Out of the Darkness of Centuries

July 12, 2010 • Serial Dramas, Daily Email Recap

I am delighted to announce the publication of a book by David Poindexter, PMC’s Honorary Chair and a long-time expert in the use of entertainment-education for promoting family planning use. He and I worked together at the Population Institute and Population Communications International during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. The book, Out of the Darkness of Centuries, is available at www.amazon.com.

Here is a book review by Arvind Singhal, Professor of Communications at the University of Texas, El Paso. A second review follows.

David O. Poindexter (2009). Out of the Darkness of Centuries: A Forty Five Year Odyssey to Discover the Use of Mass Media for Human Betterment. BookSurge Publishing.
ISBN-10: 1439227055; ISBN-13: 978-1439227053

How does one person with two advanced degrees in theology, with little funding, and no formal training in broadcast media programming take highly-taboo and explosively-controversial topics like abortions and vasectomies and put them on primetime US television? Adhering to the gospel that “few pregnancies are prevented by prayer,” and armed with both grit and wit to overcome the resistance offered by Church and pro-life groups, how does this one person then take these ideas of family planning and population control to countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, pioneering a genre of broadcast programming that we know now as “entertainment-education”?

In Out of the Darkness of Centuries, protagonist and author David O. Poindexter provides a fascinating look inside the kitchen of the entertainment-education communication strategy in the U.S. and overseas. Entertainment-education (E-E) is the process of purposely designing and implementing a media message to both entertain and educate, in order to increase audience members’ knowledge about an educational issue, create favorable attitudes, shift social norms, and change individual and collective behaviors (Singhal & Rogers, 1999). Entertainment-education seeks to capitalize on the popular appeal of entertainment media in order to show individuals how they can live safer, healthier, and happier lives.

In Poindexter’s book of 350+ pages, through a highly engaging first-person narrative, he details his five-decade long odyssey – from the corridors of Hollywood studios, to the banquet rooms of the Waldorf Astoria in New York, to the seats of power in New Delhi and Nairobi — to harness the popularity of the entertainment media to promote small family norms, reproductive health, and gender equality. With a razor sharp memory, Poindexter recounts hundreds of vignettes, peppered across 62 mini-chapters organized in eight sections, about how he, working with individual and institutional allies, secured the support and cooperation from network television presidents, corporate leaders, senators and congressmen, and heads of state.

Dabbling with E-E as early as 1958 in Church-based broadcasting out of Portland, Oregon, Poindexter takes us on a chronological journey of his work in population communication with the National Council of Churches, the Population Communication Center, Population Communications International, and presently as Honorary Chair of the Population Media Center. He recounts how his position as Chair of the U.S. NGO delegation to the 1974 UN World Population Conference in Bucharest, Romania, and his role as NGO Convener and organizer for both the 1984 and 1994 UN International Conference on Population in Mexico City and Cairo, Egypt, respectively, he was able to seed, nourish, and grow the idea of entertainment-education, facilitating the diffusion and mainstreaming of the E-E approach in international development organizations.

Among countless other historical nuggets, readers learn about the Hollywood events of November 14, 1972, when Maude, a 47-year-old woman (played by Bea Arthur) in one of Norman Lear’s CBS television series by the same name became pregnant. After being indecisive for two episodes (called “Maude’s Dilemma), she decides to obtain an abortion rather than bear an unwanted child. Within the next 30 minutes, CBS received 373 angry telephone calls, a public controversy erupted, and pro-life organizations demanded more balanced treatment of the abortion issue, including the production of two sequel episodes of “Maude”, supporting the right-to-life of unborn babies (Montgomery, 1989). This demand was not fulfilled, and more controversy erupted when the two “Maude” episodes were to be rebroadcast the next season. Several advertisers withdrew their spots from the “Maude” time-slot, and one-fourth of all CBS affiliates refused to carry the rebroadcasts. CBS officials debated whether or not to rerun “Maude’s Dilemma”. Poindexter, at that time the head of Population Communication Center’s small lobbying outfit on the Sunset strip in Hollywood, stepped in amidst overwhelming opposition from groups like the Catholic Church to rally CBS officials to broadcast the two controversial episodes (Montgomery, 1989).

The broadcasts of “Maude,” Poindexter recounts, represented an important event in Hollywood’s brush with its own version of E-E, and the rise of legendary and socially-conscious producers such as Norman Lear, who brought hit shows following “Maude” such as “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Sanford and Sons.” The “Maude” experience sharpened Poindexter’s belief in the power of establishing, maintaining, and building constructive relationships with the top management of TV networks, production houses that produce programs for these networks, the producers of these programs, and with the scriptwriters.

