With the 23rd installment of MTV's "The Real World" premiering tonight, the popular franchise moves a group of eight strangers into a hip apartment space in the nation's capital and sees, as the opening titles tell us, "what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real." The show, which first premiered in 1992, has been a groundbreaking series for MTV as one of the first series to take us into lives of people of different economic backgrounds, ethnicities and sexual orientation in order to not only entertain but educate. With this new season, did putting a group of young people together in Washington DC push the proverbial envelope in new ways? What's the casting process like? What are thoughts on the controversy surrounding that other MTV reality show "Jersey Shore?" Our Jim Halterman rang up Executive Producer Jim Johnston to get real about "The Real World."
Jim Halterman: Why was Washington DC chosen as the city for this new season?
Jim Johnston: The choice had to be made nearly eight months ago and I think we were all excited about going to DC. So many young people were involved in the election that it just seemed like DC was suddenly a very popular place to be.
JH: Was the plan to hopefully get the cast talking politics in the house this year?
JJ: No, whatever they discuss in the house is up to them. It's hard for us to predict what they're going to do and what they're going to talk about. Certainly, we brought in people who were excited about being in Washington and they really saw it as an exciting place to be. So we gave them a political backdrop [but] the emphasis on the series is still relationships. If you saw the first show, there was a pretty lively discussion on religion in their first dinner together but it also revealed a lot about who they were and what they believed in and what they were about.
JH: What are the key criteria you look for when casting a new season of the show?
JJ: You want them to be memorable. People think we cast for looks, for types and we've never done that as long as I've been involved with the show. It's about finding the eight most interesting people you can for a very good semester of college. They have to come across as memorable, they have to stand up for their beliefs, they have to know what they believe, they may have an interesting back story, they may have experiences that is different from anybody else... all those things come into play in choosing the roommates. You'd like to think that you chose eight roommates and if these people weren't together in the same room they probably never would have met each other because they wouldn't be drawn to each other. You want people to learn and grow and experience other types of people. It's not so much about creating conflict but creating interesting conversation and intrigue among them.
JH: The show has broken so many taboos like homosexuality, race, and violence. Are there any hot-button topics left that you haven't tapped into yet?
JJ: I'm sure there are and it's not so much that... those kinds of moments and things that develop happen naturally in the course of shooting the documentary, the series. We don't always know where it's going to go and what's going to happen but we get these themes sometimes that tend to dominate a season. We've got an interesting one this season that you'll see develop in episode two and go through to the end and that's with one of our roommates and... you know, I'd rather it be a surprise. Washington is very much a player in some of the stories that develop here and just because of where they are, this person learns that coming out isn't only a personal choice but it can be a political one as well.
JH: Usually the cast does a group job or project of some kind. Anything like that this year?
JJ: We are letting them pursue their own individual passions and projects and it worked out really well this time around because there was so much for them to do. We encourage them to do volunteer efforts, lobby efforts, internships, things that they don't necessarily get paid for but it played to their interests and their passions. Not all of that stuff gets on the air but these kids really kept themselves occupied day in and day out with their own individual projects.
JH: I always assume that the kids know the show so well before they get involved but are they still surprised at the experience once they live it?
JJ: Yes, they are surprised. We try to let them know what they're in for as far as loss of privacy and the idea that the camera crews do not interact with them, talk to them or direct them. They are on their own and we're there to observe but we're not there to solve their problems. We let them know that in advance but we find that we cast a lot of people who are not fans of the show and haven't seen it so much. Somehow, that type of person seems to appeal to us more because they've got no filters, they're not thinking about how they're going to look on TV, they're just going to be who they are. I'd say half of them are like that each season and they're not TV watchers.
JH: As the cast members are showing up at the house, they always seem to ask 'where's the gay one?' but in casting do you intentionally look for a gay or bi-sexual person for the house?
JJ: No, we look at everybody and the most interesting people seem to rise to the top. There have been seasons where there hasn't been a gay person and it's not like we say "Oh my God! There isn't a gay person!" We've never thought that way. Our casting department is just so darn good. It's been a lot of the same people forever and they're so good at finding interesting people who probably never planned on being on television in the first place. When we've had the open casting calls the person who always makes it is the friend who escorts someone else who wants to be on the show.
JH: Since the show began, the format hasn't really changed. Don't fix what ain't broke?
JJ: The format has never changed but with a new group of people every season with a new house and a new city it's like a completely different show every time. You don't know what it's going to be about, you don't know what moments or challenges or crisis each roommate will have and that helps shape each season. We've really subscribed to the idea that this is a documentary. Reality to me is a series where you're planning what's going to happen or they're going to take them into a situation where they're going to get kicked off or have challenges. This is a documentary so we don't get re-shoots. That's why these stories are so complicated the first time you see them on the air because we miss a lot. That's why the cameras are so shaky sometimes. We didn't know it was going to be a big moment but it happened. We try to keep it a documentary. The producers input on a very limited basis, if at all.
JH: MTV is getting a lot of attention for 'Jersey Shore.' Any thoughts on that? Is any press good press?
JJ: I don't have a real comment there. I know that I'm hired with Bunim-Murray Productions so I'm insulated from what are the challenges MTV is going through with that show but I can't imagine... people seem really excited by that show right now so it's obviously hit a nerve with viewers and that's great. I love that. As I understand it, the controversy had to do with someone punching a woman in the face or something and you know what, we - and the network - look very carefully at what is put on the air. We always care about what we do. We know we have a young audience watching. We know what they're watching is very relatable to their own lives so we're not just going to throw everything out there.
"The Real World: Washington DC" premieres on MTV tonight at 10:00/9:00c.