What If…?

Joanna Stephens checks in on what’s new in the high-risk game of social-experiment formats.

To a degree, all reality formats seek to find the universal in the particular, but few do it with such fearlessness as social experiments, with their mission to cut through the frills of culture and conditioning to reach to the heart of the human condition.

For Michael Iskas, the president of The Story Lab Global, the best social experiments put “the real back into reality” by tackling the big things, from poverty and populism to refugees and relationships, in a responsible yet entertaining way. These shows, whose antecedents can be traced back to Big Brother and Survivor in the early 2000s, open a window on human behavior and psychology by testing people under controlled, albeit extreme, conditions.

Then there are the social experiments that trade on shock value and fly-on-the-wall voyeurism to deliver a less edifying—if no less addictive—form of entertainment. “Those are still engaging to watch,” Iskas agrees, “but I don’t think that they reflect the current market trend, which is increasingly towards formats that are hard-hitting, provocative, tackle real topics and challenges, but don’t shock for shock’s sake.” The world, in short, doesn’t need more naked celebrities on yachts. “Quite apart from taste considerations, I don’t think we can go much further down that road without alienating mass-market audiences,” Iskas says.

Hayley Babcock, the head of format production and acquisitions at A+E Networks, says that the social norms upon which the original social experiment was built must chime with the culture, standards and accepted practices of potential export territories. “If a format is meant to surprise viewers with the concept of an arranged marriage, for example, one has to know if arranged marriages are commonplace in a particular country,” she says. “If so, that format is unlikely to have the same entertainment value or the impact of a social experiment.”

Sumi Connock, BBC Studios’ creative director of formats, makes a similar point: “Many issues are universal, but certain territories place more weight on particular issues. For this reason, social-experiment formats that are issue-based don’t travel in quite the same way, or at the same speed, as broader genre formats. And when they do travel, a detailed production bible and a specialist production consultancy are paramount.”

Finding the right local talent can also be tricky when adapting social experiments in multiple markets, adds Revital Basel, the managing director of networks at Keshet International (KI)—especially if the star is the story. She cites Koda Communications’ celebrity-led dating format Anna’s 12 Steps to Love, which follows professional dancer Anna Aronov on a 21-day quest to find the perfect partner. The format lives or dies on casting a relatable celebrity singleton who’s willing to put themselves into a hyper-emotional, revealing situation and be filmed at their most exposed and vulnerable.

“You see this woman falling in love on the TV screen before you,” Basel says. “You feel her emotional journey and it’s compelling to watch. But the challenge will be finding local ‘Annas’ in each territory that picks up the format.”

The rawness and authenticity of social experiments like Anna’s 12 Steps also contrast favorably with many of today’s reality-TV offerings, which have become increasingly constructed in recent years. There’s growing evidence that viewers have had enough of contrived narratives and faux emotions; they want to see real people living through real situations that resonate with their own experiences.

If you can get viewers to ask, How would I behave in that situation?, you’re likely to have a success on your hands, Iskas at The Story Lab reflects.

KI’s Singletown, broadcast on the U.K.’s ITV2, sees five couples press pause on their relationships to spend a summer living the single life in London. “It poses the real-life question of, Is the grass greener on the other side?” Basel says. “People anywhere in the world can immediately relate to the question of whether they’d be better off staying in a relationship that isn’t working for them, or starting anew.”

Recent months have seen a spate of suspected suicides among reality-TV contestants, including two former stars of ITV2’s Love Island. Indeed, a report earlier this year in the U.K. newspaper The Sun claimed that, since 1986, some 38 people worldwide have died in suspected suicides linked to reality TV shows. Understandably, this has sparked a conversation about the psychological pressure of instant fame; the safety, dignity and emotional stability of contestants and whether producers and broadcasters are doing enough to protect the vulnerable.

David Williams, managing director of non-scripted at Keshet UK, says that with a show such as Singletown, the duty-of-care process starts the moment a potential contestant walks into the production offices and extends well beyond the airing of the last episode. “From keeping all data secure to verifying identity, taking professional references and medical and psychological assessments, duty of care is a huge part of the casting process,” he says. “And if concerns arise at any point, we will always err on the side of caution.”

