Sex, Soap & Social Change – The Sabido Methodology

August 9, 2007 • HIV/AIDS, Africa, Ethiopia, Daily Email Recap

PMC Vice President for International Programs Kriss Barker has a feature article in the Global Health Council’s latest AIDSLink (Issue 104, 1 July, 2007).

AIDSLINK, Issue 104 | July 1 2007
Written by Kriss Barker, Vice President, International Programs Population Media Center

Anguach and Demlew are the main characters in an Ethiopian serial drama. They are a loving young couple with a bright future. But Demlew’s mother, who doesn’t like Anguach, begins to meddle and pushes a neighbor to seduce her son. He succumbs, sleeps with the neighbor, and is infected with HIV. Anguach is devastated, but forgives him, and cares for him until he dies. Although terrified that she might be HIV positive, Anguach gets tested and finds out that she is negative. Anguach eventually marries again (this time, a man without a meddling mother!) and lives happily ever after. Touching story – but did it have any impact?

This episode was one of 257 in a radio serial drama Yeken Kignit (“Looking Over One’s Daily Life”), produced between 2002 and 2004 by the Ethiopian office of Population Media Center (PMC), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization. PMC works in approximately 20 countries worldwide using entertainment-education to change attitudes and behavior related to health and well-being in areas, such as family planning, environmental awareness, gender equity and other critical issues affecting society. Among a number of issues, Yeken Kignit addressed HIV/AIDS – specifically the need for early detection and prevention.

Yeken Kignit was extremely popular. More than 15,000 letters poured in from inside and outside of Ethiopia, and the media ran nearly 100 stories on the show. But the impact went far beyond letters, news stories and a loyal audience. Scientific research conducted by an independent research firm in Ethiopia showed that listeners included 47 percent of all the men in the country and 45 percent of all women. Nationwide surveys conducted before and after the broadcast showed significant increases in the percentage of listeners who actually got tested for HIV: male listeners at four times the rate of non-listeners; and female listeners at three times the rate of non-listeners.

The post-broadcast survey revealed that listeners had “fallen in love” with Anguach and followed her example. There was also a significant reduction in stigma against those living with HIV/AIDS among listeners, contrasted with non-listeners. The popularity of Yeken Kignit and numerous other programs produced by PMC is a result of the successful application of the Sabido methodology.

The Sabido Methodology
Named for its creator, Miguel Sabido, the Sabido methodology is a theoretical model for stimulating positive change in social attitudes and behaviors through commercial television and radio programming. Sabido pioneered the use of telenovelas to address social issues during the 1970s, when he was vice president for research at the Mexican television network Televisa. Over the next decade, he produced six social content serial dramas in Mexico and during the time when many of his telenovelas were on the air, Mexico underwent a 34 percent decline in its population growth rate. As a result, in May 1986, the United Nations Population Prize was presented to Mexico as the foremost population success story in the world. Since the 1980s, the Sabido methodology has been used to motivate changes in attitudes and behaviors on a wide range of issues, including child slavery, women’s status, environmental protection, and HIV/AIDS.

One of the advantages of using serial dramas, rather than documentaries or single-episode dramas, is that they allow time for the audience to form bonds with the characters and allow characters to evolve at a gradual and believable pace in response to problems that have been well-illustrated in the story line. Entertainment programs forge emotional ties to audience members that influence values and behaviors more forcefully than the purely cognitive information provided in documentaries.

Entertainment, whether via a nation’s airwaves, popular magazines, or newspapers, is the most pervasive mass media genre. It can also be extremely persuasive – influencing how we dress, speak, think and behave. We are “educated” by the entertainment media, often unwittingly.

The major tenet of the Sabido methodology is that education can be compelling and that entertainment can be educational. Sabido originally termed his approach “entertainment with proven social benefit,” and since then, many communication professionals and scholars have applied the term “entertainment-education” to the Sabido approach. However, the Sabido methodology is more than mere entertainment-education.

How The Sabido Methodology Differs from Other Entertainment-Education Approaches
What makes Sabido-style programs different from other forms of entertainment-education hinges on combining two key factors: (1) use of the serial drama format; and (2) rigorous adherence to well-established communication theories underlying the methodology. Whereas most entertainment-education programs are devoted to sending messages, the Sabido methodology uses characters as vicarious role models to demonstrate the desired behaviors.

