Research ethics may be annoying, but they are a necessary evil. As scientists it is our responsibility to protect those who we are testing on; however do TV producers have to live by the same rules. Derren Brown is a prime example of someone who produces and creates effects in his ‘experiments’ that would not be considered ethically acceptable in scientific research. One example of this is his stunt known as the zombie game (Video). In this he apparently induced an individual into a catatonic trance through a video arcade game in a bar. He subsequently moved him into a room where he was attacked by actors dressed as zombies. This caused a stir in the media who asked whether it was fair to pull a stunt such as this on an individual who was not even aware of it.
Know it is kind of expected that some TV shows will have a much more lax ethics procedure than a researcher. Even big brother would have some trouble getting through ethics approval in a university. But is it right that a TV show can reproduce past experiments that have already been denounced as no longer ethical. The obvious two are zbardo and milgram. Both of which have been reproduced by different TV organisations (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/1986889.stm, http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1972981,00.html). Although these may not have been considered unethical at the time, ethics are a constantly changing and now both of these studies are considered to be unethical and cannot be replicated (at least without severe restrictions).
Although they may not be ethically sound, do results from TV shows have scientific significance? One example of this recently was Derren Browns hypno spy stunt. In case you didn’t see it, Derren brown was able to convince an unaware participant to shoot Steven Fry under the influence of hypnosis. This is something many hypnosis experts believed was not possible, and gave credence to the myth of Russian sleeper agents from the cold war. But do these results have scientific significance? Assuming the results were real, and not due to any form of behind the scenes trickery, these could be a significant case study into the extents of hypnosis. But many academics would immediately reject it as having little or no real relevance as it was not from an academic source, and was not conducted in lab conditions. So why doesn’t someone recreate these in lab conditions? Ethics. Because universities and other institutions are constrained by ethics they could not replicate this. The potential for psychological harm would make it almost impossible to get approval.
In this case it may seem that ethics are holding us back, but the truth is their not. Ethics are an important part of ensuring participants, researchers and institutions are protected; and although TV may not need ethics to the same extent, is it possible they are putting participants at risk? And is it really worth that just for something interesting to watch on TV?