After earning his stripes in Hollywood, Poindexter’s Population Communication Center began to foray outside the United States, gauging possibilities of such mass-mediated interventions in countries with high-population growth rates. About two-thirds of Poindexter’s book, the latter part, focuses on his work outside the U.S. Often this meant leveraging contacts, networks, and resources from the U.S. (and other countries) to facilitate the global diffusion of entertainment-education narratives.

Readers learn about Poindexter’s first meeting (in 1977) with Miguel Sabido, a creative writer-producer-director of theater and television in Mexico City, including how that launched a collaborative relationship, changing the course of his lifework. Sabido, through his own experiments in producing historical-cultural and social-content telenovelas on Televisa, the Mexican private television network, had formulated a methodology for producing E-E and had validated it by noting high audience ratings for such programs as well as hard evidence of educational impacts (Nariman, 1993). Through an upfront and close narrative, Poindexter details Sabido’s genius, including spelling out the theoretical tenets that formed the intellectual basis of the Sabido E-E methodology: Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, Eric Bentley’s dramatic theory, Paul MacLean’s psychoneurological theory, and Carl Jung’s archetypes theory.

Through Poindexter’s efforts, beginning in the early 1980s, Sabido’s work in Mexico went international, directly inspiring pioneering entertainment-education soap operas in India including “Hum Log” (We People) and “Hum Raahi” (Co-Travelers); the Kenyan television serial Tushauriane (Come with Me) and the radio soap, “Ushikwapo Shikamana” (When Assisted, Assist Yourself), the Tanzanian radio soap opera “Twende na Wakati” (Let’s Go with the Times), an India radio soap opera “Tinka Tinka Sukh” (Happiness Lies in Small Things), the Chinese television series, “Zhonguo Baixing” (Ordinary Chinese People), and others.

Remarkable in Poindexter’s lifework on E-E is an unbridled emphasis on inviting independent university-based research evaluators to not just gauge the impacts of such E-E programs, but also to understand how these effects are engendered. Each one of the E-E projects that he initiated in India, Kenya, China, Tanzania, the Philippines, St. Lucia, Ethiopia, and other nations explicitly included an invitation to communication scholars to conduct independent assessments. Many of these evaluations — funded by Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, UNFPA, and other agencies — were led by the late communication professor and diffusion of innovations Guru, Everett M. Rogers, independent researcher Dr. Peter W. Vaughan, and by the present author (Singhal), who from 1985 to 1990 was Rogers’ Ph.D. advisee (Singhal & Rogers, 2002; Singhal, Cody, Rogers, & Sabido, 2004; Vaughan, Regis, & St. Catherine, 2000). These research evaluations helped inform ongoing and future entertainment-education initiatives in dozens of countries, providing an opportunity for scores of graduate students to pursue MA and Ph.D. theses and dissertations on the topic of entertainment-education, thereby institutionalizing the field of E-E as a stream of research, scholarship, and praxis in educational institutions in the U.S., and in countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Poindexter’s book points to the great importance of theory-building in what has been a rather neglected area of E-E research. Some 90 to 95% of the scholarship in E-E has privileged “effects” research – i.e. how do audience members engage with and make sense of mass-mediated messages, and under what conditions do E-E programs work more or less effectively. The focus has been overwhelmingly on the domain of message reception. Barring a handful of studies (e.g. Bouman, 1999); there is very little effort at theory-building on the message production side of E-E – i.e. how E-E programs are broached, negotiated, initiated, implemented, and maintained. Needed are more studies that can explain how E-E is generated, how personal and institutional relationships are leveraged; how alliances between policy-makers, government officials, media producers, subject matter specialists, donors, NGOS, international development agencies, and researchers are created; and how global, regional, and national advocacy for E-E is conducted.

Poindexter’s book, unlike any other, invites the scholarly community to investigate E-E production processes, including how projects are formulated, funded, partnered, researched, produced, packaged, positioned, advertised, distributed, and broadcast. How are conflicts between partnering agencies negotiated and mediated, and how can the interests of donors, media gatekeepers, campaign coordinators, creative professionals, audience members, and researchers be harmonized? Understanding such barriers and resistances to initiating E-E are key, given such interventions require more time, resources, expertise, and collaborative arrangements than the traditional entertainment or educational fare.

I invite you to read the fascinating story of one person’s quest over five decades to change the nature of stories that are told on radio and television in the U.S. and dozens of developing countries. Through complex stories of multiple, interacting characters that depict the complexities of the human and social condition, possibilities of spurring new conversations, re-authoring existing behavioral scripts, and shifting social norms become possible. By telling new and empowering stories, new realities can be broached, and lives saved.

