In a downtown area, a seemingly drunk teenager stumbles to his car. It looks as if he will attempt to drive this vehicle. A stranger walking by notices this and stops to find out what’s going on.
Man: You all right?
Drunk Teenager: I’m fine, bro.
Man: You sure you don’t need help? Drunk?
Drunk Teenager: Nah, I just gotta get to school, that’s all.
Man: How do you expect to get to go to school, staggering like that?
If you were in the same position as the man who walked by, what would you have said and done? This is the question posed to viewers in this segment on Episode 94 of the hidden camera ABC television show, What Would You Do? You see, this interaction is only partly fictional. The drunk teenager is actually an actor, and he’s only pretending to be a (potentially) drunk driver in order to elicit a response from random passersby. But the responses of the filmed strangers are real, because they do not know the situations are staged.
What Would You Do? explores attitudes toward taboo cultural topics like teen pregnancy, domestic abuse and discrimination. In a format similar to Punk’d or Disaster Date, hidden cameras placed in public places record uncomfortable situations that suddenly arise. In What Would You Do? the host, John Quinones, steps in after a while and explains that the participants are on the hidden camera show and then asks the good Samaritans to comment on the broader social issue implied. Each scenario usually highlights the one person who does the best job of stepping into the situation. Many viewers like the show because it is engaging and thoughtful. However, What Would You Do? is not always realistic or reliable and can even be considered exploitative and unethical.
People like this show because it is engaging. Even the title of the show encourages interaction. Consider the question it presents: If you were confronted with the situation on the screen, how would you react? Would you be like the majority—would you be offended but then turn a blind eye because you don’t want to get involved in someone else’s business? Or would you be the person we all desire to be, the “good guy” who confronts the situation? Or will you possibly embarrass yourself so badly by doing the wrong thing that your face will be edited to a blur on the television screen? Every viewer must ponder these questions. The show is constructed so that the situations appear to be so realistic that they could happen to a universal “me.” The show has the ability to play with a viewer’s emotions; first you’re horrified by the situation, then shocked that nobody will do anything about it, then, because each segment closes with a happy ending, you can’t help but smile knowing that everything turned out okay. This formula hooked me, at first.
It is easy to forget that the situations are staged and often overly dramatic. Take, for example, a scenario aired in Season Two that raised questions about age discrimination. In particular, it probed how friends would react when a middle aged female friend announced her plan of marrying a much younger man. But the show didn’t just present these facts. In addition, salacious details included the following: the pair had met one month ago, he was in need of a green card, and the fiancé hadn’t initially mentioned that he wanted to be married within one week (Hartmann). I don’t think that the unsuspecting friends are reacting in shock because they cling to old-fashioned ideas about the suitable age of two lovers, as the show leads viewers to believe. Rather, I think the friends likely react negatively because of the additional details; surely, regardless of the age of the middle aged lady in relation to the fiancé, her friends would try to stop her marriage to a man who might take advantage of her. The added details make the scenario less realistic and more like a rehearsed soap opera.
The dominant view is that What Would You Do? raises awareness of controversial topics and provides thoughtful TV, unlike all the mindless reality shows and games shows that dominate the networks. Shortly after What Would You Do? aired a segment on the topic of weight discrimination, jezebel.com, a popular women’s interest blog with a feminist bent, posted an article about the show that lauded the awareness spread on this issue, but ultimately warned: “it seems like a good idea to raise awareness of real instances of discrimination, rather than cooking up fake ones” (North). The author suggests that awareness should not come through sensationalist TV programs. The show does not have enough substance to affect laws or bring about social change.
Yet viewers see the show as providing reliable psychological experiments on society. No wonder: when a short preview for What Would You Do? aired on ABC’s Good Morning America, host Robin Roberts even described the show as a “hidden camera behavior lab.” We perceive the show as an empirical experiment, employing the scientific method to incorporate a hypothesis, create a situation, tweak different variables and then analyze data. However, it’s important to remember that the show isn’t actually scientific. Journalist Daniel Weiss, the author of an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review on the genre of “journalistic experiments” (a category that What Would You Do? epitomizes), agrees that these shows erroneously label themselves as scientific. He points out that real researchers and scientists carefully control all variables and measure one changed condition at a time, and then repeat the experiment over and over again (Weiss). TV situations do not come close to following these procedures. A shaky foundation renders this show as pseudo psychology rather than one of scientific method. The show makes use of ethical dilemmas, the bystander effect and the basic parameters of an experiment, but falls short on science. Furthermore, the results in each show could be outright incorrect or might not be universally applicable or might apply to only the small amount of people tested; also, there might not be enough trials to make sure the findings are valid. Of course, the production’s expectations might also have affected the results.
Is it ethical for a TV program that broadcasts nationally to revolve around the actions of unsuspecting strangers? They didn’t seek the spotlight, nor did they explicitly give prior consent to being taped by hidden cameras. The alternative, which is to tape the show in a controlled environment, seems less attractive because that would away the candid nature of the show. Weiss is convinced that “the prank always lurks just beneath the surface and is clearly part of the genre’s appeal.” The show does rely heavily on the “gotcha” moment when John Quinones informs the participant that the whole situation is faked and that the participants are now on TV. The surprise of the prank adds entertainment to the show, as we watch the participant’s expression suddenly transform into shock, disbelief or even embarrassment. This implies that as viewers, we are not beyond laughing at the expense of another person’s dignity.