During filming, contestants are closely observed by professionals and have access to 24-hour support. “But the bigger challenge is to ensure they can access any support they need once filming stops and they return home,” Williams adds. “Not only does Keshet go into each production with the level of post-show support agreed with the broadcaster, but the program of care is constantly refined throughout a project’s lifespan.”

Over at A+E Networks, Babcock reports similarly stringent safety guidelines for all formats, regardless of genre. “Each show will have its own particular and specific needs,” she says, with physically challenging formats requiring more stringent physical safety guidelines, and emotionally challenging shows requiring more psychological support. Not only should safety protocols and practices be “baked in” from the get-go, she adds, but they should also be guided, upheld and monitored by all the production stakeholders, from IP owners and distributors to local producers and broadcasters.

With its Channel 4 show about living with dementia, The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes, CPL Productions went as far as obtaining consent not only from the on-camera participants but from their families—and on a daily basis. “We also made sure there was additional and independent help for contributors and their family members, as the ongoing duty of care was of paramount importance,” says Nina Etspueler, the group creative director of Red Arrow Studios, CPL’s parent company.

With dementia currently the focus of much attention as life expectancy increases around the world, The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes is also a good example of a social experiment that, as Etspueler puts it, “captures the zeitgeist.” The best social experiments, she adds, “take a subject that is relevant and resonant, and dig deep to explore it from the inside in an innovative, empathetic and entertaining way, revealing much about the current state of our society and our values.”

Interestingly, BBC Studios has been mining similar territory with Our Dementia Choir, which explores the positive effect of music on the lives of both people living with dementia and those who care for them. “This huge social experiment helped raise awareness of the effects of music therapy, but it also contributed to scientific research that could help others in the future,” Connock says. She adds that the producer, Curve Media, partnered with a major U.K. charity to ensure that the science supporting Our Dementia Choir was both credible and potentially useful to future research programs.

Red Arrow has taken on another issue arising from the world’s greying population—social isolation among the elderly—in its critically acclaimed Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, also produced by CPL Productions for Channel 4. Now licensed in more than ten territories, the format unleashes a posse of tiny children on the residents of a care home in an intergenerational experiment designed to help alleviate loneliness, anxiety and depression.

You Are Not A Loan, the first fruit of The Story Lab’s fact-ent co-creation partnership with Renowned Films, sees 30 people from a single postal code join forces to eliminate their debt. It undoubtedly ticks the entertainment-with-a-purpose box, addressing a genuine social problem—the U.K.’s spiraling addiction to debt. But it also has all the elements of a cracking good story, complete with drama, tension, highs, lows and (one hopes) a happy ending, as a community works together to wipe out £500,000 of collective debt in just 12 months.

Echoing The Story Lab’s Iskas, Etspueler believes there is a move away from confrontational, antagonistic shows toward “gentler, more empathetic ideas” that aim to change hearts, minds and attitudes in a positive way. The Restaurant That Makes MistakesOur Dementia Choir and Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds fall into this category—as does arguably the most successful social-experiment format of recent years, Married at First Sight (MAFS)Created by Red Arrow-owned Snowman Productions in 2013 for Denmark’s DR, the format explores the science of romance by matching strangers and introducing them at the altar. The newlyweds then agree to live together for several weeks, before deciding whether to divorce or stay together.

MAFS has been formatted in some 30 territories, including the U.S., where the success of the ninth season resulted in Lifetime ordering two more seasons; and Australia, where the sixth season on Nine Network won its prime-time slot for every episode. But its success was certainly not a given, Etspueler says, with many buyers initially alarmed by its controversial premise and noisy, headline-grabbing title. “But once broadcasters understood that, at the heart of the show, there is an authenticity and honesty about helping single people find love, and that it’s a beautifully formatted idea, any feelings of risk became a desire to do something bold and fresh,” she adds.

