Med thumb room raiders

On August 1, 1981, MTV famously debuted with the music video for “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, a none-too-subtle nod to the nascent cable network’s ambition. Twenty-two years later, MTV found itself older than its average viewer. But teen tastemakers with learner’s permits still worshipped at the altar of the Moonman. In fact, 2003 was MTV's best year ever — but it wasn’t music videos that drove ratings. Instead, viewers were tuning into MTV's growing crop of original programs. 

Sure, Total Request Live will go down in history as the ultimate relic of MTV’s ratings heyday, but credit must also be given to a little dating-slash-reality show called Room Raiders, in which “unsuspecting teen singles were picked for dates, not by their looks or charm, but by what's inside their bedrooms.”

Room Raiders, which ran from 2003 to 2009, was silly, familiar and always on. It also epitomized the early aughts and its brand of conformist cool. Before social media squashed the concept of TMI, before the Great Recession flatlined the country and before everyone stopped going to the mall, weekdays at 4:30 belonged to the teens with blacklights.

Here, we are proud to present the first oral history of Room Raiders.

SOURCES:

Sara Nichols, Showrunner for first 66 episodes
Jimmy Floyd, Casting director throughout show’s run
Michael Swanhaus, Showrunner, starting at the end of season two
Noah Harlan, Senior field producer for seven of nine seasons
Yuffie Bunny, First-season contestant

The Big Idea

Michael Swanhaus (showrunner): [MTV] had done a bunch of dating shows, but they were more studio shows. The unique thing about Room Raiders was that you went into these kids’ actual bedrooms. With each of these kids, the only space that’s their own is the bedroom. The nature of the show was meant to be fun and, even in the eliminations, it was just this light, playful dating show without any real or nasty consequences.

Sara Nichols (showrunner): We understood what the draw for the show was going to be, and it was really two components: One, most teens are interested in dating. And on the other side, most guys are really interested in what’s in a girl’s room… Originally the show involved an actual sleepover as part of the date, which MTV decided probably wasn’t a good way to go… It probably would have gotten great ratings.

Jimmy Floyd (casting director): MTV brought me in because they were thinking of trying to do other live shows during day, before and after TRL. During that time, MTV, to that age range it appealed to, was white-hot. If you weren’t watching TRL, and all the shows, you just weren’t with it.

Nichols: It was sort of a combination of a voyeuristic journey into the rooms of these 18- to 22-year-olds, and also the appeal of seeing how people decide who they want to date — Can you really make an educated guess who that person is based on their bedroom? In a lot of ways, it was a social experiment of sorts.

Casting

Floyd: I knew [casting] would be a gigantic machine of finding people, because, for whatever reason, we might not get permission to go to their home, because these were kids who lived with parents mostly.

Nichols: At one point we had probably over 200 people cast for the first season. We had to have the mix of, not only creating enough diversity with who that person (the seeker) was going to pick, but the rooms themselves were characters. Also, they all had to live within 15 minutes of each other from a production standpoint.

Noah Harlan (field producer): For the New York episodes, we did them all across New Jersey, from Fort Lee to Wayne, to Saddle Ridge, to Montclair. We also did a lot out on Long Island. Also Miami, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Arizona, Southern California.

Swanhaus: [Casting directors] would go out month or two before us and do casting. Kids would fill out questionnaires and [casting team] would do follow-ups, take pictures, and go to their houses and shoot video.

When we went to Florida, I started having to ask if there were any firearms in their rooms.

Floyd: We’d hold open castings at clubs, malls all over the country, college campuses. Anywhere young people congregate, and where we were allowed to be. We always had cards on hand wherever we went, in case we saw a cute girl or guy… At that time, we’d take notes on back of Polaroids. Then, we would decide who to do house visits with, and would send casting associates out to their houses for a second interview.

Bunny: I found an advertisement in a local newspaper. They were holding auditions at a local mall in Short Hills, NJ. And I thought, “Why the hell not. I'm like 16, and if I don’t get picked or whatever, it will end up being a fun way to go waste time at a mall.”

Swanhaus: So, we’d get these tapes of the casting scouts going to their houses and interviewing them, and I think they’d ask them to go into their bedrooms and show some favorite things, so you’d get some clues of what their bedrooms were like, or what type of personalities they might have.

