ATHENS, Ohio -- Though television has been criticized in recent years for promoting sex and violence, an Ohio University researcher has found that soap operas in developing nations are making a positive impact, encouraging audiences to adopt more progressive attitudes and behaviors toward gender equality, HIV prevention, adult literacy and other social issues.
Governments in countries such as India, China, Mexico and Peru have successfully blended educational messages into engaging television or radio soap operas to inspire social change. For example, residents of the northern India village of Lutsaan who were avid listeners of the radio drama "Tinka Tinka Sukh" ("Happiness Lies in Small Things"), which promoted gender equality, renounced the local custom of demanding a bridal dowry, and enrollment of girls in the village school rose from 10 percent to 40 percent during the 1990s.
"The programs are not the magic bullet that will solve all these problems, but they provide a climate in which people can discuss issues and some people may be motivated to make changes," says Arvind Singhal, an Ohio University associate professor of interpersonal communication and co-author of the book "Entertainment-Education: A Communication Strategy for Society Change," published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
The soap opera format of these programs is key to their popularity, Singhal says. The episodic, often every weekday airing of these shows allows producers to repeat educational messages. Dramatic story lines keep audiences enthralled. "Melodrama really is a struggle between opposing forces, good or bad," he says. "The soap opera naturally lends itself to the depiction of prosocial behavior and antisocial behavior."
Though past studies have focused solely on measuring the impacts of entertainment-education programs, Singhal's book, which he co-authored with Everett Rogers of the University of New Mexico, also explains why the shows cause audience members to change attitudes and practices.
Singhal's studies, which have been published and presented for professional audiences, found that such motivational programs effected mainly individual, short-term behavior changes, prompted by viewers' identification with story characters whom they saw as role models. Discussion of the plot twists with friends, family and neighbors also fostered greater awareness of social issues, as evidenced by the larger number of audience members who reported adopting family planning and HIV prevention practices or attending adult education classes after the shows' broadcasts.
The entertainment-education strategy especially has worked in nations that aren't saturated with media options, Singhal says. Two programs, India's "Tinka Tinka Sukh" and Chinese television's "Baixing" ("Ordinary Chinese People"), draw 35 million listeners and 40 million viewers respectively. Singhal currently is studying these shows to gauge their long-term impact on women's social status. Even if the programming influences only a few million audience members, who in turn can share that knowledge with others, he says, the soap opera has made headway.
Though embedding social messages in pop culture raises ethical questions who should determine what values are right for whom? Singhal says that producers often develop their missions from national constitutions or United Nations declarations, with the consensus of government stakeholders. Hiring writers, directors and crew members from the show's target audience provides credibility. Messages promoted in the programs, such as how to prevent the spread of the HIV virus, may be controversial, but have universal appeal, Singhal says.
While private corporations are somewhat reluctant to produce entertainment-education shows on their own, the popularity of these programs generates continued commercial financial support. "I think the biggest lesson is that you can be commercially viable and socially responsible," Singhal says.
But that's not a lesson most American producers have learned, he adds. "In the United States, the media is so entrenched here, so commercially focused, that it's not easy for Hollywood to make entertainment-education programs," he says. "Once they begin to find out that it doesn't hurt ratings, gradually we may see more involvement by Hollywood. But I don't think pure entertainment is going to go away or that media will overnight become responsible, because I think economics will still continue to drive the market." Singhal holds an appointment in the Ohio University College of Communication.
Written by Andrea Gibson.