Saved by the ‘soaps’ – Asia Media Summit picks up momentum

Asia Media Summit 2007’s first day — which started with old media mandarins dismissing new media — ended on a good note, thanks to an interesting, focused session on soap operas and reality TV shows.

Is reality TV a transient fad? With media convergence and lowered barriers to mass media, what new forms and formats of programming and delivery will emerge? These were some questions posed to three panelists drawn from the India, South Africa and the UK.

The most interesting presentation, for me, came from India: Yvonne MacPherson, Project Director of BBC World Service Trust (India) — the BBC’s charitable arm — spoke about their work in India using entertainment TV formats to communicate socially relevant messages.

She shared highlights of BBC-WST’s experiences in using the long-format drama serials and reality based dramas on Indian television.

These are part of what BBC-WST website calls ‘one of the world’s biggest mass media projects to achieve HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention’.

HIV positive detective Jasoos Vijay - courtesy BBC WST Jasoos Vijay transformed Indian attitudes about HIV Haath se Haath Milaa music video wins top India TV awards

First broadcast in July 2002, ‘Jasoos Vijay’ (which means Detective Vijay) is a long-running detective serial on India television. It features Vijay — who is living with HIV — and has messaging about HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention woven in to the plot and dialogue. It not only provided basic facts and figures, but also debunked popular misconceptions about HIV.

After four years on the air, the series entered the Top Ten among Indian TV programmes in August 2006. According the industry-wide TAM audience figures, it then drew a weekly audience reach of almost 16 million viewers.

The series is filmed entirely on location. It is made in Hindi and dubbed into seven other languages. The detective serial is broadcast on peak viewing time on Sunday evening on India’s Doordarshan National channel.

“Long format drama series is the best way to attract a countrywide mass audience,” MacPherson said. “Reality show format, on the other hand, better suits urban and semi-urban audiences.”

In the latter category is BBC-WST’s celebrity and reality programme on HIV awareness, ‘Haath se Haath Milaa’, which means ‘Let’s Join Hands’. It is aimed at younger viewers in urban areas.

Both series were delivered in partnership with India’s national broadcaster, Doordarshan and the Indian National Aids Control Organisation (NACO). Whatever services that were mentioned in the programmes — whether on voluntary HIV testing or anti retroviral drugs — the creators ensured that it was already available through the official healthcare system.

Key to the success of these media initiatives was substantial volumes of research and pre-testing, MacPherson said.

Studies have highlighted how television plays such a significant role in the lifestyle and family choices in India.

She disclosed that BBC-WST is now planning to apply the same entertainment format to another social issue in India: the wide-spread practice of aborting girls after the sex of an unborn child is found out from tests.

“There have been various TV advertisements appealing viewers to love girls, but that doesn’t seem to work — because they don’t address why girls and women are devalued in society.”

Vasanthi Rao, Director of India’s Centre for Media Studies (CMS), was less enthusiastic about reality shows on Indian television. “They don’t really capture reality. It’s more a moderated reality.”

She asked about the kind of budgets that BBC-WST worked with in India, a question that Yvonne MacPherson chose to ignore. This was interesting by itself, given how BBC-WST is increasingly seen as competing for scarce development communication funds with national and local organisations in the very developing countries that it seeks to serve.

In recent years, the BBC-WST has raised millions of pounds and dollars worth grants which come from overseas aid budgets of the UK government and from charitable foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Notwithstanding the high degree of professionalism and creativity the Trust has brought into all its media projects in India and elsewhere, questions need to be asked on its cost-benefits ratio — and whether it distorts the market for others.

Jacky Sutton, a communications advisor with Unesco in Afghanistan, noted how soap operas can complement the media’s news agenda. “Media is not all about confronting politicians or exposing corruption. It is also about giving people the right information and more choices in their daily lives.”

She noted how UN-sponsored development films on worthy issues are just that – worthy. “They are not particularly interesting — I have made a few myself!”. She agreed that entertainment formats are the most suitable to engage the mass audience.

Dali Mpofu, Group CEO of South African Broadcasting Corporation, offered very sound advice to the so-called public service broadcasters or PSBs (a misnomer that I no longer believe in). In his own words: “The biggest mistake that PSBs is to compete with the (commercial) mainstream, trying to be more like them. Instead, we should do very well what we are mandated to do. It is the duty of PSBs to push the envelope.”

He described how SABC has taken risks: some paid off, others didn’t. That’s all part of the game.

If only other ‘public’ broadcasters of the world were as enterprising.

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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