Harlan: When you look at the kids they were casting, MTV was going for a very TRL audience, so generally they’d mostly be middle- to upper-middle class. They also weren’t casting, like hardcore goths or [people with] super distinct qualities. Mostly sort of vanilla, every-day. Our job was to try bring something interesting out of them. For a lot of these kids, it was the most exciting two days of their life.

Nichols: By and large, given where we were shooting, it was definitely more skewed toward white, middle-class kids. We did try to do some shows in Manhattan proper, to get more urban kids and it just became difficult to find the right cast within the right proximity. Complications came up; maybe they didn’t even have their own bedroom, because that was one criteria [of being on Room Raiders].

Swanhaus: After we left New York, we went to more college-age rooms, so then it got a little racier because they’re a little older and could have a little more fun with it. We went to Miami for season three. When when we got there, it became a different, wilder show in a sense.

Harlan: We'd seen every house type and personality type in the suburbs of New York, so when we got to Miami, we could go out to the Everglades, find people who lived in swamps and stuff like that, so it was fun for us, and the personalities of the kids there were a bit different. There was more of a Latin influence. The kids in New York were straight up Caucasian. The kids down there — we just had different ethnicities.

The Reveal

Swanhaus: [Room Raiders] was almost constantly in production. There were, like, 250 episodes or more — 280. Every weekend we showed five episodes.

Nichols: It was probably one of the most formatted shows I’ve ever done, and we did those first 66 episodes in nine months, which is kind of surreal in the television world.

Harlan: The show was called a “strip,” so it ran five days a week. The full three-day shoot worked like this: Monday and Tuesday, the director would reach out to all the kids. On Wednesday/Thursday, we’d go visit all of them… We’d still not tell them what show it was.

Swanhaus: We left it really generic, like, “We’d love to tell you, but for the element of surprise, it works best if we don’t tell you if it’s a show that’s on MTV already or in development. A lot of them would just be like, “Okay.” As seasons went along, you got an idea of like, “I’m going to be on MTV.” MTV used to be so different.

Harlan: We’d ask to see their car. They’d think they were going to maybe get their rides pimped or whatever. We’d say it could be a new show, or it could be a current show. We never lied to anyone.

On Friday, we would do a little bio-package shoot. So, if the person was a surfer, we’d film them surfing — or whatever their thing was. On Saturday morning, we’d start really early. The “seeker” would show up. We’d hit the first kid’s house and, yeah, we’d try to catch them off-guard. When we showed up and someone knocked on the door — cameras rolling — and say, “You’re on Room Raiders. You’re coming with us.”

We would shove them into the van.

Nichols: It was much harder to surprise people as the series got more popular. I’d say season one, we saw a fair amount of people who were shocked. They were expecting someone, but weren’t expecting to be tossed in a van. We couldn’t totally go in blind. We had to make sure they’d be available.

There was an innocence about reality back then. It was such an honor to be asked to be on TV.

Harlan: Sometimes, the kid would be like, “I knew it was Room Raiders” or, “You guys shot at my friend’s house one neighborhood over.” And I’d be like, “Okay, that’s fine, but also, don’t get rid of all your shit or make your room super boring or neat, because it’s not going to make it on air.” The kids were usually receptive to that.

Bunny: They had to give us some heads up, because we had to remove photos of ourselves, even as kids, because they didn’t want anyone to get an idea of what we might look like. Me and my friend purposely left a few things out, like as a “what-if.” The one anime or manga I had — the quote-unquote “porn comic” under my bed — stayed out. But we didn't know the guy would be going through our rooms like that.

Harlan: Once we got the person out of the house, the seeker would go in, look at the outside of the house while we were prepping the room inside. Then they’d go through the house, go outside, do a little recap, and we’d go onto the next house.

On Sunday, we would take the three kids — whose houses we searched — pick them up and film them in the van, showing them tapes of what had happened the day before. They would react as though it were happening in real time.

Sunday afternoon would be the revenge sequence and elimination. We’d take them to [the seeker’s] house, and then film the elimination and outro.