I question how participants in the show are presented. From this angle, at times it seems as though What Would You Do? can be quite exploitative, even when the participant doesn’t view it this way. This past April, a friend of mine, let’s call him Ishmael, was on the show. He was at a toy store in New York when he overheard a little girl arguing with her nanny. The nanny was telling the child she couldn’t buy a black doll because she was white; she couldn’t have the doll she wanted because it didn’t look like her. The nanny abruptly turns to Ishmael and asks him if she should buy the doll. Ishmael slowly takes in the situation and responds. He asks her a series of questions: “Would you buy that doll if it had red hair?” “Would it confuse her to have a doll that didn’t look like her?” He calmly listens to what she has to say and then informs her that it doesn’t matter what the doll looks like, it’s all about a person’s internal character. By the time the hidden cameras are revealed, he starts to tear up. The narrator even states: “no one impresses us as much as this remarkable young man” (Season 4, episode 20).
I recently interviewed Ishmael in order to compare his viewpoint of how the situation went with my belief that the show exploits people. It’s very clear that he doesn’t share my opinion. He doesn’t think he was exploited. Rather, he humbly responds, “Finding out that the scenario was filmed for national television was no big deal. I would have acted the same way regardless of the environment I was in; this time it just happened to be filmed.” Ishmael adds that he doesn’t watch TV and hadn’t heard of the show before being on it. When John Quinones introduced himself and informed Ishmael that he was on What Would You Do?, Ishmael raised his eyebrows out of confusion, not shock, from finding out that the situation was scripted. I asked him how other people who knew him responded to his TV appearance. Many of his friends watched the segment when it first aired, he reported, and his family was very proud. In addition, he said, his pastor played a clip of the segment and centered the theme of the subsequent service on his actions.
When I first watched the episode with Ishmael, crowding around a TV with a group of his friends, I felt proud to know him. He handled the situation in the store with a lot of sincerity, and his character really shines through. But after subsequent thought, I do feel a little uncomfortable with the way Ishmael was presented. I almost feel as if the directors gave him a scripted role. He was the wise teenager willing to confront racism in America. But I feel he’s playing the part of a two-dimensional character in a prepackaged situation. Perhaps, if he didn’t act this way, the producers would have found another Ishmael; it’s as if the producers were searching for a prop that would fit as the climax of the show and Ishmael’s response fit their needs neatly.
What Would You Do? is proving to be just as controversial as the issues it raises. While filming a segment in Greenwich, CT, the crew of What Would You Do? was asked to leave, as disclosed in a statement from the local selectman who represents the town. The local government came to the conclusion that the filming was disruptive (Hennessey). This negative reaction implies that the local officials believed that the show is controversial and would rather stay away from it. Greenwich has a reputation as an affluent town that’s obsessed with maintaining its reputation. I suspect that the selectman was worried that the show could potentially depict its citizens in a negative light and wanted to avoid that at all costs.
What Would You Do? reflects and is aimed toward today’s media saturated society. We are part of a culture that is hooked to TV and computer screens. In order for a program like What Would You Do? to continue to receive high viewer ratings from a fickle and easily desensitized audience, the show will likely have to concoct new situations that are even more dramatic and engaging than previous episodes in an effort to retain our attention. Finding the balance between integrity and accuracy while also escalating entertainment value will become increasingly difficult for the program. Unfortunately, as long as entertainment is the highest value, I predict we’ll watch What Would You Do? even if it is sensationalistic, potentially exploitative and inaccurate.
Hartmann, Margaret. “What Would You Do If Your Friend Was Marrying “Mr.”Wrong”?.” Jezebel. Gawker News Media, 17 Feb 2009. Web. <http://jezebel.com/5155122/what-would-you-do-if-your-friend-was-marrying-mr- wrong>.
Hennessey, David. “‘Distruptive’ Downtown TV shooting asked to change locations.” Greenwich Times 24 Aug 2011. n. pag. Web <http://www.greenwichtime.com/news/article/Disruptive- downtown-TV-shooting-asked-to-change-2138168.php>.
Jessup, Meredith. “ABC News Uses Actors to Demonstrate ‘racism’ Surrounding AZ Immigration Law.” The Blaze. n. d. Web. <http://www.theblaze.com/stories/abc-news-uses-actors-to-demonstrate-racism-surrounding-az-immigration-law/>.
North, Anna. “Fake Fat Discrimination Enrages Health Food Customer.” Jezebel. Gawker News Media, n. d. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. <http://jezebel.com/5790281/fake-fat-discrimination-enrages-health-food-customer>
Primetime: What Would You Do?. ABC: 03 Dec 2010. Television.
Primetime: What Would You Do?. ABC: 25 Mar 2011. Television.
“Ishmael.” Personal Interview. 30 Oct. 2011
Weiss, Daniel. “What would you do? The journalism that tweaks reality, then reports what happens.” Columbia Journalism Review 46.5 (2008): 41+. General OneFile. Web.