The Most Influential Reality Show In TV History

It was the biggest dick move in reality television history.

Over the course of 13 episodes, MTV’s The Challenge rivals Sarah Patterson and Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio put their bitter history aside and worked as a single impressive unit, steamrolling through the most recent season, dubbed Rivals 3. The longtime friends were dire enemies a year earlier, after Patterson betrayed their alliance on Battle of the Exes 2 and cost Devenanzio the chance to win $250,000. So this year, after the fractured friendship was slowly repaired, it seemed the two — he, a bombastic egotist with the goods to back it up; she, a dynamic warrior with a limitless love for competition — were now, blessedly, rivals in name only.

But a huge shock was revealed seconds before the final showdown of the last episode: Host T.J. Lavin announced that just one person in the duo, an ultimate champion, would decide whether to share the $275,000 winnings with their season-long partner — or claim the full sum for themselves.

Prior to the final challenge, Devenanzio and Patterson swore up and down that they’d split the winnings if they triumphed. And after devouring a host of disgusting animal parts, problem-solving to trigger a dazzlingly fiery chain reaction, thriving through an all-night endurance test, and climbing to the summit of a massive mountain, their team won Rivals 3. Lavin revealed that Devenanzio had earned the most points and thus was the solo winner of the season.

Johnny Bananas and his teammate Sarah Patterson on the set of The Challenge: Rivals III, 2016.

MTV / The Challenge: Rivals III

Then he went back on his word: He kept the full $275,000 and left Patterson with nothing.

Sure, she was upset about the money. But more than that, she believed her season-long partner’s words of support and encouragement, sentiments she genuinely thought her onetime ally spoke with utmost sincerity as they slowly rebuilt their friendship. The realization that he’d played her the whole time smashed into her like a truck. Patterson crumbled to the ground in a fit of uncontrollable hysterics. Toldja: dick move.

The Challenge, more than any other reality show, has long thrived on viewers’ deep connections to the players, who also return season after season. It’s the kind of intense emotional investment audiences usually reserve for characters on a scripted series. In that finale moment, Devenanzio used Patterson’s betrayal a year earlier as a justification for his actions. But the most twisted part of all is that, on some level, fans were rooting for exactly this kind of treachery. The thrill of watching these players backstab one another will always supersede the desire for everyone to live happily ever after — it makes for amazing TV.

High-stakes melodrama that stems from real-life relationships is one of a dozen TV show tricks that were invented or perfected on The Challenge, and those successful building blocks are what other programs — like Survivor and Big Brother, which are more visible and more celebrated — have tried to emulate from the 18-year-old cable show over its 28 seasons. They are the reasons why MTV’s The Challenge is the single most compelling reality series. This is the story of how that show came to be.

The cast of The Challenge Season 25 (2011).

Ian Spanier Photography / MTV

To truly understand how MTV quietly produced the hugely influential reality series, you must begin with the network’s most prominent successes: The Real World and Road Rules.

For nearly a decade, they were the only reality shows on TV. Eight seasons of each had aired before Survivor premiered in 2000, so MTV was able to truly corner the reality television market and, in doing so, receive years of undivided attention.

“It’s like people saw themselves on TV for the first time.”

The Real World and Road Rules proved hugely popular, and their casts quickly became equally adored. “It’s like people saw themselves on TV for the first time,” Real World: San Francisco alum Rachel Campos-Duffy (who’s married to Real World: Boston alum Sean Duffy) told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “Whatever it is, they find what it is about you they relate to. I have a lot of Hispanic people who come up to me and go, ‘I was so excited to see a Hispanic woman on TV,’ because, at the time, there weren’t a lot.”

MTV capitalized on its near-decade-long reality TV omnipresence by running countless marathons of The Real World and Road Rules on the weekends. That programming decision cemented the participants’ place in television history and, more importantly, in the formative memories of viewers who grew up right alongside the houseguests — something producers Mary-Ellis Bunim (who died in 2004) and Jonathan Murray understood, and sought to capitalize on.

US Rep. Sean Duffy and Rachel Campos-Duffy deliver a speech on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

“It was really the first time I think that little bell went off for someone in reality TV. ‘Look, we’ve created these stars, why aren’t we doing more with them?’” Murray told BuzzFeed News in his Van Nuys, California, office, which is covered in portraits featuring dozens of Real World, Road Rules, and Challenge cast members.

