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What We Can Learn from the Rise of Social Impact Entertainment (SIE)

Nov 10, 2020

This op-ed by Lisa Caruso originally appeared in an issue of C21Media.

A photo of Lisa Caruso

Entertainment is evolving at an unprecedented pace, but so is how audiences consume it and what they expect to be represented in the stories we tell. Today’s consumers are clamoring for deeply resonant, authentic portrayals, and engaging stories that mirror the challenges and complexities of the world in which we live – they’re more aware than ever of the need for diversity, inclusion and a multiplicity of voices.

One evolution of this trend is Social Impact Entertainment (SIE), and its foundations and practices are worth investigating. The industry shift to focusing on ever more customized audiences, made possible by the proliferation of networks and platforms, has also created more opportunity for increasing awareness, increasing social activism, and changing public perception on specific issues: the same issues important to those custom audiences. No longer is this a niche “do-gooder” corner of the market. Instead, we’re seeing an open-armed embrace of all those who understand the relevance and impact of entertaining content that also aims to deliver social good. The Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment (Skoll Center SIE) recently published “The State of Social Impact Entertainment” research study ( and a map of its prominent players, giving identity to those who are leading the way and demonstrating the breadth of this growing movement.

Population Media Center (PMC) is proud to be included on this SIE map for our groundbreaking series, “East Los High,” known affectionately to its loyal viewers as “ELH.” ELH ran on Hulu for five seasons, from 2013 to 2017, and garnered six Daytime Emmy ™ nominations.  The series, a modern-day teen telenovela about a fictional Latinx high school, was innovative, addictive and hugely popular. It was also an original creation of an entertainment-based theory of social change unique to PMC.

As a non-profit content studio operating in the US and abroad, PMC has broad interests in contributing to social justice, human health, and environmental sustainability. Set in a fictional East Los Angeles neighborhood, ELH’s original characters spoke to lifestyle and health choices, especially in the area of sexual and reproductive health. ELH rose to be one of the top five shows on Hulu during its first season, and its social impact has been documented and reviewed in publications like The American Journal of Public Health.

We urge other producers and production companies to step up and integrate timely issues into their work. Not only will their content become more realistic but also has the potential, if done correctly, to effect change that lasts well beyond the moment viewers switch off their TV, laptop, or tablet. PMC puts its projects through a series of steps that have proven successful:

Do Your Homework: Partner with organizations working in the area/community you aim to represent and ensure that you have consultants who are part of the process as your project takes shape to give you data to inform your approach/story. Isolate and identify the issues you are looking to have an impact on and make sure your narrative reflects this research.

One of PMC’s current scripted projects in development exemplifies this approach. “Harlem Code” is set amidst the world of STEM. We want to know how new forms of extended reality (XR) might be used effectively to empower viewers on real-life issues – both through stories told with technology featured in the show – as well as to create opportunities for extensions of these stories for positive social impact outside the show. As an advisory board member for MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality (, led by professor D. Fox Harrell, PhD, I am engaging with pioneers in the XR space (VR, AR, MR, video games, social media, and new forms). We are all committed to MIT’s mission for “cutting-edge humanistic ethos that considers the social and ethical impacts of technologies as we invent them.”

Awareness of this emerging technology and how it can work seamlessly with social impact entertainment is a new frontier that is imperative to explore as we have more sophisticated and demanding audiences.

Integrate Real Issues: Use the information gathered to fold the issues you want to address into the stories in an organic way. As a result, the issue will be accurately and dramatically represented and consequently make your content more realistic and powerful. Create characters who are recognizable and relatable, who can model the change you seek.

Our projects are always rooted in research and authentic portrayals, our stories seek to bridge the divide to worlds where narratives might otherwise not be told. As a result, we are committed to exploring new formats, partnerships, and delivery options in both scripted and unscripted, to ensure a particular demographic, and to maximize real, quantifiable change.

Maximize Impact: Think about the steps you want the audience to take after watching your program and make those as accessible as possible to them, whether through a click-through or via social media. For example, 22 percent of Planned Parenthood’s™ total “the check” widget visits during the first season were accessed through the East Los High website.

This means you can accurately gauge your program’s real change.

At PMC, we believe a show’s success comes from knowing our audiences and cultivating fandom. A study recently published in the SEARCH Journal of Media and Communication Research about ELH illustrated the fruits of this fandom. It notes how we built a community through social media and transmedia, helping to reach and influence an expanding online audience – interested in not only new dance moves and behind-the-scenes shots, but also hungry for life-skills information from vlogs and other resources.

As SEARCH study author Hua Wang notes, social media is now interwoven in people’s everyday lives, so ELH used it to challenge social norms and promote behavior change on a wide range of sexual and reproductive health issues. Our audiences wanted to know more about subjects such as: what it’s like to be pregnant, how the morning-after pill works, healthy relationships, contraceptive choices, reproductive rights, and sexual identity, as well as gain access to resources from our partners like Planned Parenthood ™. “The fans actively promoted the show and the posts that elicited the most user reactions were predominantly photos, often with short texts calling the fans to specific actions,” notes Wang.

As media and engagement continues to evolve, and the content landscape becomes ever-denser, PMC is also exploring new and innovative ways for engagement and calls-to-action – while remaining committed to what is always our first priority: high-quality, engaging entertainment.

As we aim to impact youth across America with “Harlem Code” and continue to develop further series in the SIE space, we must always be forward-thinking about how we can reach the hearts and minds of our viewers to effect change. We must always build series from the ground up to be inclusive, impactful, and entertaining. These are exciting times for storytelling, and we’re eager to be part of the growing trend of creating content that aims to change the world.