What Would You Do?

Social-ExperimentsSocial experiments are all the rage, but certain key elements must be in place for these formats to become global success stories.

Would you marry someone you’ve never met? Show up for a date entirely nude? Volunteer to sit in jail if you weren’t convicted of a crime? These are some of the scenarios at the heart of today’s popular social-experiment formats, which document how real people behave in certain situations.

As producers and broadcasters have cycled their way through countless twists and tweaks on reality-based shows—from dating to dancing, survival to celebs—social experiments have emerged as the genre du jour. Many would argue that they present a more “real” depiction of reality than formats in years past.

“Audiences are crying out for authenticity, and without a doubt, social experiments have exactly that,” says Grant Ross, the executive VP of global creative development and format acquisitions at Banijay Group.

John Pollak, the president of global distribution and Electus Studios at Electus International, agrees. He says that the popularity of this genre was born out of a backlash against some of the more heavily produced (sometimes even semi-scripted) reality fare. “Docusoaps were the ‘it’ genre for a long time; they were everywhere,” Pollak says. “Audiences began to see that many of these shows were produced in such a way that meant they weren’t always ‘real.’ There was so much of it that people finally had enough. They wanted to go in the opposite direction, which is real, authentic programming. A social experiment does that.”

When you hear the word “docusoap,” it’s relatively straightforward what the concept entails. The term “social experiment,” however, can be much less clear. Generally, they center on ordinary people being put into extraordinary scenarios. Audiences can easily see themselves reflected in these participants and may begin questioning how they would react if they were facing the same circumstances.

Rob Clark, FremantleMedia’s director of global entertainment, argues that “social experiment” is just a buzzy new term to describe a certain form of reality show. “How it differs is that often it’s slightly less formatted and more observational,” he says.

“Factual-entertainment formats have always been strong, and social experiments are a new breed of these,” says Harry Gamsu, the VP of format acquisitions and sales at Red Arrow International. “They’re noisy enough to get prime-time slots, whereas a docureality or traditional factual-entertainment format would struggle to be loud enough in prime time to cut through.”

The genre combines elements of reality shows, documentaries and soaps, says Etienne de Jong, the head of international productions at Talpa Global, which is behind the social experiments Utopia and Dating in the Dark. What defines a series as a social experiment “has more to do with the basic idea of the format—whether you give 15 people a piece of land, some chickens and cows and see if they can create a new world or not, or if you can fall in love by meeting somebody only in the dark,” he says. “The premise of the format has a big ‘what if’ question to it. It asks, What if…? and What would I do?”

“You’re setting up an environment or situation for a real-world activity to take place in so that you can observe it,” explains Hayley Babcock, the head of formats, international programming and production at A+E Networks, which has a roster of social experiments that includes 60 Days In and Seven Year Switch. “You want to provoke conversation, thought and introspection, but it’s very softly formatted. Once you get the casting right, you largely just sit back and observe. You couldn’t script it as well as it actually unfolds if you wanted to.”

Nor would you want to, as true life has the potential to be more compelling than fiction since the stakes are real, and so are the people viewers are connecting with.

One of the most successful social-experiment formats as of late is Married at First Sight, which has been licensed into more than 25 markets. “The format has all the elements in it that make a social experiment work,” says Red Arrow’s Gamsu. “It’s got a very simple but loud premise. It’s a question that we’ve all asked ourselves: would you get married at first sight? When you watch it you start questioning that! There’s a focus on great casting, but it’s casting of people we can imagine ourselves being or knowing. They’re not alien to us. The other key thing is that it touches on a universal topic. Marriage is something we can all relate to, so as a viewer you engage with it straightaway.”

Electus’s Pollak agrees that when it comes to social experiments, relationships and dating are a great fit. He says that viewers can easily relate to the singles featured in the Dating Naked format, since (nudity aside) it’s ultimately about searching for love. The way that the format is structured and how the producers have crafted the environment are what help the social experiment to play out as naturally as possible—which is the ultimate goal with shows like these.

