In the developing (or majority) world, we have been doing it for years: embedding subtle messages on health, environment, family planning or civic behaviour in popular, highly-rated entertainment shows on television.
In parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, there is a long history of collaboration among non-formal educators, advocacy groups and broadcast companies to mix entertainment with public education — a difficult balance to achieve without putting off viewers who tune in for entertainment. See, for example, my coverage of the BBC World Service Trust’s work in India.
Now, it seems, this ‘edu-tainment‘ approach is also being tried out seriously in the home of ‘soap operas’ or television drama: the United States.
A recent report in the New York Times describes how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working with video production companies and broadcast networks to shape story lines and insert health-related messages into popular entertainment like the television shows “ER,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “Private Practice.”
Already, the foundation’s messages on HIV prevention, surgical safety and the spread of infectious diseases have found their way into these shows.
The report, written by Tim Arango and Brian Stelter, said: “Now the Gates Foundation is set to expand its involvement and spend more money on influencing popular culture through a deal with Viacom, the parent company of MTV and its sister networks VH1, Nickelodeon and BET.”
They called it “message placement”: the social or philanthropic corollary to product placement deals in which marketers pay to feature products in shows and movies. Instead of selling Coca-Cola or G.M. cars, they promote education and healthy living.
Some viewers in television-saturated US might say: it’s about time! In the past, many American companies producing entertainment content have resisted approaches from social activists to use the mass medium for public good.
In the late 1980s, when I shared some Asian experiences of mixing television drama and public education at an international science communication conference in Spain, American academics and journalists in the audience were intrigued. “But this can never happen in the United States…we keep our education and entertainment separate, and with good reason!” one of them said during question time.
Clearly, those hard attitudes have been changing slowly. As the NYT article says: “The efforts of philanthropies to influence entertainment programming is not new…. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on health issues, has been doing such work for a dozen years. It has worked story lines about H.I.V. and AIDS into programs on CBS and UPN (now known as the CWnetwork), including the reality show “America’s Next Top Model.”
The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication is at the forefront of blending entertainment with public education. “There’s a lot of research that shows that when a character in a series says, ‘I’m going to be an organ donor,’ it’s effective, more effective than giving out a pamphlet,” said Martin Kaplan, director of the Centre.
The Centre has a Hollywood, Health & Society programme that provides entertainment industry professionals with accurate and timely information for health storylines. It organises meetings between health specialists and script writers for entertainment shows – not just drama, but also reality and variety shows.
“Our view is you don’t have to sacrifice entertainment value to be accurate,” Kaplan is quoted as saying in the NYT article.
That’s a view – and experience – shared by TV writers, producers and programme managers from Mexico to South Africa, and from India to the Philippines. In fact, this is an approach the Gates Foundation should consider rolling out in the majority world countries where they are already a key player in selected areas of health and development. Despite the recent spread of broadband internet, broadcast television is still the dominant mass medium – and primary source of news and entertainment – for most people in much of the developing world. That’s billions of eyeballs we’re talking about – and the cost of producing quality entertainment (even with education subtly embedded in some places) is significantly less than in the west.
In short, Gates can get a bigger bang for its bucks on the airwaves in the global South. And there’s really no need to convince TV industry gate-keepers and producers on how edu-tainment works: they’ve been at it for years, using whatever resources they can find.
Read full article: Messages With a Mission, Embedded in TV Shows, NYT 2 April 2009