After 30 Years of Keeping It ‘Real,’ Jonathan Murray Isn’t Slowing Down

Jonathan Murray is excited about 2015 for various reasons.

Already in the throes of the 30th season of MTV’s The Real World, Murray, chairman of Bunim/Murray Productions, is looking forward to a new project in development at the network, and another at A&E.

He’s got a new social-issues documentary project in the works, bolstered by the company’s recent success with the Emmy Award-winning Autism: The Musical and Valentine Road, which was nominated for two Emmys.

Then there’s the $6.7 million endowment he gave to his alma mater, the University of Missouri, to create a documentary journalism program—the single largest gift by an individual to a journalism school—offering undergraduate and graduate degrees. Students will begin enrolling in it this fall.

But it’s receiving the National Association of Television Program Executives’ Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award later this week in Miami, Fla., that has Murray most keen at the moment. And at 60, when many people are contemplating retirement, he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

“The great thing about doing reality programming is that it keeps you young,” Murray says via telephone from Los Angeles. “I feel much younger because I just so love doing what I do, and I think Brandon Tartikoff loved television. He had a passion for it. I’m not Brandon Tartikoff, but I share his passion for television.”

Murray’s love affair with TV was fostered as a child growing up in Syracuse, N.Y. “Every fall, when the TV preview came out, it was like Christmas for me,” he says. “I was 10 or 11, and I used to, in my own mind, have a board and reprogram the networks and try to figure out what shows should lead into the next.”

He was “totally a TV kid,” he admits with a laugh, “and Brandon Tartikoff was definitely one of those legends that I would read about. So receiving this award is a little unreal. It’s obviously a wonderful honor because he truly was a very special person, and obviously a visionary and a talent in the television business.”

Murray’s own career in television began right after journalism school in 1977, as a news producer, ending up as a Rochester, N.Y., programming exec.

It was there that Murray first started attending the NATPE conference, buying shows “like The People’s Court to run as a news lead-in, or Little House on the Prairie to run at four o’clock, or Phil Donahue to run in the mornings.”

Eventually, Murray moved to New York City and started up a production studio with his partner, the late Mary-Ellis Bunim, a producer of daytime soap operas.

In 1991, Murray and Bunim were developing a scripted soap opera for MTV about young people setting up their lives in New York. But the idea proved too costly for the network.

“So we seized the moment and managed to save the day by pitching them a docu-soap, about young people in New York starting out their lives in New York,” he recalls. Nine months after the pilot order, The Real World was born.

“We knew within the first five minutes [of shooting] there was something amazing about these young people meeting each other—and it tested through the roof,” Murray says. “So we knew it was something special. But we had no idea that it would be on the air 30 seasons later.”

In between, Bunim/Murray has spearheaded a slew of reality shows, including Road Rules, Love Cruise, Making the Band and Real World/Road Rules Challenge; the reality feature film The Real Cancun; the real-life daily syndicated show Starting Over; and Fox’s The Simple Life. Bunim/Murray also executive produces Lifetime’s Project Runway and the popular Kardashians franchise—Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kourtney and Khloé Take Miami, Kourtney and Kim Take New York and Khloe and Lamar, all on E!.

Still, it’s their baby, The Real World, that Murray counts as one of the things of which he’s most proud.

“We put people on television who were normally not on television when the show started” in 1992, he says. “You didn’t see openly gay people on television. You didn’t see a variety of African-Americans or Latinos…and it’s just been such a wonderful opportunity to show the breadth of young people, and to show diversity, and I think to some extent we have the most diverse younger generation, and I like to think that The Real World had a little part in that.”

The other, he said, “is the company we’ve created. There are so many people who have grown their careers at this company, people like Matt Kunitz, who produces Wipeout, and Clay Newbill, who produces Shark Tank now. All these people started at Bunim/Murray.”