Jon Murray — The Reality of Reality TV

Jon Murray Reality TV producer
Television producer and Emmy winner Jonathon Murray is widely recognized for launching the reality TV genre. Back in 1992, he and his late business partner, Mary-Ellis Bunim, threw together a handful of strangers and filmed what would become The Real World, now the longest running reality TV show ever. Its success would spawn a generation of future shows, including Road Rule, The Simple Life and Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Of late, Murray’s busied himself creating shows about people with disabilities—namely Born this Way, about young adults with Down syndrome, and Deaf Out Loud, which chronicles the lives of families who are either all deaf or have members who are deaf. By inviting viewers into their personal lives, capturing family dynamics, daily struggles, hopes and often irrepressible personalities, Murray’s helping to change the perception of people with disabilities for the better. ABILITY Magazine’s Lia Martirosyan joined Murray at his LA office to chat about what shows he’s casting next, his journey to reality TV and bringing more people with disabilities into the entertainment biz.

Lia Martirosyan: I hear you are doing a Facebook project casting?

Jonathon Murray: I’m looking at three productions, one in the US, one in Thailand and one in Mexico—all distinct separate shows in their own native languages.

Martirosyan: Are you watching them all at the same time?

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Murray: Yup. I’m watching casting from not only the US, but also Mexico and Thailand. For those two, there are subtitles, so it’s a unique process, because normally when you watch casting, you’re so focused on people’s faces, and this time I have to usually watch each one twice. The first one I’m having to read a lot at the same time, so I don’t get the full measure of someone, so I usually have to go back and watch a second time. But it’s a fascinating process. I’ll be in Mexico City in a few weeks for a week when we meet them all in person.

We already have a project on Facebook called Ball in the Family. They have a project called Facebook Watch, where they have TV shows. And what’s great about Facebook is, you can build community around shows in a way that it’s hard to in traditional television. For instance, I could invite you to watch the episode with me and then we can all be communicating with each other as we’re watching the episode, and we can either all watch together live, when it first premieres, or whenever we want to watch it together. As usual with Real World, we’ll have people who take us into interesting worlds. So hopefully they will be able to also have experts and people deal with various things that get brought up on the show, so that they can talk about it.

Martirosyan: How does that work on Facebook, and are there ads?

Murray: Facebook puts a few ads in it. It’s different, too, because it’s going to drop an episode we’ve made up of three different six- to ten-minute pods, and those pods will drop Monday, Wednesday and Friday, rather than just once a week. Then there’ll be a composite episode you can catch up on on the weekend. It’s a whole new thing. It’s fascinating.

Martirosyan: That should be exciting. I saw the finalists on the way down.

Murray: Oh, yeah. They were coming in.

Martirosyan: I was about to put my picture on the wall. (laughs)

Murray: Right, that was for the domestic Real World. We just had a casting meeting. It’s interesting.

Martirosyan: Did you see what happen to—he called himself ___ on WW—

Murray: I know him. I cast him on The Real World years ago.

Martirosyan: That’s why I brought it up. Did you see what a nice launch you did for his career?

Murray: Oh, yeah. We produce his show It’s a reality comedy that airs on USA. I’ve stayed very close with Mike. He’s a good guy.

Martirosyan: Oh, good! I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else from The Real World series.

Murray: Well, Karamo Brown was on Real World Philadelphia and is now one of five guys on Queer Eye.

People love him on that show.

Martirosyan: I haven’t followed Queer Eye, so I’m not sure—

Murray: He’s the wellness guy on the show. He has really great conversations with people and finds ways to bring people together.

Martirosyan: The original show was sort of a makeover show, where a bunch of queer guys made over a straight guy, but the show has broadened out in the sense now that it’s partly about making over someone’s exterior in terms of the clothes they wear and the way they cut their hair, but it’s really much more about making over their interior and finding a way to help them improve their life.

Murray: The interior of the person. That’s why he’s more the wellness guy.

Martirosyan: I was looking at some of your posters on the wall.

Murray: Oh, yeah. Valentine Road was a documentary film we did about two kids in school, one murdered the other because he was gay. Both boys were from troubled backgrounds, and quite honestly, the adults pretty much allowed the situation to develop in this school that led to the murder. It was an interesting piece. That’s probably the one you’re not familiar with.