As mentioned above, the Sabido methodology requires the use of a long-running serial drama, which builds loyal and committed fans through continuing identification with and attachment to the characters and concern for their fates.

Equally important, the Sabido methodology is based on various communication theories, each of which plays an essential role in the development of a serial drama, as illustrated in the box below.

How a Sabido-Style Drama is Developed
The development of a Sabido-style serial drama is always a collaborative process between PMC, local experienced producers, writers and broadcasters, relevant government ministries and NGOs. The process involves many steps – described below:

Formative Research: The first step in development of a Sabido-style serial drama is formative research, which is designed around the general hypothesis or issue, and is used to gather country- (or culture-) specific information about that problem or issue. The formative research also gathers information about the target audience: their characteristics, needs and preferences. This information is then used to design the characters, settings and storylines – and to determine the key values and issues the serial will address.

The formative research for Yeken Kignit revealed that most people in Ethiopia do not get tested for HIV because they feel they are not susceptible to the infection. Anguach’s plight helped listeners to come to terms with their own risk of infection – and led many listeners to get tested. The formative research also showed that one of the key barriers to HIV/AIDS prevention in Ethiopia was partner unwillingness to discuss HIV/AIDS.

Policy Framework: The policy framework is based on the laws, international agreements to which the country is signatory, and the positions of influence/opinion groups, such as religious or traditional groups, political parties, etc. The framework shows that HIV testing and counseling began in Ethiopia in the late 1980s, with services expanding throughout the 1990s. A situation assessment conducted in 2000 showed that there were 80 institutions throughout the country providing HIV testing and counseling. However, only 2 percent of the adult population had ever been tested at the time Yeken Kignit went on the air.

The Values Grid: The creative team of producers and scriptwriters, with technical assistance from PMC trainers, uses the formative research and policy framework to create a values grid. The values grid is a series of statements of positive and negative values relating to each of the problems identified by the formative research and policy framework. The values grid for Yeken Kignit included statements such as “It is good that people take a blood test to find out whether they are infected with HIV/AIDS or not,” and “It is not good that people who take a blood test and discover that they have HIV fall into tension and stigma.” Another value stated, “It is good for couples to openly communicate about family planning, reproductive health and STIs, including HIV/AIDS,” and “It is bad that there are taboos that prevent couples talking about these issues.”

The values grid serves as the basis for the creation of three types of characters in the serial drama: Those that hold the positive values and behaviors; those who embody the negative values or behaviors (such as Demlew’s mother) and those who start out being ambivalent, but change in the course of the drama into positive role models for the audience. These “transitional” characters are the real role models for the audience – as they pave the way for positive behavior change. In the example cited above, Anguach is the transitional character, as she paves the way for audience members to get tested for HIV.

Writing and Production: The program then goes into extensive production, often with 30 episodes written and produced prior to the broadcast launch. This ensures that sufficient episodes are prepared to avoid any gaps in the broadcast schedule. The writing and production of all of the episodes are completed over time, allowing later episodes to be modified based on audience feedback.

Monitoring: Audience feedback provides valuable information about the public’s receptivity to the program and its characters. It shows how members of the target audience interpret the program’s characters and content, and helps to gauge their reaction to key messages and issues.

Impact Evaluation: And finally, an independent research team conducts an impact study after the broadcast period to quantify the program’s effects. The impact evaluation usually employs a quantitative survey of audience members and non-audience members (e.g., listeners and non-listeners, or viewers and non-viewers) to compare relative changes in knowledge, attitudes and behavior between these two groups. The Sabido methodology, as applied by PMC and others, is a system that works, time and time again, and in diverse cultures. The method works because:

The writers are country nationals;
The formative research and policy framework gives a very clear picture of the issues and how they should be addressed;
The values grid is created by the people living in that culture – they know their audience;
The messaging component is subtle and embedded in storylines that are culturally accurate and highly entertaining.
Basically, Sabido-style dramas are compelling because they are entertainment-based and story-driven. The characters are your neighbors, your friends, your enemies – people who are just like you, dealing with issues you face every day.

As audiences fall in love with, and emulate the positive behaviors of characters like Anguach – we can create meaningful behavior change among millions of listeners. Such change is critical to sustainable health and social development throughout the world.


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