Unbeknownst to Murray, he was about to embark on a series that would fuel the greatest shift in reality television history: “At that point, people didn’t think of reality participants as quote-unquote stars. But it was clear that the audience viewed them as stars,” Brian Graden, MTV’s president of entertainment from 1996 to 2009, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.

Bunim and Murray’s eponymous production company, Bunim/Murray, embarked on a five-episode experiment, filmed over the course of three weeks, called Road Rules: All Stars, which featured Real World fan favorites Eric Nies, Jon Brennan, Rachel Campos, Cynthia Roberts, and Sean Duffy. Part life-spanning docuseries, part nerve-jangling competition, it was the program that set the stage for all the Idols, Top Models, Big Brothers, Apprentices, and Bad Girls Clubs to follow.

Via As said on MTV’s “The Challenge Survival Guide” in 2016.

The first outing was a rousing success, so MTV and Bunim/Murray committed to more seasons and opted for a title that would open up their field of possible participants: The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, which would eventually become simply known as The Challenge. It returned for its second season in November 1999 — more than a full year after Road Rules: All Stars first aired — and emphasized the playful conflict between alumni from its flagship programs. “There was always a friendly rivalry between Real World and Road Rules — even within the company,” said Scott Freeman, executive vice president at Bunim/Murray. “People used to say that Real World had the cushy job: They just have to sit around a house and talk.”

Flora Alekseyeun, Beth Stolarczyk, and Veronica Portillo in 2002.

Laurence Cottrell / Getty Images

Every season of The Challenge brought contestants to a different international destination (Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Panama, New Zealand, Thailand, the Czechia, Costa Rica, Iceland, Chile, Turkey, and Argentina have all played host to The Challenge), and they were competing for serious cash. “It was all about doing things outside your comfort zone. It was fun,” Veronica Portillo — who made her debut in Challenge 2000 (Season 3) — told BuzzFeed News. “We were all young and competing for money.”

Like the game itself, the competitions were originally designed for maximum silliness: Ride a mechanical bull, sit on a block of ice the longest, put together a puzzle with pieces found at the bottom of a pool. “People didn’t take it seriously,” Aneesa Ferreira — who started in Battle of the Sexes (Season 6) — told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.

Then Survivor premiered on CBS in May 2000 and it quickly became a pop culture behemoth: More than 50 million people watched Richard “The Snake” Hatch beat Kelly “The Rat” Wiglesworth in the Season 1 finale, upping the ante for all other reality competition shows. Bunim/Murray saw the additional layer of scheming and manipulation that emerged when the participants voted someone off every week and adopted eliminations beginning with 2002’s Battle of the Seasons — a decision that was a literal and figurative game changer.

“There’s a lot of emotional bullying and a lot of physical bullying.”

“When I first started doing it, the show was just six people getting together and doing crazy things and you didn’t have to watch your back all the time. But when they started the elimination part, it made the game more of a strategy game,” said Portillo, who’s competed in eight seasons.

The need to emotionally and mentally manipulate the competition in order to win made the show an infinitely more enjoyable experience for viewers (see: complicit joy felt over Devenanzio’s betrayal) but indescribably tougher for the players. That dynamic manifested in many ways over the show’s run, but one simple description repeatedly cropped up. “There’s a lot of emotional bullying and a lot of physical bullying,” Real World: Los Angeles alum Beth Stolarczyk — who joined in Season 2 — told BuzzFeed News. Taunting and name-calling quickly became a staple of The Challenge, and few have endured torment on par with Stolarczyk, who watched as Tonya Cooley threw all her clothes in the pool during 2005’s The Inferno II and was punched in the face by Tina Barta during 2006’s The Duel.

The players learned the hard way — by losing — what was now required of them to be successful on the show. “I got screwed out of the first two elimination challenges I did and then I kind of was like, OK, if I’m going to block off my calendar and decide to film this show, I might as well figure out how to financially gain as much from it as possible while I’m there,” Portillo said. Those who went on to be successful on the show had to make concessions and accept they’d be manipulating others in order to win.

Via As said on MTV’s “The Challenge: Rivals 3” in 2016.

