Soap Operas Can Save the World

July 22, 2013 • Family Planning, Reproductive Health, Serial Dramas, United States, News

Soap Operas Can Save the World
Melodramas promoting literacy and family planning? Tune in next week.

Meet Jessie, a shy Latina teen in East Los Angeles who just wants to survive chemistry class, help out her single mom, and escape high school still a member of what she and her best friend call “the virgins’ club.” High-school society, unfortunately, has other plans.

Jessie is at the winter ball when she steals a dance with Jacob-the super- hot quarterback of the football team. Sparks fly, and Jessie is soon caught in a tempestuous love triangle with Jacob and his queen-bee girlfriend, Vanessa. So when an iPhone sex tape of Vanessa starts circulating, who could be to blame but Jessie?

Welcome to East Los High, a soap opera for young adults that debuts this June on Hulu. Filmed in L.A. and written in a slangy mix of English and Spanish, the show follows a handful of Latino teenagers as they preen, flirt, and brawl their way through high school. Between dance-offs, drive-bys, and grinding hip-hop soundtrack, casual viewers might think they were watching MTV.

But East Los High is funded by Population Media Center, a Vermont-based non-profit that produces “pro-social” radio dramas in developing countries around the world. The shows address issues like family planning, maternal health, and HIV transmission. East Los High is Population Media’s first foray into both America and the Web. Whether the series bombs or goes viral depends on how well it weaves its do-right messages together with believable characters and compelling screenwriting.

The idea of marrying melodrama and public health was first developed in Mexico in the 1970s by Miguel Sabido, a television executive who believed that national welfare mattered as much as ratings. His shows promoting literacy and family planning became smash hits and generated impressive impacts. The year Sabido’s first program, Ven Conmigo, appeared, the number of people signing up for government literacy classes jumped from 99,000 to 840,000. Following the run of a second show, Acompáñame, sales of over-the-counter contraception spiked 23 percent.

Today Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United Nations Population Fund all have centers dedicated to promoting public health through Sabido-style educational entertainment. The Gates Foundation and USAID provide millions of dollars in funding for such efforts. Radio and television dramas based on Sabido’s model have appeared in dozens of countries. Educational entertainment is nothing new, of course. The sitcom Diff’rent Strokes was famous for its “very special episodes” tackling issues including bulimia, racism, and pedophilia. The 1988 Harvard Alcohol Project popularized the term designated driver by partnering with prime-time shows to dramatize the consequences of drunk driving.

And after a 2001 episode of The Bold and the Beautiful, in which 4.5 million Americans watched a character test positive for HIV, calls to the CDC’s AIDS hotline jumped from fewer than 200 per hour to more than 1,800. East Los High follows Sabido’s method, which draws on social psychology, dramatic theory, and Jungian archetypes. A “transitional” character- Jessie-is shown caught between doing the wrong (often popular) thing and the right (often difficult) one.

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