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MTV’s Next Great Challenge

Viewers who remember when MTV played music videos have long abandoned the network—and traditional television in general. The plan to win them back? Fresh versions of their favorite old reality hits, on a shiny new streaming service.

Getty Images/Paramount/MTV/Ringer illustration

Halfway through the first episode of The Challenge: All Stars, as teams of weary, middle-aged parents, spouses, and reality TV veterans swim in search of submerged puzzle pieces, “Machinehead” by the band Bush plays. The frenetic riffs of the 1996 single abruptly slap like a splash of freezing water. There is nothing timeless about “Machinehead.” It has not persevered through the digital age; it has not been memed. This is a song you probably have not heard in a long time. Maybe not since its music video dominated MTV in the days when the network still played music videos. And that’s exactly the point.

The Challenge: All Stars, which wrapped its inaugural season on Paramount+ this week, is a spinoff of MTV’s resilient competition series. It reunites the show’s bygone stars for a game that reflects the franchise’s latter-day evolution from oceanside romp to honest-to-goodness athletic contest. (Seriously, the grueling cardio and gut-dropping psych-outs of today’s Challenges barely resemble those bygone beach games.) But it also has larger significance: The series is an indicator of MTV’s strategy on the nascent streamer, which earlier this year rose from the ashes of CBS All Access after CBS merged with Viacom, MTV’s parent company. The raucous bundle of viral fail videos that is Rob Dyrdek’s Ridiculousness continues to consume the network’s airwaves, so MTV appears to be using Paramount+ to win back the Gen X and millennial audiences it lost in its efforts to woo younger generations. The streamer launched, after all, with The Real World Homecoming: New York, a reunion of people whose dalliance with fame unfolded long before the average Ridiculousness fan was born.

But where Homecoming sought to recapture the social relevance of its early reality experiments, All Stars aims for a kind of catch-all nostalgia. Several of its games, including one where contestants must melt a giant block of ice with nothing but their bodies, hearken back to the series’ early days, while others honor the evolved stunts of today’s show (in a dialed-down manner suited for 40-year-olds, of course). There’s also the tunes, which spiral beyond the pop-punk scores of the franchise’s early days to include genre- and decade-spanning staples of the music video generation: Wilson Phillips’s “Hold On,” Onyx’s “Slam,” Winger’s “Easy Come Easy Go,” and Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood,” to name a few. Kate Rubino and Roxanne Chalupnik, the music supervisors on this year’s The Challenge: Double Agents, say they typically tailor music to a season’s location, visual aesthetic, and relationship dynamics, but All Stars music supervisor Pete Davis says nostalgia was the driving factor for the spinoff.

“This is a Challenge with people who haven’t seen each other in a while, who aren’t doing this competitively and careerwise anymore, and it’s really more of a summer camp reunion for them,” he explains. “They’re doing it because it’s fun and they want to get the band back together. We wanted that to be reflected in the music.” If there’s anything binding the explosion of vintage pop across these nine episodes, it’s the sensation of seeing a familiar face you haven’t thought of in years. (It’s also pretty funny to hear Bush’s Gavin Rossdale sing, “Breathe in, breathe out,” as our protagonists bob in and out of the water like empty bottles.)

One of those familiar faces is Teck Holmes, the Real World: Hawaii breakout who graduated into hosting gigs at MTV and acting roles in fare like National Lampoon’s Van Wilder and Friends. His addition is perhaps the most revealing in a cast that includes legit Challenge champs (Darrell Taylor, Mark Long) and notable firebrands (Beth Stolarczyk, Trishelle Cannatella). “Initially, we were going to call it Legends,” says Julie Pizzi, executive producer and president of reality TV pioneer Bunim/Murray Productions. “The reason we changed it was because MTV wanted to lean more into all sorts [of competitors]. It’s not just about performance, it’s also about fan favorites.” Holmes isn’t a Challenge legend—he took part in just one competition back in 2000—but he is emblematic of an era when reality and music videos coexisted on the network. Holmes, after all, was one of MTV’s most familiar faces after his Real World season, hosting video countdown series Direct Effect and karaoke competition Say What? Karaoke in between cameos on Total Request Live and in Red Hot Chili Peppers videos.

