classic movie, A Double Life might be the appropriate film. For nearly a quarter of a century, Bunim starred as a daytime drama production executive, before taking a pioneering role in reality programming.
Since 1989, in partnership with former news and documentary producer Jonathan Murray, Bunim has crafted a landmark form of dramatic storytelling in which people from different segments of society gather in a specific environment, in full view of a camera.
Two years after Bunim and Murray teamed up, MTV: Music Television launched their first effort in the genre, The Real World, in which seven young adults spent several months together in a New York loft.
The show hit home with the channel's audience and beyond. Solid ratings prompted MTV to order a second season, with the same concept transported to a different city. Twelve years later, Real
remains among MTV's highest-rated original series, and reality fare from Bunim/Murray Productions is a fixture on MTV and elsewhere.
"We thought it would be a one-shot, 13-episode deal back in 1991," Bunim recalled. "They wanted a soap opera, but different. 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. It turned out to be the first show to speak to a generation of people, in their vernacular, on their terms.
"It was so compelling that once it aired, we figured if we could cast it again, we could reinvent it with different approaches to both production values and storytelling, and a new city as another roommate. MTV saw the possibility, and the rest is history."
Besides Real, Bunim's envelope-pushing content for MTV includes Road Rules, a cross-country and sometimes cross-continent odyssey of young adults who must work with their wits and without many necessities; and Making The Band, in which a musical group or performer is groomed for stardom.
has had almost as long a life as Real World, while Making the Band
was circulated to MTV after a two-year run on ABC.
For the most part, Bunim and Murray have avoided the trappings and travails of other reality fare, from Survivor
to Joe Millionaire. Still, chroniclers of the genre often throw Bunim's work in with the rest of the crowd for comparison.
As for what her efforts have wrought, Bunim holds mixed feelings.
"There are aspects of what we've done that others copied and improved upon, and others have copied and horrified me," she said. "The key thing is we don't take responsibility for every incarnation of reality TV since Real
[World]. It's up to the audience to determine which incarnations exist or not."
In the end, telling a solid story with people "you love spending time with" will separate reality TV's winners from its losers, Bunim said. People selected for reality TV can be admirable or push the audience's buttons, but in the end, how memorable they are depends on the "real dynamic and pace" of the situation.
"You want to be with them as you would spend time with a great dramatic character," she said.
Schooled in soaps
While in college, Bunim learned her storytelling skills working for Search for Tomorrow, at that time the longest-running soap opera on network television.
When she was hired as an assistant in 1996, Search for Tomorrow
aired for 15 minutes each weekday on CBS and was making the transition from live broadcast to videotape. Within a year, Bunim was promoted to booth promotion director, spending mornings on the set and afternoons attending Fordham University in New York.
In time, she became associate producer and ultimately executive producer, guiding Search
through a genre breakthrough — from the first use of original orchestra music to the first soap to shoot on-location segments all over the world.
By the time her career in the daytime drama realm concluded, Bunim served as executive producer of more than 2,500 hours of Search, As The World Turns, Santa Barbara
and Loving. Among the actors she worked with: Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon.
"I was anxious to explore what TV could do technically," she said. "But the most important thing I learned about that field 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 is also quick to point out that TV involves cooperation.
"You also learn that every form of TV has to be collaborative," she said. "I love working with a partner like Jonathan.
"We're creatively compatible. We don't always agree, but we trust each other not to agree. We can ask tough questions of each other without threatening or being threatened. And we've passed that relationship along to a creative team here who use it in show development," Bunim added.
Array of projects
For 2003, Bunim/Murray is developing two projects for MTV: Interns, a dramatic look at a set of Hollywood production company interns; and Altered Egos, which Bunim promises will be as genre-making as Real World.
Also underway are Divas
for VH1; Simple Life, where, in Green Acres-
style, a real urban couple goes cornpone; and Starting Over, a daily look at women who've taken different paths in their lives.
NBC Enterprises has cleared Starting Over
for premiere this fall in stations reaching 50 percent of the U.S.