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Addictive reality T.V. proves increasingly popular

Now on its ninth season, MTV's Tuesday night soap, The Real World, continues to attract large audiences craving a dose of so-called reality. In the early '90s when the show's creators first pitched the idea of seven strangers' lives being taped as a form of entertainment, the channel's viewers may have been a little skeptical. But what once may have seemed like a bogus idea is now pretty tame in comparison to other more intense too-much-togetherness dramas on the air.

Take the new show "Survivor," for instance. Morphing "The Real World"'s human fishbowl quality with "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"'s hefty reward, "Survivor" makes a game of exploitation, reaping the ratings benefits. But you've got to admit the show's producers were onto something. The hype and morality questions surrounding the series served the show well, sparking curiosity and cleverly advertising its arrival. Much like the controversial - and now cancelled - nationally infamous German show, "Big Brother," CBS' new addition exchanges money for participants' privacy.

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    But will the new major network competition give the long-standing "Real World" a run for its money? Probably not. There are several reasons why MTV has the ability to keep viewers interested. Despite the predictable casting of token members and tension-creating opposing beliefs, casting directors have a winning formula.

    To keep the show from merely chronicling the minute details of seven freeloading individuals' mundane lives, casting directors purposefully choose cast members who have some sort of story or unconventional background. Several past cast members grew up without one parent and many had similarly tragic experiences growing up. The show's fifth season, set in San Francisco, made headlines when it recorded the life of Pedro Zamora, a young adult living with AIDS, who died shortly after the show's completion.

    But characters' histories are not the only means of creating an interesting dialogue. Producers have several tension-provoking tricks up their sleeves. Sexual tension is ever-present on the show and inner-cast romances are not uncommon. When members already have significant others before the show's start, this kind of tension carries even more potential for disaster.

    Another recent development in the show's history has been a work /service requirement for cast members. Beginning with "The Real World Miami"'s condition of starting a business, later casts were required to volunteer with children at community centers, work at radio stations and, in the newest setting, New Orleans, the cast will try their hand at producing a television show. These people surely will get sick of each other working together as well as living together.

    The biggest catalyst for conflict, however, is members' radically different political views, religious beliefs and personalities. Julie, a Mormon student at Brigham Young University, will now live with a few less-than-conservative housemates. Elka, portrayed as the Boston cast's innocent and naïve traditionalist from Brownsville, Texas, shared a room with a liberal feminist from New York City.

    Maybe when the show's producers run out of interesting big cities in which to set the show, ratings will decline. After all, there are only so many left in the U.S. and the show has already gone international with a London setting. But until the show reaches this road block, teenyboppers and older audiences alike will continue to enjoy a contrived and heavily edited version of reality, even if it is a guilty pleasure.


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