Martirosyan: Not yet.

Murray: It aired on HBO a couple years ago.

Martirosyan: Can we tap into the history of Born This Way?

Murray: Sure, what do you want to know?

Martirosyan: What sparked it for you?

Murray: You have to go back to the founding of our company, which was The Real World—our first hit. We were around for about four years making no money, driving around in old cars that would break down on the freeway and living in the garage apartment. The Real World was about diversity and putting together seven individuals from different backgrounds, different walks of life, socio-economically, sexual orientation, whatever. Because normally you don’t find yourself with people who are different than you. We tend to want to surround ourselves with people who will not question us. When I first went off to college, my roommate was a black guy who had already been in the army. He was a veteran. And for an 18-year-old kid, for me, that was mind-blowing. I grew a lot from having him as a roommate. I probably said some stupid stuff along the way, but he was very nice and never held it against me. (laughs)

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So anyway, the idea behind The Real World was to put people with different backgrounds together and that there would be conflict, because they would make mistakes with each other, and out of that conflict would come growth, and out of that growth would be our story arc for the show.

Along with Real World, we always realized we needed to reach out to marginalized communities. We were reaching out to various marginalized communities of people who hadn’t been seen on TV. I was pleased that eight years later, when shows like Survival and Big Brother launched, they too tried to make diversity center to what they were doing. In some ways, I think reality TV led over scripted in trying to be more inclusive in terms of the casting of the shows.

In Europe, there was a show done by some people that I know. He was what they call over there a “presenter,” a person who presents stories on TV. Here, I guess you’d call him a reporter or a host. His sister had Down syndrome, and he did a documentary series about his sister. I thought it was really interesting. We approached A&E about doing some kind of a series. Initially we thought we’d just put seven young adults together who all have Down syndrome, living in a house together, sort of like The Real World. We did a pilot. It didn’t get picked up. I liked it. I think for A&E, which is a network that plays to the 25 to 54-year-old demographic, the show may have felt too young, so they didn’t pick it up. But they always loved it, and four years later they called me up and said, “We made a mistake. We should have picked up that show. How would you do it today?”

I had a lot of time to think about it, and one of the things I realized was that we should approach it more as a documentary and that the relationship between someone who has a disability, in this case people with Down syndrome, and their parents is a fascinating thing to explore. And in the case of young people with Down syndrome, it was the first generation whose parents had said, “No, my kid will be mainstreamed. My kid deserves early intervention. What are you doing for my kid? I want my kid to have every advantage they can have because I want them to be ultimately as independent as possible.”

Now that those young people were in their mid-to-late twenties, they were ready to take those final steps towards independence, and the parents were scared to let go. Which any parent is, and which is very relatable to the A&E audience. So I think ultimately, the show was a better show that ended up on the air because it focused not only on the young people and what they were doing, but also on their parents and their families and how they had supported them and encouraged them. You saw an incredible love, and you heard from the parents how much their children had contributed to their lives. And what’s so great is, when we hear feedback—emails and letters from women or couples who are told that they’ll have a child with Down syndrome, and the dark picture the medical community usually paints—they realize, “No, there’s another possibility.”

It’s interesting, because we could be having an impact on the number of women who choose to not have a baby because of the Down syndrome diagnosis. It’s been fascinating.

Martirosyan: How did you cast?

Cast, family and friends of “Born This Way”

Murray: We knew we would do the show in the Orange County-LA area. From a cost standpoint, we couldn’t afford to send crews to some other part of the country. And there happened to be a very strong community—particularly in Orange County. There’s an Orange County Down Syndrome Association, and there are a number of art associations that focus on people with intellectual disabilities. We approached these organizations, and we started introducing ourselves and won their trust, and they gradually started to introduce us to families with their young people.

Martirosyan: Did you work with Gail Williamson of KMR Talent agency?

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Murray: Yeah, yeah. We went to Gail right off. She had been involved in that very first pilot we did four years earlier. At that time, I think she headed the LA Down Syndrome. We had talked to her then.

Martirosyan: And then she moved to the KMR?