It’s that era—when MTV was still intertwining reality and music—that the network is conjuring up on Paramount+, and the approach dovetails with the streamer’s grand strategy. In addition to its deep catalog of classic CBS, BET, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central content, Paramount+ is dusting off a disparate—and, at times, baffling—selection of cultural relics to tap into the nostalgia wells. The streamer is developing prequels, sequels, reimaginings, and revivals of properties like Flashdance, The Italian Job, Love Story, Grease, and Fatal Attraction. A media company’s reliance on nostalgic IP is nothing new, of course, but it’s notable that Paramount+ is as interested in boomers and Gen X’ers as it is “geriatric” millennials. It makes sense: According to a Pew Research study, the share of U.S. adults between 30 and 49 who get TV via cable or satellite has dropped below half, while those between 50 and 64 are also trending away from cable and toward online sources. The olds are in search of streamers, and familiarity can go a long way in securing a subscription.

This also isn’t a new strategy for MTV, necessarily. It was just over three years ago that the network reunited the Jersey Shore cast for Jersey Shore: Family Vacation. A year later, it premiered The Hills: New Beginnings, a sequel to the mid-aughts hit featuring the original cast. Until now, they’ve been outliers on a network that’s still eager to win over Gen Z with shows like Catfish, which confronts identity in the social media age, and the newest seasons of Are You the One? and Ex on the Beach, both of which have pivoted to highlighting queer relationships. “By bringing back The Hills and Jersey Shore, they’ve been experimenting with ways to get older millennials to watch again,” says Amanda Ann Klein, author of Millennials Killed the Video Star, an exploration of the network’s shift from music videos to reality TV.

And, Klein notes, the fact that Paramount+ launched with Homecoming as one of its marquee originals helped it signal itself as a portal into an even more distant past. The streamer makes it easier than ever to revisit old seasons of The Real World and The Challenge, entries of which are abundant in its archives. “Generally speaking, there’s this sense that reality TV is not a rerun-type genre. Like, once it’s aired people won’t want to watch it again,” Klein says. “But I know that they have started [highlighting] more of that content, and it is tapping into that nostalgia.”

The clean slate that is Paramount+ offers MTV an opportunity to remember why it got into reality in the first place. Before The Real World lost itself in hot tubs and nightclubs, its early seasons broadcast serious discussions of race, identity, politics, and more into the eyes and ears of its young audience. “Part of why Homecoming is so interesting is because it’s the closest The Real World has come [in decades] to tapping back into its original goals,” says Klein. The first season, for example, was shot as the country erupted in protest over the acquittals for the police officers who beat Rodney King, a cultural flashpoint that cast member Kevin Powell compares to the Black Lives Matter movement in the reunion’s premiere. “I imagine they were thinking about this as they planned the reunion, but we’re in the throes of having some very serious conversations about race, gender, and civil rights again,” adds Klein. “We’re always having these conversations, but that this show came out almost a year after George Floyd was killed is fascinating. It pretty much mirrors what was happening in 1992.”

In Homecoming, which reunites the cast from the very first season of The Real World, the group revisit footage of their initial debates about race. Southerner Julie Gentry acknowledges her previous biases and addresses how she’s evolved. Powell, who reckons with how he was framed as an “angry Black guy” on the show, discusses how he’s learned to “meet people where they are” in his activism. And Becky Blasband, the songwriter and artist, leaves the show after being confronted during a conversation about white privilege. It’s bracing to encounter such frank discussions under the Real World banner after all these years. Klein cites 2002’s The Real World: Las Vegas as a turning point when cast members were “no longer there to have deep discussions about identity, but rather to go Girls Gone Wild.” Even former cast members acknowledge the show’s ideological drift. In Klein’s book, Seattle cast member Irene McGee says “there was still some authenticity to the process” during her 1998 season. Paula Meronek Beckert of 2006’s The Real World: Key West describes later seasons of The Real World as “muddled” and filled with “people wanting to be on TV to be a version of themselves.”

Beckert continues: “I just wanted that real experience from The Real World that I grew up with, like in the ’90s, like the Pedros.” She’s referring to Pedro Zamora, the San Francisco cast member who helped spread awareness about the AIDS crisis during his time on the show. The global impact of his activism, coupled with his untimely death in the hours after the finale’s first airing, crystallized the season into a coveted cultural artifact. It’s hard to believe it exists in the same franchise as 2014’s The Real World: Ex-Plosion, a twist of shock reality that cynically elides organic, identity-driven drama by turning the cast’s exes into roommates halfway through the season.

