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The untold truth of MTV's Real World

MTV's longest-running reality series recently wrapped its 31st season and celebrated its 24th year on the air. Real World (formally The Real World, although they dropped "The" after season 28) began in 1992 when MTV's programming was still primarily music videos. Wedged between Sir Mix-a-Lot's video for "Baby Got Back" and Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge," viewers fell in love with seven strangers, who were picked to live in a house (technically a New York loft), agreed to have their lives taped, and learned what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. The show birthed a generation of wannabe reality stars before that was even a term. However, the reality behind Real World's production isn't even close to the party they portray onscreen.

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MTV originally wanted a scripted show

In the early '90s, Fox enjoyed a lot of success with its young adult dramas Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. TV producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray wanted to jump on that pseudo soap opera wave and sold MTV on the concept. While developing the scripted show, they realized they didn't have the budget to actually pay all those writers, actors, costume designers, make-up artists, etc., and stumbled on the much cheaper idea of just sticking a bunch of good-looking young adults in a 4000-square-foot Soho duplex, letting the cameras roll, and just seeing what happened.

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Inspired by the 1973 miniseries An American Family

When brainstorming for smart, edgy, and youthful ideas for TV series, 20-year-old PBS programming is probably one of the last places you'd think to look for inspiration. However, once Bunim and Murray realized they couldn't afford a TV drama, they remembered a PBS documentary miniseries from 1973 called An American Family. The 12-episode series is arguably the first "reality show" and followed Bill and Pat Loud and their five children. Considerable controversy stirred up around the docu-series, with the Loud's oldest son, Lance, coming out to his family as gay and Bill asking Pat for a divorce after 21 years of marriage. Those both seem tame by today's standards, but were hot button topics back then and helped the show draw over 10 million viewers. After one family generated that much interest, it's surprising The Real World concept didn't come up sooner.

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Cast members are paid $5,000 for the season

You might be thinking, "Not bad. All they have to do is hang out, party, and participate in some menial job. They don't even have to do it well. Plus, free room and board!" Not so fast.

The very first cast were paid $2600 each. $5000 is the most recent number we could find, which is more than the inflation rate according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Sciences. In addition to that, cast members are required to do reunion specials for up to five years after the show for $2500, and any other show-related events are worth $750 each. Now, if you become a popular personality, reports claim former Real Worlders get up to $10,000 per speaking engagement.

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You must sign a 30-page contract to be on the show

This is where we get into whether it's really worth it to be on Real World. In 2011, The Village Voice got their hands on a copy of the show's standard contract, and it's 30 pages in length. There's obviously a ton of information in there, so we'll just detail the highlights. First off, MTV is not responsible if a person dies, loses a limb, suffers a nervous breakdown, contracts a disease, experiences "non-consensual physical contact," or pretty much anything else. Your email may be monitored. You promise not to hide from cameras in establishments they can't film. And while it seems like everything is provided for the cast, you are responsible for long-distance phone charges while in the house.

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MTV owns cast members' life stories

When signing the contract, cast members also agree that producers can humiliate them, portray them "in a false light," and even hire "actors who may or may not resemble" them to achieve whatever ends they'd like. So, even if you're a saint, they can make you look like the devil. MTV also gets blanket rights to all contestants' experiences "which occur, will occur, or have occurred at any timeā€¦ (my 'Life Story')." That means if you tell the producers a story that happened in your past, they can work it in any way they want. It sounds like something straight out of an Orwellian novel.

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Random drug tests are normal

Usually you only hear about people failing random drug tests when they're a professional athlete or your stoner friend trying to get a new job. Yet even though the show seems to encourage lots of partying, cast members can't do any illegal drugs. Fans of The Real World: St. Thomas season learned about this when Brandon became the first person evicted for failing one of these tests. Brandon had been open about being a recovering addict and appeared to be sober until episode 10, when all the partying got to be too much and he fell off the wagon.