People believe in television. Apparently people who appear on TV shows believe in it more -- too much more.
Recently a French TV quiz show instructed contestants to pull a lever to deliver electric shocks to a man strapped in a chair whenever he got the wrong answer.
But in reality the "shocked" man was only acting. And by the way, it wasn't really a TV quiz show. It was an experiment for research purposes.
The lesson: For the most part, people will follow the rules. But, when filtered through the lens of TV, we really follow the rules, questioning little.
Producers and directors must know what they are doing. Audience members see the "applause" sign at the start of a TV talk show and do what's appropriate - for their current environment.
Why should we applaud at the beginning of anything? Maybe we should clap only at the end, when something has really earned our applause.
TV needs to creates buzz, the illusion, that people are already entertained. What if Jay Leno opened his show to no applause? What if the audience didn't laugh at every joke -- or not as loud at TV producers would like?
A couple of weeks ago, one in-studio audience member, reviewing the taped version of a "Tonight Show" segment, suggested that laughter was added after the taping. NBC denied the charge.
The French TV quiz show also had an audience. Like the contestants, they weren't in on the ruse. Instead, they watched - maybe in horror. Did any of them cry out: "This is wrong!"
We can't tell.
One psychologist put it plainly: "This basic idea is that we would do things that we would not expect to do, simply when put into the right situation or the right authority figure."
Television is the authority.
Does a realistic return-path of reaction from an audience participating in television events exist? Kind of. This is the social media age, after all. But, in reality, that kind of challenging social media content is few and far between.
The herd instinct is mightily enforced. But the real reason for submitting to the rules of a TV show, according to one researcher who did a similar experiment, is simpler: People love being on television.
The Observer (or Hawthorne) Effect: the phenomenon can be changed by being observed. This is particularly true in psychological experiments/observation. Kinda like the shock-the-dude psychological experiment disguised as a quiz show on French TV. As someone who's spent more than two decades working alongside television cameras, I can tell you that there isn't anyone alive not instantly fascinated by their own image on TV. And willing to exhibit some pretty bizarre behavior to be on TV...
This is an almost exact replication of the Milgram experiments at Yale over four decades ago. It was believed that Americans were different than Germans, who were "just following orders" when commiting atrocities during WW II. Same results, though, as the French experiment.
"Does a realistic return-path of reaction from an audience participating in television events exist?" Yes, (Shameless Plug Alert) in our live webcasts we deploy both real-time chat and Skype to actually create a two-way dialogue bewteen host and viewer. Even more interesting - we create social media websites that allow the viewers to pre-determine the content of the show through their submissions. Thus - UGTV. Remember where you read it first.