MTV sends a cast member to rehabilitation after her drinking problem results in a fight with others in the house.
MTV's Real World is all about video voyeurism: The network sets up a house full of strangers and lets cameras watch their lives unfold without intruding.
But in its eighth _ and most popular _ season, MTV changed its hands-off policy to help a cast member with a drinking problem.
Ruthie, a 21-year-old Hawaiian, is sent to a 30-day rehabilitation program after a series of incidents. The situation culminated in a fight with some of the six other cast members who shared a home in Honolulu.
"It was like watching a train wreck," said Mary-Ellis Bunim, executive producer and co-creator of the series, "and we couldn't let that happen."
In the Real World season premiere, housemates had to call an ambulance for Ruthie when she got alcohol poisoning. Tuesday's episode showed Ruthie kissing another female cast member, then claiming no memory of it the next day.
For Real World, MTV selects a cast and houses them for several months. Although cameras are ever-present, MTV has rarely tried to change the course of events, though a producer once took the car keys from someone who was about to drive drunk.
During one evening, to be shown later in the season, an apparently drunk Ruthie gets into a car with a companion, then switches to the driver's seat at a traffic signal.
They arrive home without incident, but the next morning Real World supervising producer Matt Kunitz tells Ruthie on camera that she needs to get help or risk being fired. Ruthie undergoes counseling but keeps drinking, and it's her fellow cast members who later confront her, Bunim said.
She completes a rehabilitation program paid for by MTV. But Bunim, wanting to maintain the suspense, won't say whether it was successful.
MTV had an obligation to help Ruthie, network president Judy McGrath said.
"We tried to do it in a way that didn't look parental or intrusive or too authoritative," she said. "We think this is something that a lot of viewers can relate to and would do for a friend. If there's any chance to make it more public and acceptable, we will take it."
Jeffrey Hon, a spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, worried that MTV was exploiting someone's troubles to get ratings. But after watching three episodes, Hon applauded MTV's response. The story line, he said, may help other young viewers fighting alcoholism.
"This is not a new topic for television," Hon said, "but what seems to be new here is that it's actually happening to real people. One of the reasons that Real World is so successful is that people who watch it can see something of themselves in it."
Bunim said exploitation charges might have been valid if MTV knew of Ruthie's problem ahead of time. In fact, one of the finalists for this year's cast appeared to have a drinking problem and was rejected.
In her application, Ruthie identified herself as a "social" and "occasional" drinker, Bunim said. One clue that Ruthie may have understated her drinking came almost immediately, when she asked another cast member if the house's refrigerator was stocked with booze.
For whatever reason _ Ruthie's troubles, the tropical setting, a romance among housemates or the tendency of cast members to walk around nude _ this season's Real World has its highest ratings ever.