Television programming, perhaps even the way America viewed celebrities, was forever changed when writer and producer Mary-Ellis Bunim changed the playing field with the creation of the groundbreaking reality series "The Real World" (MTV 1992- ). For a new generation of television viewers, reality television was born. Unscripted became the name of the game, where the line between drama and reality dissolved over the airwaves. When millions of viewers watched dozens of overnight-celebrities enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame on television, it was often Mary-Ellis Bunim who put it all together.
Mary-Ellis Bunim was born on July 9, 1946 in Northampton, Massachusetts. Bunim sought a career in television and began it in the world of daytime soap operas. Bunim first served as an executive producer for "As the World Turns" (CBS 1956-2010), supervising the second-longest-running daytime soap from 1981 to 1984. Immediately afterwards, Bunim jumped to a new daytime soap opera, "Santa Barbara" (NBC 1984-1993). Alongside the show's co-creators, Bridget and Jerome Dobson, Bunim managed the show's creative direction as it documented the eventful lives of the wealthy Californian Capwell family. In 1987, Bunim and the other producers received a Daytime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series but lost to her old show, "As the World Turns."
In 1987, Bunim met fellow producer Jonathan Murray. While Bunim's experience came from daytime soap operas, Murray built his career in news and documentaries. Interested in what combining serial storytelling and documenting lives could do to television programming, Bunim planned to switch gears from soap opera, abruptly leaving the TV series "Loving" (ABC 1983-1995) after being an executive producer for just a few months. In 1992, Bunim partnered with Murray to form Bunim/Murray Productions. Both Bunim and Murray were aware that MTV was planning to restructure their programming to lure more viewers with original series. While the network was initially interested in creating a new soap opera series, the two partners were aware of the financial cost of such an endeavor and instead steered them into a new direction. Over a breakfast meeting, Bunim and Murray pitched a radical idea of an unscripted television series that combined the drama of a soap opera and the allure of a voyeuristic documentary such as the 1970s reality pioneer "An American Family" (PBS 1973). By lunchtime, the MTV executives bought the show and secured the success of the fledgling production company.
What came out of that fateful meeting was "The Real World," a show that chronicled the lives of seven strangers picked to live in the same house. Just from the onset of principal shooting, Bunim knew her company had something special and said, "We knew within 20 minutes of shooting that we had a show." Just how big "The Real World" became neither Bunim nor MTV could have ever imagined. The reality television series became a cultural phenomenon, especially to the large and eager MTV generation who had not seen anything like it before. The show's cast were young, sexy, relatable and, above all, prone to drama. They became instant celebrities to the MTV generation, which subsequently led to a rise in an already prevalent culture of celebrity worship. While the first season was filmed in a New York City loft, the location for each following season changed. Although each subsequent season became seemingly more dramatic and less unscripted than the previous one, the reality show nonetheless still dealt with serious social themes like prejudice, politics, religion, and sexuality. "The Real World" became MTV's longest-running program in its history, and was often credited with launching the modern reality TV genre.
The success of "The Real World" meant that MTV wanted to capitalize on its newfound gold mine. Bunim and Murray were happy to oblige the cable network and sought to apply the winning formula of "The Real World" to as many of MTV's new shows as possible. The first and most successful spin-off of "The Real World" formula was "Road Rules" (MTV 1994-2007). The series followed six young adults between ages 18 and 24, stripped of most of their possessions, as they make their way across a country guided by a series of clues and missions. The idea of the show came when three members of the Los Angeles cast of "The Real World" traveled across the United States at the beginning of their season. The show spearheaded the travel adventure reality TV show and was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2001.
Bunim and Murray continued to produce reality shows for MTV, including the pop stardom Svengali effort "Making the Band" (ABC 2000-01, MTV 2002-), and the cross-over series "The Real World Road Rules Challenge" (MTV 1998-). Other networks sought to cash in on reality television. The Fox network asked Bunim to produce "Love Cruise" (2001-2002) and "The Simple Life" (Fox 2003-2005, E! 2006-2007), the reality show that followed the lives of socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Bunim/Murray Productions unsuccessfully tried to bring reality to the big screen with "The Real Cancun" (2003), a documentary that followed sixteen Americans in a hedonistic two weeks in the eponymous Mexican resort. Taking a break from capturing the lives of young adults, Bunim/Murray chronicled the progress of women who wanted to make drastic life improvements in the syndicated television series "Starting Over" (2003-2006). While the reality show lasted only three seasons, it provided Bunim her sole Daytime Emmy, for Outstanding Special Class Series.
For several years, Bunim fought a long battle against breast cancer. Bunim finally succumbed to her illness at the age of 57 in Burbank, California on January 29, 2004. With her passing, the "Road Rules" series went into hiatus, before coming back three years later for a final season. Bunim left a lasting impression on television programming and on those who worked closely with her. After her death, Murray said she was a "one-in-a-million partner and friend, and I will always treasure our incredible years of collaboration." Even after her death, Murray kept the name Bunim/Murray Productions for the company they had built together. Eight years after her untimely passing, Bunim was posthumously inducted to the Television Hall of Fame in 2012, alongside Murray, for their contributions to the television industry.