Sometimes TV dramas can be good for you

by Cesar Chelala

TIRANA, Albania — A friend of mine, a prestigious physician who works the longest hours of anybody I know, makes only one exception from her demanding schedule in New York. Once a week, she returns home early to watch a new episode of her favorite television drama. I cannot think of a more unlikely fan. It goes to show that dramas appeal across a broad spectrum, from the most intellectually sophisticated to people with little or no formal education.

Increasingly, television dramas are being used throughout the world to disseminate messages about health issues such as the need for contraception, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, how to achieve peace between countries in conflict and how to elevate the status of women in developing countries. By identifying themselves with the protagonists’ dreams and problems the viewer establishes an immediate connection with them.

In Colorado, state officials have developed a drama called “Crossroads: Without Health, There Is Nothing,” specifically aimed at conveying health messages to the population. One of the producers’ aims was to increase the number of health-insured kids in the state, since almost half of the 150,000 uninsured children were eligible either for Medicaid or the Child Health Plan Plus program. Following airing of the TV dramas, there was a substantial increase in the number of children applying for insurance.

In Niger, Africa, Niger’s Broadcasting Corporation (ORTN) and UNICEF have joined forces and produced a serial drama titled “Soueba” that focuses on the lives of young people in Niamey, Niger’s capital. By following their journey into adulthood, the program explores the realities of love and sex and the dangers posed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “Soueba is more than an entertainment. Our aim with Soueba is to stop the taboo around HIV/AIDS, decrease the stigma toward people living with the disease, encourage positive attitudes and improve prevention behaviors,” declared director Mahaman Souleymane.

In Ethiopia, the characters in the drama “Yeken Kignit” (“Looking Over One’s Daily Life”) have kept millions of Ethiopians glued to their radios for two and a half years. In the process, they may also have changed their lives. Following both “Yeken Kignit” and a similar drama called “Dhimbibba” (“Getting the Best Out of Life”) male listeners sought to be tested for HIV at four times the rate of non-listeners, while the demand for contraceptives rose 52 percent among married women who listened to the programs.

In Nicaragua, PATH, an international nonprofit organization based in Seattle, working with a Nicaraguan non-profit group called Puntos de Encuentro (Meeting Points) has inserted health-related messages into one of the country’s most popular dramas. The aim of those messages is to change some cultural assumptions that lead to domestic violence and sexual abuse among adolescent girls and young women.

In Vietnam, the Ministry of Agriculture and several partners used entertainment education concepts to communicate pest management and environmental protection techniques to rice farmers. The drama project won several awards for its effectiveness in communicating science to people.

Latin American countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela have become active exporters of these products, which are eagerly watched in countries as far away from Latin America as Russia, Albania, China and several countries from the former Soviet Union.

There may be other advantages to dramas. I was recently in Albania, a country that had suffered from intense isolation during Enver Hoxha’s regime. While in Tirana, I was running late for a dinner appointment since I couldn’t find the restaurant where the meeting was to take place. I decided to ask a couple of young women who were walking in my opposite direction. Graciously, they told me that it was easier for them to accompany me than to try to explain to me how to go there. They asked me where I was from and when I said that I was from Argentina they said to me in Spanish, “Then we can speak in Spanish!” with flawless Argentine accent. Surprised, I asked them where they had learned to speak it so well. “In the Argentine dramas, of course,” they answered laughing.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is an international public health consultant and a writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.