With the rise of other action-heavy reality competition shows like Fear Factor and Dog Eat Dog, The Challenge producers looked for new ways to up the ante. Justin Booth, a field producer with a Navy background, took over as showrunner in Season 10 with the goal of making the competitions harder and overall more physically demanding. “We were spending too much time with campy games and not enough time with some more aggressive and adrenaline-packed games,” he told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “I just didn’t want to see somebody dressed in a chicken suit for every single game.”

Increasing the intensity of the challenges — plummeting into the open ocean from hundreds of feet in the air, being buried alive, traversing a maze while wearing a shock collar, and eating a disgusting array of animal innards, to name a few — offered a new storytelling spin. Contestants “started taking these things seriously” instead of “going in and competing half-hungover and drunk and playing a game,” Booth said.

With that macro change in place, Booth also made a micro change — one that ended up having massive implications: He removed the computer from the cast house. At first the ban came out of necessity (production was plagued by internet connectivity problems on location in Manzanillo, Mexico), but Booth also realized email access was keeping the cast from interacting with each other‎ — so he added it to the already long list of outlawed items, like cell phones, books, magazines, television, and music.

“People are acting like they’re in a zoo because it feels like you’re in a cage.”

The showrunners didn’t want players distracted by “things that take us away from facing our problems and facing other people we have issues with,” Ferreira explained. It’s a form of sensory deprivation that CBS’s Big Brother had used to its advantage; but whereas the Julie Chen–hosted show is built around being cut off from the outside world, The Challenge cast suddenly found themselves juggling emotional separation with physical intensity and mental acrobatics. That includes dealing with the sheer amount of downtime they had between competitions and eliminations.

“The boredom is truly the worst part,” Susie Meister — who made her bow in Extreme Challenge (Season 4) — told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “It’s mind-numbing, and that, for me, is why people are acting like they’re in a zoo, because it feels like you’re in a cage.”

BuzzFeed News / Via Source: Wikipedia

Murray said the show’s stricter policies have aided the need for secrecy (who is eliminated and in what order), but stressed that the cast was typically allowed to patronize local bars every few days. Katie Doyle — who began making waves in The Gauntlet (Season 7) — pulled the curtain back on that claim, however. “If you watch and see the cast in a bar, they rent out that bar,” she told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “So it’s still just the same damn people.”

While seeing “the same damn people” was a source of a frustration for some of the cast, bringing contestants back year after year truly fueled The Challenge for all those seasons. Subsequent editions of the show were built entirely around these ongoing personal ties: 2011’s Rivals paired Chris “CT” Tamburello and Adam King, who violently brawled on 2009’s The Duel 2; 2012’s Battle of the Exes reunited Dunbar Merrill and Paula Meronek, who’d hooked up on 2008’s The Island.

This interconnectivity linked every installment of The Challenge to another, creating an expansive storytelling tapestry with threads extending back to the very first season of The Real World in 1992.

And viewers had a deeper — and unprecedented — connection to the houseguests as a result. Spending a formative year with seven people, “our audience had a relationship with them like had never been experienced before on television,” Graden said.

A reality show doubling down on the very stars it made in the first place is one of the genre’s most commonplace concepts today: Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Big Brother have all produced all-stars editions comprising of fan-favorite players from past seasons. Entire franchises, like The Surreal Life — which launched with Survivor: The Australian Outback alum Jerri Manthey — are predicated on the notion that viewers care about continuing to follow noteworthy personalities from the world of reality television. But when Bunim/Murray hinged an entire series on the popularity of its stars from The Real World and Road Rules, it was unheard of for an ongoing series.

“It really is a soap opera that continues from season to season.”

If The Real World was partly inspired by Paul Almond and Michael Apted’s award-winning Up series — a documentary that reconnected with 14 participants every seven years over the course of nearly 50 years — The Challenge took that principle one step further: At least one installment has aired every year since 1998.

“It really is a soap opera that continues from season to season, with hookups and people being wronged and getting revenge for conflicts from three seasons ago,” Freeman said.

From romances (Rachel and Sean, Brad and Tori, Danny and Melinda) to rivalries (Veronica and Katie, Coral and Julie, CT and Adam), viewers routinely had a front-row seat to the beginning, middle, and end of countless relationships. As Freeman said, “The Challenge married everything people loved about both [The Real World and Road Rules]: You have all the house drama of them living together and all these thrilling games and death-defying challenges and eliminations. So you really get the best of both.”

Via As said on MTV’s “The Challenge Survival Guide” in 2016.

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