Bunny: I was really skeeved out. We went through his apartment and saw how filthy he was, finding mold and dirt. And at the time, I had a really big thing for Asian guys, so seeing this white boy in front of me, I was like, “Okay you might be a nice person, and maybe you let your cleaning slip because you had no idea we were coming over.” But he was also pretty rude when he was going through our houses. After I won, the producers said it was all up to us. They gave us the option of trading information, and maybe going out on a date after filming, and I politely bowed out.

Real Reality

Nichols: It really was unscripted, other than asking kids to repeat something sometimes. Between the reactions of the kids in the van and the person in the room, we’d just let [the camera] roll.

Swanhaus: It was legitimately unscripted. We would help the people find things in the sense of like, “Why don’t you look in the drawers,” and we would help them draw conclusions or ask questions to help them elicit possible responses in the van. But, yeah, you had no idea what you would find.

Harlan: We’d guide them a little, but we never planted anything... If there was a whole stack of Sports Illustrated and at the bottom was a Playboy, we might move it higher in the stack… We’d look for ways to embarrass them, but in fun ways. We weren’t out there to fuck with these kids. We were able to give some kid — in community college, working at Dunkin’ Donuts — a chance to be on MTV, to give them a great day, and have fun with them.

Swanhaus: Reality TV has changed over the years. When The Real World started, people weren’t playing characters. They were just being themselves — maybe a bit exaggerated. As the seasons ran on, people came in like, “I’m going to be this character. I’m going to be that character.”

There was so much innocence to Room Raiders. It wasn’t mean-spirited at all. We were looking for comedy, but it wasn’t mean.

One family had a bobcat in their house. A live bobcat. It was their house pet, and they kept it in the bedroom until we wanted to shoot it. In Florida, of course.

Kids with Cold Feet

Harlan: I’d say 25 percent of the kids would be like, “Ahh, I don’t want to be on Room Raiders.” We’d sit them down and say, “Listen, this show’s going to be on the air at 4:30 in the afternoon on basic cable. Anything truly scandalous isn’t going to be on there. If there’s shit you don’t want your parents to know, I’m not here to tattle on you, or get you in trouble, this is just going to be fun.”

If it was a guy, I’d usually say, “Let me guess, I’m going to find some porn in your sock drawer.” Guess what? Every teen boy’s house has that.

Swanhaus: As soon as we abducted them, we’d ask for all their passwords under the agreement that we’re not going to show anything that’s going to get you in trouble. They’d just give their passwords.

Harlan: Nothing on their computers was ever locked, almost never. Usually they’d try and hide the folders, but I have a degree in computer science. They’d hide it well enough that their mom couldn’t find it but not so we couldn’t get to it.

Nichols: We did have instances where you could tell they knew. Their room was really clean and it was staged, which made it less interesting.

Boys vs. Girls

Harlan: Most 19-year-old girls, especially the type who’d go on a show like this, were more chaste. It didn’t mean they weren’t sexting, but you just wouldn’t find the guns or porn or drug stashes that you’d find with the guys.

I’d say, one in five or 10 girls would have a vibrator, and that would always make a good find, but it would rarely find its way on air, particularly if [the vibrator] was anatomically accurate.

Memorable Moments

Harlan: When we went to Florida, I started having to ask if there were any firearms in their rooms. There were a couple kids — one actually kept a fucking pistol under his pillow. When he told me that, I said, “We’re going back in this house. We’re taking that, putting it in a lockbox. It’s getting locked up and you can take it back out when we’re all gone.”

Swanhaus: One family had a bobcat in their house. A live bobcat. It was their house pet, and they kept it in the bedroom until we wanted to shoot it. In Florida, of course.

Harlan: There was also a time we were searching a kid’s house and under his bed was a lawn ghost, like the type of thing you’d put out on Halloween, with a stick on its back, and the ghost was holding a sign: “Boo! Boo! Catch a Jew, turn it into Jew stew.”

Harlan: There were a handful of kids who were in the closet, and in many cases their family was in total denial… There was a kid, the only way he could have been more gay was if he had shown up in a sequined thong. He had a matching set of Gucci luggage, and he had just come back from a weekend in Atlantic City with his friend. There was a photo of them with his head on the shoulder of the other one, looking out over the ocean, and he was like “No, I’m straight.” And we said, “Listen we’re going to be doing some gay-themed episodes coming up, would you like to be on one of those, would you feel better about that?” He said, “No, why would I want to be on that? I’m straight.”

