'We have become more topical', says WWYD producer Ethan Nelson about the show's latest season

Ethan Nelson took over as producer this year, replacing Danielle Rosen, who had successfully run the show for a consistent period of time


                            'We have become more topical', says WWYD producer Ethan Nelson about the show's latest season

Over the years, ABC's show 'What Would You Do?' has garnered massive popularity, both as an entertainment show as well as a series that impact viewers with the subtle portrayal of social awareness. And how do they achieve that? They create scenarios in public and capture people's response to situations easily capable of causing a dilemma.

From being confronted by potential predators to offensive racist people in public, the scenarios range from silly to extremely intense. Managing all this from the show's creation point of view is Ethan Nelson, who was assigned as show producer just this year. 

Nelson took over, replacing Danielle Rosen, who had successfully run the show for a consistent period of time. Now on its 13th season, the show continues to thrive, spreading awareness and impacting minds - both young and adult alike. Speaking about how they go about it, Nelson shares the challenges and protocols he faces every day. Excerpts of Nelson's conversation with Meaww. 

How did ‘What Would You Do’ come to be? What inspired you to create a show like this?
'What Would You Do?' started as a segment on '20/20' and grew into a show. I have been the executive producer of WWYD for four months, but a fan of the show for years. It’s truly an honor to be part of a program that is on a national network in primetime, with the goal to provoke important conversations and inspire people to do the right thing. Can’t ask for a better gig than that.

Do you ever find yourself relating to the dilemmas presented to the public on the show?
For sure - I am the child of divorce. I come from a family with disparate political views and I have two children whom I love dearly and fret about constantly. I’m different, yet the same as every viewer of WWYD, because my hope is that every human being can relate to WWYD on the most fundamental level, the belief that standing up for someone or helping someone – even a stranger – in their time of need is a cornerstone of humanity.

What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to producing a show like this? 
Every show has a different set of challenges. I worked on 'Good Morning America' which is two hours of live television every day, a daily miracle in TV terms. My biggest challenge on WWYD is making sure we stay firmly in the middle of the national conversation. This show is uniquely situated. There is a myriad of hot-button issues percolating in living rooms across the country and we have the opportunity to shed some light on those issues. And hopefully, after watching WWYD, viewers see that sometimes those dividing lines are much shallower than they realize.

How does each episode pan out?
Myself; John, or Q as we affectionately call him; Michaela Dowd, supervising producer; and the entire staff scour the internet for buzzy news topics that could turn into compelling scenarios. We send the ideas around and I green light them. We cast actors that fit the roles and scout a location that works for our technical team but also has a clientele with diverse points of view. We want to make sure our locations have good traffic so we can get as many reactions as possible. As you’ve seen on the show, our actors have earpieces and Q and the producer can relay lines in real time. Once we feel like we’ve got what we need, it’s back to the office to script and then our remarkable editors get to work.

What's your favorite part about producing a show like this?
Coming up with the scenarios. I love sitting in a room with a group of creative producers and working closely with Q to devise the perfect idea that will generate a reaction to spark an important and timely conversation. It’s very cool to see the scenario idea come to life with our talented group of actors and then watch, in real time, people react to it.

WWYD has won awards from the Chicago International Television Festival and the Avon Foundation’s 2006 Voice of Change award for exposing “injustice and wrongdoing against women and bring the issue of domestic violence to the mainstream" - how do you feel about that?
Injustice and wrongdoing are certainly focal points of WWYD. This country has recognized bullying as a significant issue facing millions of Americans. We often employ a 'bully' to publicly shame another actor due to their race, sexual preference, physical challenge, or body image. And I’m always amazed at how strongly people stand up to the wrongdoing that they are witnessing. It never gets old watching people do the right thing.

How has the show evolved in the recent past from what it used to be? Where do you see it heading to in the coming seasons?
Granted I haven’t been here that long, but we have made some substantial changes this season. We have become much more topical. The country is battling a culture war on numerous fronts: politics, gender, sexuality, race, a growing wealth gap and more. We want people to see something happen in the news and immediately say to themselves, “What Would You Do? is going to do a scenario on that!” and a few weeks later it’s on the air.

We did a scenario this season about a man getting kicked out of a restaurant for wearing a MAGA hat. We added a twist and had him wear an 'Impeach 45' t-shirt to see if there was a different reaction. We are doing a scenario this Friday about a high school coach threatening to kick his star player off the team because he plans to kneel at the season opener. We shot that scene in the Bronx and in Bardstown, Kentucky. The reactions were illuminating. We will continue to push topicality and varying geography next season.

What's your take on the show being used in schools throughout the country as kids study ethics and morals.
I think it’s great. To be clear, our scenarios are not scientific studies. These are important topics, turned into scenario ideas, portrayed by actors, presented to a random group of people in front of hidden cameras for several hours of a single day. The value is anecdotal, but still very worthwhile. It pushes people to challenge themselves and ask the question we often try to avoid, what would you do? It can open up a dialogue about our fight or flight instinct. These are good areas for kids to be exploring in ethics classes.

Do you think it has more of an impact on youngsters or adults?
Unsure. My guess would be youngsters because they are still forming their social identity. It can be difficult for adults to change an entrenched belief, which can be deeply rooted. It seems that kids are responding from a purer place. Their temporal proximity to life lessons – like the Golden Rule – make them quicker to react to an injustice.

It seems adults are a bit removed from those lessons, maybe jaded, worn down. Reading the WWYD twitter feed I’m heartened by a comment – mainly from adults – that is repeated over and over again:  ”Your show restores my faith in humanity.” Perhaps that’s a stretch, but what an incredible goal to strive for when you go to work every day.

A new episode of 'What Would You Do?' airs tonight at 9 PM ET on ABC." at the end of the story.