Of course, there’s a cynicism inherent to any kind of reboot, and Paramount+’s slapdash approach to IP is about as pandering as they come. Still, there’s a pathos to reality revisitations that you won’t find in fictional ones, as there’s often some manner of self-identification rooted in all the nostalgia. “I was, like, 13 or 14 when The Real World came out and [I thought] they were all so cool,” says Klein. “They’re having blissful conversations, they’re in the city … and I see them now, a little bit older than me, and they’re talking about aches and pains and wanting to sleep on the good bed because their back hurts.”

That level of identification extends to All Stars. Darrell, one of the franchise’s longtime powerhouses, has a bad back too. And while Road Rules veteran Mark Long might still have bulging biceps, he’s also 49 years old. Music supervisor Davis’s cheekiest All Stars needle drop might be this 1999 single from Citizen King. “I’ve seen better days,” goes the buoyant chorus, which initially hit radios just seven months after The Challenge premiered. And, though it elicits laughs when set to footage of wrinkled 40-somethings face-planting, it also extends to the series’ occasional moments of reflection. Take All Stars competitor and Road Rules alum Kendal Sheppard, now a 41-year-old mother. Early in the season, she earnestly asks herself why she came back at all. Upon her elimination in the seventh episode, she finds an answer: “I didn’t realize how much of myself I had lost in trying to be a responsible adult.” It’s a striking sentiment in the midst of so much silliness, but it resonates in its attempt to articulate the sheer breadth of change that occurs in a person across two decades. They’re playing this game as different people, just as millennial audiences are watching it with a few more wrinkles.

There will be more to watch, too, if Bunim/Murray has its way. “How could we not?” Pizzi says of doing more seasons of All Stars. “We want to be careful not to oversaturate, but [it feels like] we’ve just started. There’s so many more cast members that we haven’t even tapped into yet. I think another season would really give you an opportunity to see a whole new batch.” As an executive producer on Homecoming as well, she feels similarly about more Real World reunions. “We want to do more,” she says. “I would hope to do it with all [the seasons].” (MTV, for its part, hasn’t confirmed that it would be producing more seasons of Homecoming.)

Paramount+ has also announced a reboot of Road Rules, but don’t expect the reunion treatment on that one. “We’re looking at Road Rules differently and trying to do something unexpected,” Pizzi says. “Instead of doing something derivative, how do we rethink what Road Rules looks like in 2022?”

Those who want to find out will likely need a subscription to Paramount+. So far, the nostalgic content that MTV has brought to the streamer hasn’t played on MTV proper, and its upcoming reboots of Yo! MTV Raps and Unplugged, two more staples of a bygone era, aren’t likely to, either. And why should they? As The Ringer reported last year, Ridiculousness has been good for business. And, in its own roundabout way, it allows the network to operate much like it did in the days when all it played were blocks of music videos.

Ridiculousness lets MTV fulfill the function it did in the ’80s, which is that you turned it on and did other stuff. It was the thing that was on in the room,” says Klein, noting that the series—like its counterpart, Deliciousness—mirrors the way younger generations consume content in that it’s structurally similar to a series of TikTok videos. “Sometimes you’re actively watching it. Sometimes you’re talking to your friends or doing homework. But it’s easy to drop in and out of because it’s formless.”

The divide, then, between MTV’s network content and what it’s airing on Paramount+ is as stark as the one between Gen Z and those who came before it. Lingering in the generational limbo is the flagship The Challenge, which just wrapped its most recent season, Double Agents. And, though that series still counts old dogs like Chris “CT” Tamburello and Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio in its ranks, it’s nevertheless in the process of being devoured by younger personalities from ViacomCBS’s other properties, including Survivor and Big Brother. Whatever vestiges of “old MTV” that exist on linear will soon age out, cast, as it were, to the retirement community that is Paramount+.

Soon, that’s where those who grew up on MTV reality will go to feel young again. “I think when we came back to the Challenge house, we all reverted to who we were 20 years ago,” says Jisela Delgado, a former Road Rules competitor, on All Stars. MTV hopes you’ll feel the same way.

Randall Colburn writes and podcasts about movies, music, TV, wrestling, and the internet. He used to be an editor at The A.V. Club and he currently cohosts The Losers’ Club: A Stephen King Podcast. Find him on Twitter and Instagram at @randallcolburn.

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