“These characters walk into a world that might feel incredibly foreign to them, but within that world they feel comfortable,” Pollak says. “It is the special sauce of producing. Nothing feels over the top. It feels intentionally genuine and people on the show appreciate that and are more willing to let their guard down and share.”

While social experiments have the appearance of being largely observational in nature, it takes more than just turning a camera on to get a show that is compelling and can be successfully formatted in multiple markets. The production team still plays a key role in constructing the setting and pairing together the personalities needed to drive stories forward.

For example, in FremantleMedia’s new social-experiment format Get the F*ck Out of My House, 100 participants are placed together under a single roof, where in the end only one will remain. Viewers are invited to “come revel in the chaos of the human zoo,” says Clark, as cameras document all the action of how and why people leave the show.

The stories within the series are propelled by “the people and the situations that they find themselves in—that is all driven by the production team,” Clark explains. “They cast it, they make sure the right people are in, they have chosen the location—and they have not chosen this house for comfort!” There are also very strict rules in place that participants must abide by.

“Although it’s a social experiment, it is quite formatted,” Clark says. “We want shows that are returnable. Sometimes social experiments aren’t returnable because once you’ve seen the dénouement of the experiment you don’t want to see it again. Watching a petri dish is not necessarily the best entertainment. Watching something that’s formatted, that has the feeling of a very loose program but is primarily story-driven, that makes a big difference.”

Gamsu at Red Arrow is aware of the fact that, along with a strong premise, solid format pillars do need to be in place. He cautions, though, “Don’t overproduce it; watch how it unfolds naturally.”

“The hand of the producer should be a nice soft touch,” Gamsu says. “We’re not leading the conversations. Compared to other dating formats, Married at First Sight is a more softly constructed show in the way that the journey develops. You want the narrative to progress naturally.”

Banijay’s Ross cites maintaining a hands-off approach as one of the greatest challenges when it comes to producing a social-experiment format. “You have to trust your format and the experiment,” he says. “If you get nervous and try to intervene, you will throw things off.”

In the case of The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds—which Banijay’s sales arm, Zodiak Rights, represents—“if you leave half a dozen 4-year-olds in a room with a chocolate cake and tell them they cannot eat it, there is no need to get in the way or move things along,” says Ross. “What will play out is pure comedy.”

The same rings true about trusting in the premise for the format Undressed, Ross explains. “By placing two strangers in a room and asking them to undress each other, the resulting connections that naturally occur are real and fascinating to observe.”

One important piece—if not the most important piece—in eliciting genuine stories that engage the audience is casting. “Because you’re not telling the people on the show what to do or say, you need to find great characters,” says Electus’s Pollak. “These are the people that viewers are going to watch and get into the lives and heads of. If you don’t cast that properly, it’s not going to work. It might be a great world that you’ve created, but viewers need to care about the people in it that they are watching.”

The better the casting, the better a producer can, more or less, predict how the stories will play out by considering the backgrounds of the participants and what their chemistry with one another might be like.

Red Arrow’s Gamsu says that getting the casting right is one of the most time-consuming pieces of the overall production process. “That pulls you into a longer preproduction period. You also have a longer running time for the show itself. For a true experiment to come to fruition and be credible, it needs to run over an extended period of time to see real change. Otherwise, you’re just fooling the audience and it doesn’t work. So you do have a longer production period as well.”

There is a delicate balance that has to be achieved with social experiments in giving the audience just the right amount of story. This was one of the key lessons that producers learned with Utopia.

The original Dutch version, which has been successfully airing for more than two and a half years, is based on daily, 25-minute episodes. When the format was adapted in the U.S., FOX opted to air the show twice a week rather than every day. “It was impossible to tell the story in this amount of time,” says Talpa’s de Jong. “Real social-experiment formats are about storytelling. The viewer will never be hooked if you have to tell a story that happened over five or six days in real time in only two hours.”

