Social Experiments’ Next Chapter

While all reality formats offer some insight into human behavior, social experiments dive deep into the psyche and reveal a more authentic, raw depiction of the human condition and what happens when someone is put under certain pressures.

This genre of exploring what it means to be human has blossomed in the last several years, as people have been forced to acknowledge the deeper parts of themselves through the pandemic and other world troubles, according to several executives in the formats industry.

“The demand for social experiments has been big in the past, and I would say it increased in the most recent years,” says Tim Gerhartz, managing director of Red Arrow Studios International.

Sophie Ferron, founder and CEO of Media Ranch, concurs, noting that even in the last several months, the genre has “been a constant ask from all of our buyers.”

While dating experiments, in particular, have become more popular with the debuts of FBoy Island, Love is Blind and the like, requests for more meaningful shows have been increasing, Sumi Connock, creative director of formats at BBC Studios, says.

Connock, Gerhartz and Ferron all agree that the pandemic has been the biggest driver of trends within the social-experiments genre.

For Red Arrow Studios International, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds became a hit and received a spin-off, Old People’s Home for Teenagers, which recently launched in Australia. The formats bring together retirement home residents and 4-year-olds or teenagers to see how they interact and affect each other’s health. The spin-off focuses on the loneliness epidemic in particular. “It has been specifically the teenagers who lost two, three years of their life during the pandemic, and now they really should be in the focus, and we should see what’s happening with them,” Gerhartz says.

Media Ranch’s catalog, meanwhile, features 180 Days, which sees young people in their 20s who need room and board take up residence in a nursing home in exchange for volunteering one hour a day for a month with the elderly, participating in birthday celebrations, walks, cleaning and social time. “We had that one before Covid, but after Covid, we realized that the two segments of [the population] that had been hurt the most by Covid were the elderly and the young 20s,” Ferron says. “Right now, it is such a timely format because we need healing.”

Social experiments centered on mental health, wellness and self-improvement have received a major boost since the pandemic as well, Connock notes. BBC Studios has multiple formats in this category, including Art on the Brain, known locally in Australia as Space 22. The series explores whether seven strangers can improve their mental health and ultimately their lives through the power of art and creativity. “It was created based on the fact that one in four of us experience a mental health issue,” she says. It has found immense support from around the world, as “it’s a social experiment that’s rooted in something real.” She adds, “The ultimate social experiment is when you encourage the audience to ask questions about themselves.”

Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof is another prime example, Connock says. It’s “a big reality entertainment series built around the benefits of extreme cold therapy and the Wim Hof method,” she explains. It sees eight celebrities living in sub-zero temperatures doing activities such as daily cold showers, swimming in frozen lakes and even jumping backward off a 500-foot bridge. “The ultimate goal was that they were going to emerge healthier, happier, stronger human beings,” Connock says. And it did really well, becoming BBC One’s number one factual-entertainment launch of the year so far, she reports.

Perhaps the most important part of all these social experiments: “There was no competition element or voting or eliminations,” Connock says. “It was about self-improvement, which I think is a trend we’re definitely going to continue to see going forward.”

Even when dealing with heavy topics like mental health issues, the focus is on improvement and positive change. The experiments are skewing “a little lighter, more uplifting,” Gerhartz says. “There’s a lot of serious stuff going on out there in the real world, so I think commissioners are definitely looking for some lighter, uplifting shows.”

Given that these types of formats deal with the human psyche, it is important for producers to keep in mind their potential effects, the three executives note. Therefore, “we ask producers and channels to make sure that there are certain duty-of-care rules and regulations not only during production and preproduction but also postproduction, specifically during the launch and the airing of a show,” Gerhartz says. “That’s the critical phase, really.”

Connock agrees, noting that BBC Studios works with medical teams and psychologists during casting and filming and provides aftercare support and contacts. It’s important to “highlight any potential negative reactions from either press or social media,” she says, stressing the importance of “providing guidance and support when [participants] are navigating this.” In addition, she says, “We’ll employ a welfare producer whose sole job is to provide support for any contributors. I also think it’s really important that we proactively check in with contributors around transmission because not everyone who’s taken part is inclined to reach out for help. Even if they need it, they might feel like they can’t. It’s a producer’s responsibility to make sure that they check in with the contributors.”

Though the specific aftercare protocols and guidance offered may vary depending on the subject of each experiment, all three agree that they are an imperative part of the production process no matter what. Ferron even adds that it’s important for help to be offered to the crew as well. “They are affected sometimes by what they are seeing because it’s pretty revealing,” she notes. “When you do a social experiment, you discover a lot about the human psyche, and a lot of the crew is affected by that as well.”

While cultural differences around the world could potentially bar certain social experiments from traveling, they haven’t actually impeded the genre very much. “The truth is, if the show is strong, it travels,” Gerhartz says. “A good idea is a good idea. A good show is a good show and will travel.”

Connock and Ferron concur, with Ferron noting that the streamers have helped with travelability. The various streaming services often give their programs big rollouts, and “cultural differences are not as important,” Ferron says.

Ultimately, “if you manage to achieve something that actually improves the lives of others, then it’s a really good use of a social-experiment platform,” Connock notes, and it will find an audience anywhere.