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Social Experiment TV

Branch of reality TV with scientific/historical intent

Main image of Social Experiment TV

Figuring strongly in the reality television boom of the late 1990s to early 2000s, social experiment programmes pluck participants from their everyday lives and place them in unusual situations with cameras on hand to record their every move. Unlike its reality cousins the 'docusoap' and the 'gamedoc', social experiment television stakes a claim to inform its audience as well as entertain them.

The format received a surge in popularity at the turn of the millennium as schedules were crammed with series such as The 1900 House (Channel 4 1999) and Castaway 2000 (BBC, 2000), but social experiments on television can be traced back at least as far as the 1978 BBC series Living in the Past, as well as one-off documentaries devoted to experimental living.

Though it employs some of the strategies of the 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary, social experiment TV creates situations that participants would never otherwise experience - surviving on uninhabited islands, living in the Iron Age, becoming part of a new family. It is this element of construction that is unique to the format although this can manifest itself in different ways; in some examples presenters or personalities are invited to learn a new profession or try a new lifestyle, while others see members of the public volunteering for immersive experiences. Despite the heavily constructed scenarios and the requirement for programme makers to formulate a narrative from a series of experiences, the attempts by the participants to manage their assignments and the real emotion on display make these 'experiments' compelling television.

Decades before the castaways set foot on Taransay, Nigel Kneale's drama The Year of the Sex Olympics (BBC, tx. 29/7/1968) presented a future in which television audiences addicted to reality television savoured the mishaps of a family on a not-so deserted island. Journalist James Hogg tried it for real when he spent two weeks on an uninhabited Scottish island for magazine programme Nationwide (1969-84) in The Adventures of Robinson Hogg (tx. 22/12/1975). Happily the bleakness of 'The Live Life Show' as imagined by Kneale was not borne out in Castaway 2000 when 36 volunteers spent a year away from modern life creating a community an uninhabited island in the Outer Hebrides. While managing the food supply and dealing with the rough conditions of the island was tough, the biggest challenge would prove to be getting along together.

A single edition of history programme Chronicle (BBC, 1966-91) followed Danish family the Bjornholts as they spent 'A Fortnight in the Iron Age' (tx. 29/4/1976) and Living in the Past gave the format a full series devoted to volunteers living on an Iron Age farm for a year. Underpinning these programmes was a commitment to authenticity and the value of the experience. An edition of science series Q.E.D. (1982-99) saw two couples trying out nuclear shelters for ten days in 'The Underground Test' (tx. 30/07/1982). One couple stayed in an expensive bunker with a ventilation system and even brought their cat, while the other pair dug their shelter in a garden following government recommendations and had to spend most of the time lying down due to their cramped conditions. The use of video diaries and the comparison of different experiences in 'The Underground Test' pointed towards the future of the format, in which direct address and multiple narratives would be dominant features.

Channel Four's historical houses (The 1900 House, The 1940s House, 2001, Edwardian Country House, 2001; and Regency House Party, 2004) combined features from reality television with historical elements to explore more recent pasts by confining participants to domestic routines from bygone eras. The Trench (BBC, 2002), Lad's Army (ITV, 2002) and That'll Teach Em (Channel 4 2003-06) took similar approaches to institutions and applied strict regimes. The way in which these series presented social histories made them informative and engaging, with an emphasis on emotion that was often withheld by more formal historical documentaries. By focusing on the details of daily life and putting them in a wider historical context these experiments successfully presented history on television in an original way.

Used as a framework for reinvigorating genres like history programming and documentary, social experiments have proven to be extremely useful to programme makers. Though constructing situations is not the traditional preserve of documentaries, the opportunities afforded by placing participants in unusual scenarios can provide genuine revelations. Producer Stephen Lambert's progression from series editor of Modern Times (BBC, 1995-2001) and Real Life (ITV, 1999-2005) to executive producer of Faking It (Channel 4, 2000-05) and Wife Swap (Channel 4, 2003-06) can be seen as indicative of the changing nature of television documentary as the popularity of reality television and the use of social experiments grew. Faking It and Wife Swap pushed boundaries by regularly featuring clashing personalities and cultures and having their participants work their way to negotiation by the end of each episode.

As a playful attempt to explore the demands of different professions, In at the Deep End (BBC, 1982-87) can be seen as a predecessor to Faking It, even though it used the Nationwide format of having a presenter undergo the challenge. Professional arenas were also explored in Back to the Floor (BBC, 1997-98) and Trading Places (ITV, 1997).

The psychology of social experiments has also featured as The Experiment (2002) recreated the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, and Boys Alone (2002) and Girls Alone (2003) sought to observe pre-teens in artificial Lord of the Flies scenarios. While these series went to some lengths to create controlled environments for their experiments, the results proved highly controversial, particularly given years of mounting suspicion over the ethics of some reality formats.

Although the aim of the format is to observe how the human subjects behave, the experiments have frequently been subverted by the participants, revealing the rebelliousness of human nature and a desire to wrest control back from the producers. The manifestation of these rebellions varies from withdrawing from the experiment entirely to sneaking in contraband (Castaway 2000, The Trench) or simply disobeying the rules (Wife Swap); but even these deviations from the confines of the experiments only serve to provide further evidence about their human subjects. At its best, social experiment television keenly observes microcosmic communities and the power structures in relationships between individuals. The exposure of these issues can be cringe-worthy and shocking as well as emotional, but the urge to investigate ourselves anthropologically continues.

Lisa Kerrigan

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 1900 House, The (1999)

1900 House, The (1999)

Early reality TV experiment recreating a late-Victorian household

Thumbnail image of Castaway 2000 (2000-01)

Castaway 2000 (2000-01)

Various castaways attempt to survive on a remote Scottish island

Thumbnail image of Faking It (2000-05)

Faking It (2000-05)

Fascinating life-swap documentary series

Thumbnail image of Going Native (2001)

Going Native (2001)

Reality series about a British couple trying to cope in a Swaziland village

Thumbnail image of In at the Deep End (1982-87)

In at the Deep End (1982-87)

Prototype 'reality' show in which presenters learn a new profession

Thumbnail image of Living in the Past (1978)

Living in the Past (1978)

Early 'reality tv' experiment recreating an iron age farm

Thumbnail image of That'll Teach 'Em (2003-06)

That'll Teach 'Em (2003-06)

Reality TV series set in reconstructed schools from previous decades

Thumbnail image of Trench, The (2002)

Trench, The (2002)

Volunteers recreate conditions on the Western Front in 1916

Thumbnail image of Wife Swap (2003-09)

Wife Swap (2003-09)

Reality show in which couples swap partners for a fortnight

Thumbnail image of Year of the Sex Olympics, The (1968)

Year of the Sex Olympics, The (1968)

Prescient drama painting a bleak portrait of future television

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