A state-run TV channel is stirring controversy with a documentary about a fake game show in which credulous participants obey orders to deliver increasingly powerful electric shocks to a man, who is really an actor, until he appears to die.
The producers of "The Game of Death," set to air Wednesday night, wanted to examine both what they call TV's mind-numbing power to suspend morality, and the striking human willingness to obey orders.
"Television is a power. We know it, but it's theoretical," producer Christophe Nick told the daily Le Parisien. "I wondered: Is it so important that it can turn us into potential executioners?"
In the end, more than four in five "players" gave the maximum jolt.
"People never would have obeyed if they didn't have trust," Nick was quoted as saying in the paper's Wednesday edition. "They told themselves, 'TV knows what it's doing.'"
While "Le Jeu de la Mort" (The Game of Death) is mainly an indictment of television's alleged power over society, Nick also takes issue with viewers who let themselves get taken in by today's TV's universe — such as with talk shows.
"People are put on a set, where they speak even about their sexual problems," he told Le Parisien. "We wait for the admission, the flaw. Faced with exhibitionists, TV viewers have become voyeurs."
The experiment was based on the work of late psychologist Stanley Milgram, who carried out a now-classic experiment at Yale University in the 1960s. It found that most ordinary people — if encouraged by an authoritative-seeming scientist — would administer ostensibly dangerous electric shocks to others.
At its root, both Milgram's work and the experiment unearth a question many people worldwide have contemplated after 20th-century genocides like the Holocaust: Would I, too, be capable of following orders to inflict pain — or even kill?
France-2 bills the fake game show as the subject of a sociological and psychological documentary, and it comes with a warning: "What we are going to watch is extremely tough. But it's only television."
The newspaper Liberation had a different take, with the headline: "Television tests its limits."
Recruiters found 80 "contestants" and said they would take part in a real TV show called Zone Xtreme. Each was presented to a man said to be another contestant — but really an actor — whose job was to answer a series of questions while strapped into an electrifiable chair in an isolated booth.
In a game of word associations, the actor identified as "Jean-Paul" was told that any wrong answers would merit punishment in the form of electric shocks of 20 to 460 volts, zapped by a console operated by the contestant.
As the wrong answers invariably roll in and the voltage increases, the presenter, a well-known TV weatherwoman on France-2, at times exhorts contestants not to bend to his cries of agony, and says the production house takes all responsibility. A goading studio audience adds to the pressure.
The contestants' identities are protected, with their faces blotted out and their surnames held back.
According to a book on the experiment, "L'Experience Extreme" (The Extreme Experiment"), at times Jean-Paul pleads: "Mr. Producer, get me out of here, please! I don't want to play anymore" — which apparently wasn't enough to get most contestants to walk away.
In the final tally, 81 percent of the contestants turned up the alleged juice to the maximum — said to be potentially deadly — level, according to the book. Only 16 people among the 80 who took part backed out.
European TV has explored the limits of morality before.
In the Netherlands in 2007, a game show titled the "Big Donor Show" was branded as tasteless and unethical for offering a kidney as top prize. Its aim, to raise awareness about those awaiting for organ transplants, appeared to work: over 12,000 people registered as organ donors after the broadcast. That was at least three times the normal average — for a month.
Nick said the experience was an awakening for many participants.
"People were convinced that they'd never succumb to this — and then they discovered they did it in spite of themselves," Nick told The Associated Press in an interview, referring to the participants. "They were stupefied."
The experience, he said, continued to effect participants even after it was over. Some grew bolder about standing up to their bosses, or admitted their homosexuality to their families, he said.
"For many, it changed their lives," Nick said.