So it seems like that’s what he (and the network) thought the show should be about: getting outed and slapped are, after all, real things that really happen to people all the time. Whether they are valued as interesting or even tolerated as acceptable is, of course, another question.
To this day, McGee maintains that while his behavior was inappropriate, it was MTV’s decision to air whatever happened that was the real assault. “It’s the show. They own the edit,” she told Jezebel’s DirtCast in 2017. “If John Murray really cared about Stephen’s sexual orientation and how it might play out in his life…it didn’t have to be there. Period. And they didn’t need to vent me to get me hit.
Again, MTV never released a statement about the thought process behind airing all of this, but that silence — and the network’s subsequent actions — speak for themselves. The Real World: Seattle marks a turning point in the tone of the show, far from any claim to social commentary and towards the Girls Gone Wild– Style antics he would continue to embrace. It is no coincidence that the following season, which took place in Hawaii, featured a new record for nudity, sex and alcohol consumption in the series, which culminated with actor Ruthie Alcaide returning from a bar drunk. Production, with a mandate to be as passive as possible, eventually had to to intervene and give her an ultimatum: either she will get treatment or she should leave. (Probably at least partly because Alcaide was becoming an insurance liability.)
The producers had only appeared on screen a handful of times before. The real world: New York‘s Rebecca Blasband had a brief to throw with a cameraman in season 1; the cameraman lost his job because of it. After that, no one from the production reappeared in an episode before the slap, when they came to tell the other roommates what had happened and asked them to decide whether Williams should stay in the house or not. They voted yes, provided he agrees to take anger management classes. (It just so happened, however, that the production became part of the storyline again in Seattle soon after, when the producers discovered than the girlfriend actor David Burns was talking about was, in fact, a Real world casting director. Like the New York camera operator, she was fired for their involvement.)
At that time, the way reality TV shows tried to maintain unflinchingly authentic fiction was to keep the camera focus narrow and ignore the machines, literal and figurative, that surrounded the actors. – who in turn pretended not to know that they were being watched for entertainment. The producers described the slap as a random eruption of violence between people, instead of a provocation drawn from the intentionally stressful circumstances the cast members found themselves in.
In the next few years, reality TV would become a genre in its own right. Survivor and Big brother both established in 2000; american idol and The single person in 2002. The explosive growth of the category led to wide diversification and many new niches, but The real world remained one of his biggest names.
The growing number of shows also meant that the “former reality TV star” became an understood celebrity class, and together these alumni found ways to monetize their notoriety (e.g., lots of club appearances, lots of ill-fated attempts at acting and the occasional t-shirt company). Which made it harder and harder to ignore that when people went on reality TV, they didn’t do so out of innocent curiosity, but with a specific goal in mind: to become famous.
Which made it hard to deny that when we looked at them, we were their accomplices and enablers. We were manufacturing famous — and therefore richer and more powerful than us. All of our perceived intimacy with reality TV actors disappeared when they stepped off camera and into the real world, where they became almost as untouchable and unknowable as the rest of the celebrity pantheon. We started to feel pretty uncomfortable about it. We started looking for a way to knock these people down a notch or two.