MAFS also epitomizes arguably the most important quality needed to make a format replicable: a challenge that resonates universally. While MAFS turns on the basic human urge to find a mate, KI’s ambitious 2025 tackles the game of life itself. The format, which rolled out on Keshet 12 in early February and has been commissioned for a second season, sees 12 contestants enter a generic “near-future” mini-city, operated by humanoid robots. The moment they enter the purpose-built community, contestants begin to play a game of strategy, where their status, options and, ultimately, fate are determined by the social currency they accrue. “The situation is not specific to any one territory and is immediately familiar to anyone living in an urban environment,” Basel says. Psychiatrists are on hand to ensure that the city’s denizens remain safe—and sane.

The scale of 2025’s set makes it a prime candidate for a production hub. “We’ve built a completely bespoke unit on a 64,000-square-foot plot, which houses the 2025 city itself, the production rooms and a set for the live show,” Basel says. Keshet is viewing the city as a long-term investment. “When we’re not using the hub, we’ll have space for at least two or three additional countries to come on board,” Basel adds.

A+E’s Babcock is also a fan of production hubs for set- or location-dependent formats. She references Alone, which has wrapped its sixth season on HISTORY, in which contestants are dropped into the wilderness, armed only with basic survival equipment and their own cameras. Their mission is to stick it out for as long as they can handle the physical hardship and loneliness, not to mention the atavistic fear of being eaten by a bear. While in this instance nature provides the actual set, Babcock says a production hub is still invaluable in helping to keep costs affordable, with producers able to share investment in location scouting, setup, technical equipment and even below-the-line staff.

For Babcock, two of A+E’s most successful social-experiment formats—Seven Year Switch and Bride & Prejudice—demonstrate why audiences are increasingly drawn to the genre. “First, each has a baseline DNA of good intentions,” she says. “The end goal of the created structure is to see if something happy, good or positive can occur. And second, the participants’ experiences in each show are genuine. The jumping-off points may come from a constructed setting put together by a TV production, but the personal journeys are relatable and could happen in the ‘real world’ without stretching the imagination too far.”

The sales figures support Babcock’s analysis. A+E’s Seven Year Switch has been picked up by, among others, the U.K.’s Channel 4, Australia’s Seven Network, Italy’s Fox Life, Spain’s Antena 3 and RTL4 in the Netherlands. Bride & Prejudice, featuring unconventional couples whose conventional families are thwarting their unions, has spawned local iterations in Australia and the U.K.

On the question of whether social experiments are appropriate vehicles for celebrities, Babcock believes fame and real life make uncomfortable bedfellows. “A true social experiment explores a new world and assesses how everyday people react in that new, experimental world,” Babcock maintains. The moment famous faces are involved, the show becomes a different animal—even if the celebs in question are displaying genuine emotions and living real experiences.

BBC Studios’ Connock is less hard-line, noting that star power can help bring audiences to a social experiment, especially if the star in question is passionate about the project. This was the case with Our Dementia Choir, which was presented by well-known U.K. actress Vicky McClure, who helped care for her grandmother after she was diagnosed with the disease. “Celebrity involvement can help raise awareness of an important issue,” Connock adds.

Connock reflects the general view when she says there is a definite shift in tone from the voyeuristic reality formats of recent years to shows that are more socially conscious. “As a result, there has been an uplift in demand for factual entertainment with a purpose, which is where most of our social experiments fall,” she says. A case in point is The Week the Women Went, which first aired on BBC Three in 2005. The format, which sees all the women walk out of a community for a week to see how the men get on without them, has recently enjoyed a surge in sales, “most likely down to the current climate and the #MeToo movement encouraging female empowerment,” Connock says.

Relevance is also a powerful factor in selling social experiments, Connock adds. She points to Filthy Rich and Homeless, in which five wealthy volunteers swap their privileged lives for a spell on the streets. SBS ordered a local version of the BBC format to help expose the myths and explore the realities of living rough. After the first season, which aired in 2017, it was reported that Australian homeless organizations saw a spike in volunteers and donations, indicating that social experiments can, as Connock puts it, “provoke thought and promote change.”

As to where social experiments will take us next, Connock tips shows that explore the generation gap à la Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds and another hot issue du jour: sustainability. “Given how conscious Generation Z is about the environment, plus the rise in veganism and plant-based lifestyles, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this also taking shape in some form of social experiment in the not-too-distant future.”

Filthy Rich Go Green, anyone?