Murray: Right, she had moved over there since. And she ended up representing, I think, four or five members of the cast in their deals. That’s how we did it. We brought the young people into our studio and interviewed them. We created some scenarios in the studio where they had to work with other young people on some kind of a project so we could see how they relate to other people. Are they a quiet person? Are they a big personality? Do they get intimidated when another big personality comes in the room? All those kinds of things.

And then we also interviewed their parents. We were able to put together a great cast. But we felt we were missing one element—the outsider—the person who is the fish out of water who comes into this new world. So we looked elsewhere, outside of LA and Orange County, and we found Megan. We found her through the National Down Syndrome Organization.

Martirosyan: The one in Colorado?

Murray: I think it’s based in Colorado, but they were having a national convention, and I think it might have been in Phoenix. We went there and met her and fell in love with her. Ultimately, she and her mom moved out here for the filming. Because she always had desires—she always saw herself as a future star. Star of what, she wasn’t sure, but Hollywood was a place that she always wanted to go.

Martirosyan: That was a great call, bringing her in.

Murray: Yeah, and she turned out to be great. She’s such an interesting person. Her face is so expressive, and her eyes. When you watch her, you see all these different emotions and things go through her face. She’s so interesting. She has a vulnerability that TV cameras love. And it was great. And Megan became very close to the other roommates. What’s really been fun and would have been great for a lot of young people with intellectual disabilities, as they do pretty well through high school, but when all their friends go to college, they sort of get left behind. UCLA and some other universities are having programs, but they’re generally one-year programs, life skills. It’s a hard time. It’s like, “What do I do now?”

Obviously, the thing you’d like is some job training, moving them so they can contribute not only to their family but to a job situation. But that doesn’t happen often enough. The statistics are pretty bad for young people with intellectual disabilities once they get out of high school. What’s been fascinating to watch with this cast is how they participate in this show. It’s not a job, but it’s a job. Showing up, being on time, working together on this show. The parents say they are astounded by how their children have grown from this experience. Elena, the young woman whose mom came from Japan, couldn’t even say the words Down syndrome. She was embarrassed to have Down syndrome. And now she’s an advocate for people with Down syndrome. She’s grown so much. In her interpersonal skills, she’d always have these outbursts. You remember, you were always like, “OK, what’s going to happen with Elena?” She’s lovely. She’s expressive. She’s the first person to give you a hug. But she’ll also storm out of a room.

She’s really gotten her impulses under control. That’s been fascinating to watch. It’s been an amazing experience. I feel like it’s demystified a lot of this world to the average viewer who watches. It’s been a great work of love. All our crew who work on it are like, it’s the show that they all want to come back to because it’s just a joyful experience. And yes, occasionally, our cast can be difficult (laughter), like any reality cast. And we have to make sure that we design it so that it works for them, because they tend to get tired quicker than some other folks we work with. So we do have to be cognizant of their needs so they can be their best. It’s been a great experience.

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Martirosyan: I’ve seen and read a lot of things throughout the course of reality TV. When do you intervene if you see there’s a need to do so? Have you had any kind of experience with that happening at any point?

Murray: A little bit of the difference here is that these young people are so tied in to their families, and they’re not living in a house that we’ve set up. We’re documenting their lives. It’s a somewhat different relationship. But there are times when something has happened when we’re filming, either at Leaps and Bounds, which was our gathering place, you saw it every episode or every other episode, where we would let their parents know that something had happened. Usually if it was at Leap and Bounds, the person who ran it would let their parents know if there was some issue so that when their young person came home, they knew why they were in a funk or whatever was going on. A little different from some of our other shows.

And quite honestly, this cast is much better behaved than most of our other casts. (laughter)

Martirosyan: That’s nice.

Murray: A lot of problems occur when people misuse alcohol, and this group is much more responsible. The very first scene of the first episode of Born This Way, we chose as the cold open a little scene that we had shot of Steven and Sean sitting in a bar and trying to figure out whether the woman two seats down is single or not. (laughter) And ultimately, they chat her up and realize when she introduces the man next to her as her boyfriend, they realize, “Awkward!” It was the perfect scene, because it really communicated to viewers that it’s OK to laugh with them. This isn’t all precious. We’re not going to be preaching to you. We’re going to be having fun, and it’s OK to laugh. That scene—and it also showed that—because some people tend to infantilize people with intellectual disabilities. They treat them like children. And by the fact that they were drinking beers at a bar, it immediately communicated to the viewers that these are not children, these are adults who can choose to drink if they want to drink.