Again, we did not care. I went into his computer, and there was nothing there. I realized he had wiped a bunch of his history but he’d left one log file unwiped and I opened it up and it was all gay porn.

It wasn’t mean-spirited at all. We were looking for comedy, but it wasn’t mean.

Nichols: There were funny things, like one girl you would have thought was totally innocent had fuzzy handcuffs in her closet, some kinky stuff that didn’t match her personality, at least on the surface. Also with kids [living] outside of their parents’ apartments, it might be a bit more dicey on the sex front. We had a couple whackos here and there. We had one recovering angel dust addict, and she could not put a sentence together. We didn’t know she’d started using again. It was a whole thing.

Harlan: Every one of these kids was sexting with each other, and all these teens were just all sending naked pictures to each other and it was on the computer. It was sort of fascinating to me. For my generation — still a pre-digital era — to take a naked photo of yourself to show someone you’d have to go to a store and have it developed. But these kids had digital cameras for the first time… No Snapchat. The iPhone didn’t exist. People were using Razrs, maybe.

We basically stopped doing Room Raiders around the time the iPhone came out, which would have been the big turning point in behavior.

The Ratings

Harlan: The show had spectacular ratings. We’d go on after TRL at 4:30 in the afternoon and this was when TRL was a juggernaut. It was really cheap to produce and we almost peaked out at a 2.5 [million-viewer rating]. If you look at the ratings that shows you get today, that’s stunning..

Then it went international. They showed the American version on MTV Europe. One time, I was in France and an episode I produced came on. It was a very surreal experience, sitting in Paris and watching myself on TV — I was the “abductor” on that episode — carrying some girl over my shoulder and running out into the street.

Nichols: MTV’s “primetime” was always that afternoon slot. Back then, it really was a point in television where kids weren’t streaming everything on the internet. [In the afternoon], it was Oprah, soap operas, lots of repeats on other cable networks. They weren’t really catering to our demo.

Harlan: The show provided [answers to] what every teenager was curious about: Were they normal? It was about other people’s private lives. What’s going on behind closed doors in other kids' lives? It was this kind of supreme version of teenage fantasy fulfillment — to take someone out of their house and go through their stuff. It gratified this very benign but prurient interest in their peers.

Nichols: It sated the curious mind. How much does your space define you? Or, what does it really say about you, in terms of what does someone’s space say about who they are and how accurate is it?

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The Blacklight

Floyd: [The blacklight] was in the pilot and the very first season. It changed when Justin Timberlake pulled the pasty off Janet Jackson during the Super Bowl half-time show — which was produced by MTV. The FCC considered fining MTV half a million.

From that point on, Room Raiders was — we always said — kind of Disney-fied. We initially were looking for really sexy boys and guido boys. But if you look at shows we produced before the halftime show incident, and after it, you’ll notice you never saw another blacklight. You never saw anything overtly sexual after that. They changed it.

Nichols: In the beginning, MTV wanted us to keep upping the bar and make it sexier. Once that all happened — Nipplegate is what we called it — everything literally changed. People’s hard drives were getting confiscated at Viacom after the Super Bowl. We got a call saying we were going to have to do a lot more blurring. For shows we’d already shot — where [MTV] had said, “Yes, go, push the envelope” — suddenly we were blurring everything out. There was an increased sensitivity to what we could show.

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I had some of my more interesting conversations with the Standards and Practices department. One time about what kind of dildos can you show, literally, it was a conference call with lawyers: “If it’s veiny, no. We have to blur it. If it’s flesh-toned, you have to blur it. But, if it’s blue, it’s cool.”

Swanhaus: After Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl incident, MTV had to go into Congress to say what they stood for, and I think that was the end of the blacklight.

Nichols: I think [the decision] was more of a production challenge. It was harder to see it because your lighting had to be a certain way… It was difficult to really see it on camera. I don’t remember MTV saying we’re retiring that due to the Superbowl. That’s my recollection at least.

Swanhaus: That was sort of the running joke — that [the stains] could have been anything. It was always funny when you’d turn the lights off and we’d light up the bed, and some beds were just covered in whatever turned it another color — and they’d all go absolutely insane.

