Why TV Networks Are Buzzing Over 'Social Experiments'

MTV's "Are You the One?"
MTV's "Are You the One?"
 MTV

Reality TV has a new buzzword.

Just when you thought the networks had put every possible twist on the genre (dating, survival, dancing competitions, D-list celebrities, elephants taking on a group of little people), they've come up with a new theme to explore: the social experiment.

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Among them: Fox has been casting for Utopia, which takes 15 people into an isolated location for a year and challenges them to create their own world; MTV has Are You the One?, a dating series recently renewed for a second season; Discovery Channel's Naked and Afraid and forthcoming Survival Live both fall into the "social experiment" category; and A&E Networks' new channel FYI recently ordered Married at First Sight, an "extreme social experiment" that will find six brave souls agreeing to legally marry the moment they first meet.

Closer on the horizon is The CW's Famous in 12, which debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday. The series finds one family moving to Los Angeles to seek fame (with the help of TMZ) while being filmed around the clock for 12 weeks straight. Executive producer David Garfinkle -- who also is one of the executive producers of Naked and Afraid -- says there's a reason why "social experiments" are hot on TV.

"Human nature is fascinating," he said. "This is a family who has given up everything in their whole life and moved their family from their home to do this. These types of shows are all about human names -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- and it's fascinating to watch."

Fox's reality chief Simon Andreae says he hears the terms frequently during pitch meetings but argues that it's thrown about too lightly.

"It's a much abused term, and there is a bit of buzz behind it at the moment," he says. "One in every three pitches I hear is 'social experiment,' but a lot of them, quite frankly, are game shows or docu-soaps or something else. "

Andreae and his peers argue that while shows like Survivor and Big Brother (created by Utopia's John de Mol) could be perceived as a social experiment, they don't quite fall into the category. They argue that those are more akin to an extreme version game shows, where the goal of the show is to find one winner. So what exactly does "social experiment" mean when it comes to a TV show?

"When I think of a social experiment, I think of a world that is literally an 'experiment," says Andreae. "What are you trying to demonstrate, and what is the result? If you're trying to demonstrate how to win a million dollars, it doesn't feel much like an experiment. It's something designed to test people's morale and the laws in which we live and explore an environment in which people are tested to their capacity."

Adds Garfinkle of Famous in 12: "There's no game in this, no prize money, no people competing against each other. Literally this family has 12 weeks, and if for some reason they don't become famous, they're going back to their average lives in Beaumont, Calif. It's not a game show; it's real life. And that's what makes it a social experiment."

Discovery's Survival Live, meanwhile, will strand eight people in the wilderness for 42 days with only the clothes on their backs for a live television event akin to the network's own Naked and Afraid -- but with clothes. Viewers will be able to track the survivalists' progress via a 24/7 Web platform that details their biometric data, which will reveal who is physically struggling. Meanwhile, contestants also will be able to ask viewers for help.

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Matthew Kelly, vp development and production at Discovery, says that what sets apart a show like Survival Live and others of its ilk is that they gets back to the "real" in "reality TV."

"A lot of reality television's audience has lost a little bit of faith in what reality is; they don't know if it is real," he says, citing shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which some viewers perceive as having a "scripted reality sensibility." "But with a social experiment, you genuinely feel like the people are going through something that feels real and authentic. We're seeing how people react to a certain situation in a real and authentic way."

MTV's Are You the One?, meanwhile, does feature a cash prize, but the network's programming president Susanne Daniels argues that it still falls under the "social experiment" category. The show, about 20 singles living together trying to find their "perfect match," became a hit in its first season and was given a season two pickup.

MTV, in fact, could be given credit for one of the original social experiments with the 1992 series premiere of The Real World (the show about "seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real" was recently picked up for its 30th season). As Daniels points out, MTV's audience likely doesn't remember a time before reality TV. But if the subjects are aware that the cameras are on, doesn't that potentially affect their behavior?

"When we're developing these shows, we're aware of that aspect of the format, and we have to develop certain moments in the format that specifically address potential behavior issues," Daniels says. "But the young contestants who want to appear on [Are You the One?] seem to be about more than just seeking their 15 minutes of fame. They've grown up watching these and are comfortable with the notion of the camera in their face and they're also remarkably comfortable sharing their entire lives."

Howard Schultz, CEO of Lighthearted Entertainment, which produces Are You the One?, has some advice for those hoping to come up with TV's next big "social experiment."

"It has to have a really loud idea -- something that grabs your attention and gets the audience to sit up and take notice," he says. "You have to have an understanding of what makes people tick, what it is people are looking for in life, how do they behave under certain circumstances."

Still, he admits, it's a "high-wire act" producing such a show.

"I'm of the opinion that the greatest reality shows create a structure -- if you have an understanding of human beings and what makes them tick and how they will behave under certain conditions -- then you just build that structure and let them go into it," he says. "But it's a high-wire act when things occur that you could not have predicted, and I can't predict every human behavior. The analogy I use is: If I put a can of gasoline in a house with a box of matches, I don't know when the fire is going to occur, but at someone point something is going to happen if I've done my job right."

Survival Live, meanwhile, takes the idea one step further by asking viewers to get involve on social media. Competitors can ask viewers for help; the onus is on them to build a social network to help them through their ordeal by getting them things such as a phone call from a loved one for a pep talk or food, clothing and even dental floss.

"There are real stakes, and they will have real influence over the show," Kelly says. "If the person doesn't get what they asked for, they that will change the dynamic of the show and the relationship between the viewer and the survivalist. And each move will be interesting for the next stage of the social experiment. I think this will really change the way people watch television."

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