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October 14, 2019
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.”
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