Credit: Peter Yang/MTV

For the first time ever, pioneering MTV reality series The Real World is changing its format. After 21 years and 28 seasons, The Real World is shaking things up with a twist and name change for its upcoming edition, which has the show returning to San Francisco.

Arguably TV’s second longest-running reality show (the first would be COPS, which launched in 1989), The Real World will be re-titled Real World: Ex-Plosion when it airs next year.

The season begins like any other: Seven young, attractive and single diverse cast-mates from around the country move into a house (first cast photo above). They’ll start to form bonds, with each other and with San Francisco locals. Then, one month into the three-month shoot, they’ll go away for a day trip. When they return, they’re in for a huge shock: Their exes have moved in too.

Jonathan Murray, who co-created the series with Mary Ellis-Bunim, notes the show’s diverse-mix-of-strangers-in-a-house format isn’t quite as earth-shattering of a format these days. Many reality shows — from Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen to CBS’ Big Brother — use bunking together as merely one component of the show’s drama. “When The Real World went on the air in ’92 you put seven diverse people together and you get conflict, and out of that conflict would come change, and then you have a story,” Murray says. “Now that it’s 21 years or so later, maybe we’re a bit of a victim of our own success. Diversity is a fact of life today. A lot of young people date people of different races, or have friends who are gay. The world has changed. We’ve had conversations [with the network] throughout 28 seasons of the show, but we’ve never made this big of a commitment to change.”

There was also the issue of the show’s ratings. The Real World has proved incredibly durable considering how much the reality genre has evolved, and how many reality shows have come and gone on MTV — the network has always prided itself on trying to find the next bright and trend-setting idea. Yet MTV has gone from ordering two Real Worlds a year, down to one as the show’s numbers have fallen — the most recent season averaged 1.5 million viewers. MTV and Murray hope the new format will make the show appointment viewing once again.

The Exes twist has been done in reality TV before (Big Brother‘s ‘X Factor’ twist in 2003), but Murray suggests the idea came about in a more organic way. “When we cast people we usually always try to cast single people,” he said. “And they’d say they were single during the casting process. Then the moment they arrived at the house suddenly their ex was back in their life. I don’t know if it’s a safety blanket or that we’re never really done with our exes. When you talk about the age of our cast, their ex is often their first love — they play a huge role in their life.”

When casting season 29, producers sought singles who had particularly interesting relationships with their exes — there’s the person who’s really close friends with the ex, the one that’s always getting texts from his ex, etc. After filming began, producers had to scramble to convince the exes to drop everything and join the cast too — five of the seven agreed.

“Four weeks into the show, after some [housemates] started to develop new relationships, the exes come in — thus, Ex-Plosion,” Murray said. “Then it got really complicated and really interesting. I’m still shocked we were able to pull it off.”

“We wanted to give our audience a fresh take on the series,” added Susanne Daniels, president of programming, MTV. “We are excited about this season’s twists and unexpected turns.”

Now that the format has changed, a move that acknowledges the show’s own need to evolve, one must wonder: Can The Real World ever go back? Murray says the brainstorming sessions that led to Ex-Plosion inspired many other potential twists as well. “We always approach it one season at a time. We will get this show on the air, see how people react and then decide. We had probably 10 good ideas for the season. This was one. Maybe there will be another good idea for season 30.”

In another twist, the housemates were given smartphones for the first time, for posting messages and photos throughout their experience in the house. During filming, the messages and photos were only viewable on a closed system viewable by the housemates, their friends and family (and their exes, of course). The banked content will be gradually rolled out publicly once the show starts airing sometime next year.

And what about the hot tub? Does The Real World still have a hot tub in the house for the new season or has that changed too?

Murray pauses at the question.

Of course there’s a hot tub.”


— 218 roommates

— 29 Seasons

— 22 cities/locations

— 6 cities revisited: New York three times (Manhattan twice and Brooklyn once). Twice for LA, San Francisco, New Orleans, Las Vegas and San Diego.

— 4 international cities (London, Paris, Sydney, and Cancun)