Hot Tubs, Hook-Ups, Reality TV: 'Real World' Legacies

What hath "The Real World" wrought?

The MTV series that started out as a crazy social experiment in 1992 is still going strong -- its 20th season debuted earlier this month. And its effects are everywhere. From villains on reality TV to college coeds in hot tubs, took a look at some of the ways in which "The Real World" has had an effect on pop culture.

The Reality Show

It's hard to imagine TV without reality TV, but when "The Real World" debuted 16 years ago, it launched a whole new television landscape and signaled a cultural shift.

"Ten minutes into shooting, we realized we were capturing something that hadn't been captured before on commercial TV," said Jonathan Murray, who created the show with Mary-Ellis Bunim. "There was this energy, this idea of people coming together from different worlds, having to get together and figure life out. There was something about it that was almost magical."

Murray and Bunim originally pitched MTV a scripted series about young people starting out in New York, but when the network didn't have the money for it, they said, "Let's move seven people into a loft and shoot it and see what happens," Murray said.

What happened was the birth of the modern reality show.

"It's the grandfather of reality television," said Kimberly Speight Nordyke, a television writer for "The Hollywood Reporter."

Looking back at that first season, it bears scant resemblance to the current one or any of its reality show descendents. "It was really sincere," Nordyke said.

Today, there are dozens of reality shows and entire cable networks that would not have existed without the MTV show.

"Survivor," "Big Brother," "The Bachelor" and "America's Next Top Model" are all shows about what happens when a group of strangers live together. They each took their cues from "Real World" and put their own twist on it. And the genre continues to evolve with shows like "The Hills," which looks more like a slickly produced soap opera.

They all owe their start to "The Real World."

Reality TV Stars

It used to be that the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol said everyone would have lasted just that long -- 15 minutes. But appearing on a season -- sometimes even an episode -- of one of the shows spawned by "The Real World" can launch a career or a reputation that lasts years after the cameras stop rolling.

Eric Nies learned this early. He parlayed his "Real World: New York" gig into hosting his own workout/dance show on MTV called "The Grind."

"Real World: San Francisco's" Puck (real name: David Rainey) opened an orphanage, but he still hasn't lived down his reputation for being a self-centered, gay-bashing housemate.

Murray capitalized on audiences' affinity for cast members by combining the franchise with his other ultra-popular MTV reality series, "Road Rules," on "Real World/Road Rules Challenge."

The series, which began in 1997, takes ex-cast members from both shows and pits them against each other in physical challenges.

"We started doing 'Real World/Road Rules Challenge' to allow people to come back and participate in a game to win money and prizes. We've found that they're as popular if not more popular than the original two series," Murray said. "Clearly the audience has bonded with these cast members."

The phenomenon extends beyond "The Real World."

Take Elisabeth Hasselbeck. She's the right-leaning, loud-mouthed co-host of "The View" now, but seven years ago, Hasselbeck was just another skinny, starved contestant on "Survivor: The Australian Outback."

You may not remember who won "American Idol" last season, but unless you were living under a box for most of 2007, you probably remember Sanjaya Malakar -- the chameleon-haired, high-pitched contestant known more for his antics than his voice.

Since getting kicked off the show, he's scored an invite to the White House Correspondents Dinner and a potential gig on the "Hannah Montana" show.

And the badder you can be, the more likely you are to have a reality TV legacy.

"We may have gotten to this whole reality craze without it, but 'The Real World' really spurred it on," said Nordyke. "On 'Survivor' you see people returning to compete again. Cast members start appearing on other reality shows, and end up dating and marrying each other. The smart people today realize that can get them more camera-time by being the villain."

Confessional Videos

Before Chris Crocker cried about Britney Spears and before Lonelygirl15 shared her teenage woes, "Real World"-ers were telling all in "confessionals" -- sitting in a room alone, looking into a camera and revealing how they really felt about their cast mates. Like a YouTube video diary before YouTube.

"We started doing confessionals in Season 2," Murray said. "Part of it was sort of practical -- we needed a way that if something happened in the house, the cast members could immediately register their feelings about it. We then found that some people preferred being alone in a room than being interviewed. Starting with Season 3, we asked people to send in a home video tape because those were confessional, too. Those felt very much like YouTube."

While many reality shows -- "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," "I Love New York" -- have tweaked Murray's format by removing cast members from the action of the show to do confessional-type videos, the "Real World" has stuck to the raw, immediate type of video diary that it debuted in 1993. Its legacy lives on all over the Internet.

The Hot-Hot-Hot Tub

Ever since the hot tub first appeared in Season 2, it has been a staple of "The Real World."

Under the hot tub's bubbly spell, housemates, who have appeared to forget that cameras were rolling, have given viewers some of the most pleasurable scenes in "Real World" history.

Who can forget the three-way make-out session between Brynn, Steven and Trishelle in "Season 12: Las Vegas"? Or when Brooke and Jenn shed their heterosexuality on their first night in Denver during a hot tub hook-up.

Now it's hard to imagine any other reality dating show such as "The Bachelor," without the hot tub.

"Throwing a hot tub in the mix always makes for good television," said Nordyke from "The Hollywood Reporter."

Apparently, it also has made for good business too. Details magazine reported that hot tub sales in the United States more than doubled each year from 1996 to 2006.

Scott Garner, who has owned Hot Springs Spa of Orange County for 26 years, says his sales have tripled most years in the last decade.

"I'm sure when people see them on TV, it helps," he said.

The On-Screen Hook-Up

Along with hot tubs, "The Real World" ushered in what's become a staple of any reality show: the on-screen hook-up. Every season, it's a requisite step of settling down in the "Real World" house -- put down bag, choose bed, pick cast mate to roll around in said bed with.

"There are so many hook-ups on that show," Nordyke said. "They pick handsome or pretty people who are going to be attracted to each other. Steven and Trishelle in Vegas, making out every five minutes. … It's fun to watch that stuff as a viewer."

Murray denied that he casts people specifically to create sexual tension. He did say that he has noticed a shift in what cast members are willing to do on camera.

"We have seen that young people have changed. Young people are much more comfortable being sexual in front of the camera than they were in 1992," he said.

Moving Gays Into Mainstream TV

During Season 3, nearly everyone, including President Clinton, was talking about Pedro Zamora, the openly gay San Francisco housemate battling AIDS who died just after the final episode aired.

The thoughtful, well-liked AIDS educator, who championed safe sex and married his partner, showed American audiences a ground-breaking positive image of a gay man.

"I mean in 1993, a Cuban-American HIV-positive person having a commitment ceremony to a black HIV-positive person -- that was revolutionary," said Murray.

Moreover, he broke open the closet for gays on television and ushered them into the mainstream.

"He paved the way for openly gay reality stars," Village Voice columnist and critic Michael Musto told Think Reichen Lehmkuhl, winner of the "Amazing Race" and former boyfriend of N' Synch's Lance Bass, or Richard Hatch, winner of the first "Survivor."

Zamora also primed prime-time for gay characters. Three years after his appearance on "Real World," Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and her character on "Ellen" followed suit. The year after that, "Will & Grace," about a gay lawyer and his straight best friend, became a hit.

Said Musto: "The whole trajectory dates back to Pedro and his bravery."