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In 1991, a Culturematic transformed television. Specifically, Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray asked, “What if we put a bunch of amateurs in a house and filmed what happens?” The result was The Real World.
The original idea was to launch a new soap opera, but this was too expensive. (MTV was looking for something to supplant the music video, which had been free.) At this point, it wasn’t clear what would work. You could put any number of things in front of the camera: grape harvests, boat races, kids playing soccer. Cheap, certainly. But entertaining?
Seven people in a house, with no training, script, makeup, or direction. It could have become an ugly, chaotic mess, difficult to look at, let alone shape into a TV show.
At this point, Bunim and Murray were in effect playing the Late Show game called “Is This Anything?” in which David Letterman and Paul Schaffer decide whether an act is “something or nothing.” Seven people stuck in a house could well be nothing. The only way was to try it and see. So Bunim and Murray set up a house in Brooklyn and turned on the cameras.
The pilot for a prime-time TV show requires celebrity actors, a union crew, many months of development, and as much as $2 million. The Real World pilot was shot with amateurs over three days on cheap Hi-8 cameras without the benefit of studio lighting or sound. Compared with prime-time TV, this was free.
When Bunim and Murray looked at the early results, they were pleased. The Real World looked like something. The early numbers were gratifying. What no one anticipated was that this little show would change the very landscape of American television. The Real World wasn’t merely something. It was revolutionary—the birth of a new genre.
In just one season, reality TV went from being a sideshow that the broadcasters considered filler to becoming one of the main events, a scheduled highlight. Within a decade, nearly 52 million people tuned in to the last night of Survivor.
Over the last two decades, reality TV has proven to be the most productive idea in the history of television, turning out hundreds of experiments, many of which survived to maturity: the Real Housewives series, Project Runway, Wipeout, Ice Road Truckers, Jon & Kate Plus 8, Jersey Shore, American Idol, Deadliest Catch, Hell’s Kitchen, Big Brother, Mob Wives, The Amazing Race, Man vs. Wild, and the latest experiment from Bunim-Murray Productions, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Viewership numbers can be astronomical. The first episode of the fifth season of American Idol drew 35.5 million viewers. (These days, most prime-time TV shows are happy to get 12 million viewers.) Now in its 24th season, The Real World has proven a miracle of resilience. Reality TV began as a shot-in-the-dark experiment, but now it dominates cable channels and broadcast networks alike.
Some people like to sneer at reality TV. It’s not artful or crafted. Some shows have the subtlety of a peep show or a train wreck. But Culturematics don’t care. They are evolutionary experiments, brute trials, happy to discover anything that works, something that survives.
Web 2.0 is a concept created by Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty. It was designed to change the way an industry thought about itself. The aftermath of the dot-com collapse was all doom and gloom, pain and skepticism. Companies had disappeared, share value had imploded, personal wealth had taken a header, venture capital was in retreat, and Silicon Valley was in withdrawal. An entire industry was wondering what the future held.
O’Reilly and Dougherty shared that pessimism. But they could also hear something stirring. Surely, it hadn’t all been a dream. Surely, this industry had bones, structural properties that would endure. Surely, this world would right itself. O’Reilly and Dougherty believed the crash might be a sorting-out, a chance for the wheat of real enterprise to separate from the chaff of dubious start-ups.
The first question was, Was there something out there, or not? And if it was something, was it a coherent something or a dispersed something? If it was a coherent something, O’Reilly and Dougherty were going to have to give it more shape and form. First, they would have to find a name. “Web 2.0” felt right, a term robust enough to start and sustain discussion. Next, they would have to develop the concept, finding something that would make some part of the world make more sense. Their next step was a conference where they could solicit comment, provoke debate, build a consensus, and publicly launch Web 2.0, now without its training wheels. O’Reilly and Dougherty had a Culturematic mission: fire their little idea into the world, and see what happened.
Of course, O’Reilly and Dougherty could have simply announced Web 2.0 from their own publishing house. The trouble is, many things get launched this way, and most of them fail. (We only see the successes, so it’s easy to suppose that new ideas take root easily. In fact, the world is ruled by a dandelion ratio: thousands of parachutes are necessary for one to take.) Wishing will not make it so. Pronouncements usually fail.
“Web 2.0” was a strategic term. It said, “Listen. Calm yourselves. Here’s the future. It’s what you know…in a new iteration.” This same-but-different technique is reassuring in times of crisis. Here, it comforted people about the dot-com crash. “That? Oh, that was just Silicon Valley 1.0. Bound to happen.” People were accustomed to things being rocky in beta. Web 2.0 obeyed the convention that gave us Windows 5, Netscape 6, Word 7, and OS X. Naming by numbering is the way this industry reassures.