In Germany, Utopia was on for nearly 50 minutes a day, double the duration of Holland’s version. “For the viewer, that was too long,” de Jong says. “You then have to tell much more story and situations are being [edited to run] longer. Holland is the best example of the format, in the daily, 25-minute structure.”

Also, by airing a social-experiment show in a daily slot, viewers get immersed in the stories and the following becomes similar to that of a soap opera, de Jong says. “For a broadcaster, it’s very good because it’s cheaper than a real soap with actors that you have to pay big salaries!”

Banijay’s Ross points out that broadcasters also get the benefit of social experiments creating a fair bit of noise in their schedules. “In a landscape of multiple channels and screens and the need to stand out, it’s a marketer’s dream come true,” he says.

Clark feels confident that the subversive nature of Get the F*ck Out of My House will pique broadcasters’ interests. “This is a loud show. This is not one of FremantleMedia’s broad-appeal talent shows; it’s a different sort of format for us. It’s targeted for younger adults, male and female viewers, and it’s supposed to be provocative. Calling the show Get the F*ck Out of My Housein itself is a provocative statement.”

While Clark admits it’s not an easy show to produce, he does say it’s a challenge he’s excited to undertake. “As a producer, you very much have to move with the flow of what’s happening; you can’t plan ahead. You don’t know the outcome.”

Even with the core premise of the social experiment in place and a general idea of the story that’s to be told, there are still many variables at play that impact the outcome of the final series. “You go into a social-experiment production not knowing how it’s going to play out—that’s a scary thing!” says Electus’s Pollak. “With Dating Naked, you cannot control the reactions or the feelings that people have toward each other, but producers can set up the dates and the moments so that when those feelings happen, they are able to catch them. Then they’re real and they’re great. You need to have a great team in production, but also in post-production who can then grab all of those moments and create a show around them.”

Red Arrow’s Gamsu adds, “You want to be prepared and know what’s coming, but it’s impossible to do that; you can’t tell exactly what’s going to happen. That’s what delivers the great content. For a viewer, it makes it thrilling. For a producer, it’s pretty stressful! You have to believe in the format and believe in the premise. You have to believe that even if it doesn’t follow the exact path you wanted it to, that’s a positive, and it’s what makes it a more interesting show to watch and produce.”

One of the variables that is all but impossible to control is the emotions of the participants, notes Gamsu. This is why having knowledgeable experts—skilled in psychology, matchmaking, communication, etc.—involved can pay off.

“The experts are really important,” he says. “We don’t want to play with people’s emotions. The [participants] must trust us and trust in the production and the experts to bring out the best in themselves and get the most out of the experiment.”

A+E Networks’ Babcock expresses a similar sentiment concerning the emotional support needed for participants on shows like 60 Days In, in which participants are locked in prison with real criminals, and Seven Year Switch, following couples who swap spouses as part of switch therapy. “You put in as many safety nets for these individuals as possible,” she says.

“You are dealing with real emotions, people and relationships. You have to be incredibly respectful of that and incredibly careful with it, without going so far as to sugarcoat the situation and prevent them from experiencing the consequences of their choices and decisions. You walk a fine line.”

Babcock says this is why it’s important to enlist qualified psychologists, psychiatrists and family therapists. They not only help choose the appropriate people to participate in the show in the first place, these experts then guide the process so that the experience is fruitful, not detrimental.

“We’re not trying to create car-crash moments,” she says. “Will there be some jaw-dropping, emotional, intimate, revelatory moments? Probably, as these situations are so dramatic—cameras or none.”

Babcock says that social-experiment formats, to a certain degree, present a mirror of what’s happening in society; therefore, she sees the genre delving into more personal depths in the future. “As people get used to sharing their private worlds publicly, thanks to social media, that firewall between private life and public life is not as apparent. That may then be reflected in the kinds of moments and stories happening in our society, which we will then see on screen.”

Pictured: A+E Networks’ Seven Year Switch.