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Television finally gets Real

Mary Ellis-Bunim and John Murray are hot stuff at last. After years of shopping around shows in the style of their MTV hit, The Real World, they are signing broadcast and cable deals for two more shows.

One is a reality relationship show and the other a high-stakes game show, both in the spontaneous-taping tradition of The Real World, Murray says. The programs are scheduled for a mid-season launch. The deals are expected to close in the next couple of weeks, he says.

Murray declines to say which networks are picking up the shows, but ABC has already reported picking up Go New York, a Bumin-Murray reality vehicle about Manhattan socializing captured on a Web site.

Earlier this year, Bunim and Murray sold another reality show to ABC called Making the Band. Band followsüber-producer Lou Perlman in his quest to create a boy-band phenomenon the likes of Backstreet Boys and N'Sync.

There was a time in the mid' 90s when Bunim and Murray couldn't get their ideas beyond the realm of MTV. It didn't matter that the two Real World producers were pitching material that costs about a third the price of traditional soaps or sitcoms. Network executives ask for scripts. Bunim and Murray didn't work with scripts: They put real people in staged circumstances and taped the results.

Bunim and Murray were even turned down by FOX when Doug Herzog was in charge last year. Herzog was the one who gave the high sign to Real World at MTV in 1992. He says the pair came to him at FOX with a treasure-hunt game show that didn't excite his reality-programming guru, Mike Darnell, who preferred such realities as marrying two strangers on television or watching pets devour each other.

However, FOX having taken a spanking over Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and When Good Pets Go Bad, Darnell and FOX Entertainment President Gail Berman say they're shopping for more-tasteful reality shows.

Reality is nothing new in television. PBS documented the breakdown of the Loud family in An American Family nearly 20 years ago, and FOX briefly ran a Loud knock-off called American Families a decade later. Reality is all the rage now, partly because CBS' Survivor is kicking tail, even taking out Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in the ratings. Never satisfied to let a trend go by without exploiting it, network executives are salivating for reality shows, and Bunim and Murray are darlings of the genre.

Their Real World has been around for eight years, and ratings continue to rise. The show's ninth-season premiere on June 13 was the week's third-highest-rated cable program, pulling in a 4.0 rating with nearly 3 million households.

But successful reality is more than just mixing cameras with strangers. Making the Band started strong but is now getting trounced in the ratings. MTV's Road Rules, Bunim and Murray's Real World on wheels, has never attracted the following of its predecessor.

Even reality needs a hook, says Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research at Lifetime and co-author of The Complete Directory to PrimeTime Network and Cable TV Shows. He claims Real World has the potential to go for 10 or 20 years because it can reinvent itself each season.

"The trick is, every few years to take it in a totally new direction-maybe a 'celebrity house,' maybe all girls, a live season, whatever. Keeping the same predictable type of mix and types of personalities every year could wear it out," he notes. "Part of its longevity is that, like [Saturday Night Live], it was there first and practically defines the genre."