The assumption is that, these kids were like fooling around on their beds, so I guess that was promoting the idea that these kids were sexually active. But we were also finding condoms and stuff all the time, which already suggested they were having sex. At least they were practicing safe sex.

Swanhaus: We tried to develop other spy tools, but everyone mentions the blacklight. I was always shocked by how many people — adults and everyone — had seen the show. It was one of those cultural phenomenons at the right time and place. People asked, “Oh, Room Raiders, is that the show with the blacklight?”

Problematic Parents

Swanhaus: The parents never said anything. They were just excited that their kid was maybe going on TV. I don’t really remember any objectionable parents. They were more like, “This sounds like fun,” and just signed up and gave us free reign.

Bunny: My parents thought it was hilarious. They just sort of stood off to the side [when the seeker went through my room], biting their tongues every time he said something rude, or like trying to hold back laughter because they saw what an awkward little asshole he was, thinking like, “We know our daughter’s not going to like this guy.” 

Nichols: Some parents were concerned… At this one house, we abduct this girl. She’s 16, gets tossed in the van and her father comes out, sporting a gun on his hip. I walk up to him, introduce myself and tell him what we’re doing. He’s glaring at me and says, “You just took my daughter.  How long you going to keep her for?”

I said, “Only a couple hours, and actually they’re just out having breakfast, it’s going to be fine.”

He said, “Could you keep her the entire weekend?”

Phew.

Floyd: Today, no parents would let a film crew come in. And, now, networks make you do a full-blown background check about everyone that makes it on camera. That’s so exorbitant. You’d have to do background checks on every kid on Room Raiders. It’s unbelievable what we got away with. That alone would make it impossible to produce the show today. 

Raiders Reboot?

Nichols: If I were going to reinvent it, I would include some sort of live Twitter feed or live commentary where you’re hearing from the audience as you’re diving into somebody’s room.

Floyd: Now, if you’re casting something for MTV, or any of the young networks, you have so many ways to tap into kids electronically. We had to go to where the kids were.

Swanhaus: I don’t think it could happen today because you wouldn’t have that trust. I was directing on the last season. By that point, we’d tried to return to the roots of the show, but it was too late. Everything had evolved so much. A lot of kids were aware and self-conscious, so it lost its innocence.

Swanhaus: The heart of [Room Raiders] was before technology took over, when there were more physical items that you could draw different references from. It was all about “pick it up and guess what it says about the person.” For most of the seasons, it was just a very different time. You didn’t have people putting out all this information about themselves, like in this glass-box society we live in now.

Floyd: When we went through their rooms, we’d look for clues about them. But now, kids are basically performing their own little reality shows. There used to be a time when it would be like, “Wow it would be so amazing to see that girl laying across her bed, doing her homework. How cool would that be?” Now, that sounds boring.

Floyd: There was an innocence about reality back then. It was such an honor to be asked to be on TV. People are a lot more savvy about offering themselves up to be on television today. You can’t even call something a reality show anymore because of the negative connotation. Reality has become a dirty word. We didn’t really have a problem with it then. No one was caught up with what reality really meant.

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Looking Back

Swanhaus: In later seasons, there’d be a crew of 40 people. We’d get to a city and stay in a hotel for a month-and-a-half, then move to another city and shoot every single weekend... It was pretty awesome. It was fun to be on the road with great friends. You were in a hotel for four months out of the year, maybe closer to six.

Harlan: It was a fucking blast. I don’t work in film anymore, but it was the best group of people I worked with in film. People who really loved to party, but also a production team where nobody was ever late, no matter how hard people went out at night... It’s one of the only experiences I had where, to this day, everyone who worked on that show feels very much like family. It was a special time, a relatively new format, and we were making this big, new thing that had a high impact.

Floyd: It was just fun to watch, and it was fun to cast. All these kids who wanted to be on television — and there they were, on TV, and in the most intimate place you could go in their home. I never heard of any time someone got upset when they found out they were on Room Raiders.

Bunny: I mean, it was exciting. I was pretty popular in school after that. It’s always cool to hear what people think of it, who watched it back then, going, “Holy shit, I remember you. You were that weird girl who was into costumes.” I do [cosplay] as a full-time thing now. I’m a guest at conventions. Not to say that Room Raiders launched my career, but it helped a lot of other people find me and encourage me to keep going... The whole thing was a blast.