Martirosyan: Or young adults with fake IDs. (laughter)

Murray: No, that’s the thing. I think our cast was at least 25 years old. I think it was 25 to 32. Megan might have been 22 or 23. But anyway, generally they were all legal. They didn’t have to have fake IDs.

Martirosyan: So the next year you’ll start off smoking pot? (laughter)

Murray: Oh, that would be great. I’ve never shown smoking pot in any of our reality shows. It’s sort of not—

Martirosyan: It just barely became legal.

Murray: It’s challenging. Advertisers don’t want to see it in shows. Networks are obviously concerned about advertisers.

Martirosyan: Did I see that there’s another spinoff called Deaf Out Loud.

Murray: Deaf Out Loud was a special/backdoor pilot we did for A&E. It was about three families who are primarily deaf raising their children in a hearing world.

Martirosyan: Were the parents and the children deaf?

Murray: Each family was unique in the sense that in one of the families, both parents were deaf, but they had one child who was born hearing and one child who was born deaf. They’re interesting. They choose, in their home, to only use sign language, because they want to have one language that they can all participate in. They also want to make sure their hearing daughter is fluent in sign language and has that relationship with her sister and the community. She’s participating in mainstream schools, whereas her sisters at the Deaf School of Texas. And they’re doing that because the dad doesn’t have much of a relationship with his family and his brother, because they never really learned sign language. His mother did, eventually, but his father and his brother didn’t, and it’s been challenging for him to keep a relationship with them.

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And then another family was the Garcias. She’s a coda—the daughter of deaf individuals—and her husband is deaf. She was so immersed in deaf culture that she always knew she’d marry a deaf man. And they’ve a couple biological children and they’ve also adopted, I think, four children. They’ve focused on rescuing children who are deaf from the world of kids who are in foster care and foster homes, because a lot of times the kids who are deaf are put in foster homes where they don’t use sign language, and they fall back on their education. They have a wonderful multiethnic family of great kids. They’re a great family. They mostly use sign language. Obviously the kids who are hearing speak, but they also are fluent in sign language. They’re a real mix. It’s fascinating to watch them.

The third family were the Posners in Connecticut. The mom was born hearing but lost all of her hearing pretty much by the time she was 21, and she remembers it went superfast at a point and she lost her friends and relationships because suddenly she couldn’t keep up. It was very traumatic for her. Her husband Mick has pretty much been deaf from childhood. He has a cochlear implant but doesn’t use it. He never felt comfortable with it, so there’s the whole question of cochlear implants in the community. And their two children were born with substantial hearing loss and are losing it very quickly.

Martirosyan: So it’s genetic?

Murray: Yeah. And the mom and the kids are pretty good lip readers, so they mix it up, too. All three families are very different in how they approach things. We did this with Marlee Matlin—she was our partner—and it’s interesting because someone just forwarded to me yesterday something from Stanford University where they think in 10 years they will be able to end deafness. I don’t know whether it’s through some of this new medicine where you’re cloning, where you can build a new ear—

Martirosyan: If there’s nerve damage that causes deafness, it’s different.

Murray: It’s fascinating—because what happens to deaf culture? Does that disappear? Will we reach a day when there’s the last deaf person on earth? Are we losing something in this world?

There was a British short film I remember seeing about this very issue and about how when they develop the cure for deafness. They are saying to people—because of the accommodations they would make for deaf people—do you take those accommodations away because now the person is offering them the cure? And there were some stubborn holdouts in the film who did not want the cure. They felt they were perfectly fine the way they were born.

As we tried to cast the show, we realized just how diverse everyone was in terms of their opinions. It was fascinating.

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Update 8/25/21
Jonathon Murray has added another reality TV show to his impressive list. Premiering on NBC’s Peacock, Shopify Studios presents Born for Business,’ a 10-episode docuseries chronicling the lives of four entrepreneurs with disabilities as they tackle the complexities of being their own boss, captivating viewers with an inside look at what it takes to run a thriving small business. The series showcases Shopify’s commitment to making entrepreneurship accessible to everyone and making it easier for entrepreneurs to succeed.

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