The discipline of communication owes a debt to David O. Poindexter for his lifework – captured here in a gripping first-person narrative.

Arvind Singhal, Ph.D., is the Samuel Shirley and Edna Holt Marston Endowed Professor of Communication at the University of Texas at El Paso, and also appointed as the William J. Clinton Distinguished Fellow, Clinton School of Public Service, Little Rock, Arkansas.


Bouman, M.P.A. (1999). The turtle and the peacock: The entertainment-education strategy on television. Wageningen, The Netherlands: Wageningen Agricultural University.

Montgomery, K.C. (1989). Target: Prime time. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nariman, H. (1993). Soap operas for social change. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Papa, M.J., Singhal, A., Law, S., Pant, S., Sood, S., Rogers, E.M., & Shefner-Rogers, C.L. (2000). Entertainment education and social change: An analysis of parasocial interaction, social learning, collective efficacy, and paradoxical communication. Journal of Communication, 50, 31-56.

Singhal, A., Cody, M.J., Rogers, E.M., & Sabido, M. (Eds.) (2004). Entertainment-education and social change: History, research, and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Singhal, A., & Rogers, E.M. (1999). Entertainment-education: A communication strategy for social change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Singhal, A., & Rogers, E.M. (2002). A theoretical agenda for entertainment-education. Communication Theory, 14(2), 117-135.

Vaughan, P., Regis, A., & St. Catherine, E. (2000). Effects of an entertainment-education radio soap opera on family planning and HIV prevention in St. Lucia. International Family Planning Perspectives, 26(4), 148-157.

Here is a review by Don Collins, which you can find at http://www.amazon.com/Out-Darkness-Centuries-discover-betterment

Having known Dr. Poindexter for almost the full 40 years of my involvement in family planning, I am personally aware of how important his work has been in fostering family planning media expansion. Thus, it was a particular pleasure for me to learn that he has committed his sage advice to future generations involved in this field with his writing and publication of an important new book, “Out of the Darkness of Centuries.”

The timing of this book’s availability could not be better since the Internet revolution is, as Thomas Friedman has explained, making the world flat. I would say more flat than it has been, but certainly not by any means meeting the needs of so many, especially women, trapped by the horrors so vividly described in their seminal book, “Half the Sky,” by Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

The main point therefore remains. Poindexter’s starting place in bringing media messages of education and enlightenment to dark places where it still remains can change lives and hence whole societies. Even in countries such as Somalia where women are virtual prisoners to a male culture which genitally cuts, poorly educates and totally disregards the basic human rights of women, the sunshine of knowledge can now more often seep through the Iron Curtain of Ignorance in too many places to not keep brave strong women such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of “Infidel,” from breaking out and then helping by their examples other women do the same.

Three things can perhaps save our plundered planet. Women’s emancipation, aided and abetted by the kind of programming Poindexter knows how to provide, and the growing fear on the part of the power elite that failure to do so may well be not only bad for their businesses, but so destructive as to ruin their precious and increasingly precarious hegemony. Better yet, many men already realize, as women take more and more positions of leadership in many nations, the sheer sensibility and profitability of enhancing their freedoms and skills, outside their traditional roles.

As the product description tells the reader, “‘Out of the Darkness of Centuries’ by David O. Poindexter brings an authoritative voice to the subjects of mass communications, overpopulation, empowerment of women, and entertainment-education.”

I personally observed the effective work which Poindexter accomplished, for example, in bringing family planning messages to American TV by persuading leading producers such as Norman Lear to create family planning awareness on such powerful shows as “Maude,” starring Bea Arthur. He then moved decisively to go internationally with his work. The point is not overstated to characterize him as a leading pioneer in the area of entertainment-education, uniquely qualified to guide the reader through his subject’s rich history, from 1958 through to the present day.

Readers will find, as I did, the history lesson of “Out of the Darkness of Centuries” underscores the fact that in the competitive world of commercial broadcasting, entertainment-education can deliver an unprecedented social benefit and, at the same time, maintain ratings, market share, and sales.

The author has used all his professional communication skills in his efforts to guide others through the trial-and-error process whereby entertainment-education methodology was transferred for application in a number of countries worldwide. In writing for scholars and those working in international development, Dr. Poindexter has provided us with an indispensable resource for any student of mass communication. Likely, this will prove a must have text for professionals in the field, including those in academe and those whose work takes them to far places where media can make such a profound difference.

About the reviewer: A founding board member of the Guttmacher Institute, Advocates for Youth, Family Health International, Ipas, and International Services Assistance Fund, Collins has recently returned from family planning studies in Ghana, Zambia, Egypt and Ethiopia. He writes often for various publications on the issue of family planning and the need for expanding human rights for women.

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