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Strange But True: How Soap Operas Might Save Us From Overpopulation

Earth reached its human capacity in the 1980s. Our planet is in crisis, and Bill Ryerson is using media to change behaviors that contribute to global overpopulation.

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Let me give you an example -- a Tanzanian radio serial which was on public broadcasting, it was on Radio Tanzania.  One of the negative characters was an alcoholic truck driver with a girlfriend at every truck stop and a subservient wife waiting at home.  His name is Mkwaju. Tunu, his wife, figured him out during the serial and told him she had heard about the AIDS epidemic -- this was 1993 -- and said that when he was home he was going to have to use condoms. She made that happen.  She went on to become an entrepreneur and found her own business and she became a role model for female empowerment. 

In the meantime, you’ve already figured out that Mkwaju became sick. A huge audience, maybe 50 to 80 percent of the adult population, with more men in the audience than women, found out Mkwaju had made a fatal mistake. Now, the men had been very attracted to Mkwaju because he was having a lot of the good time, but when he started dying from AIDS, which he did during the serial, there was a massive self-reported change in behavior. Of the audience members, 82 percent of them in a survey at the end of the two years said they had changed their behavior to avoid HIV infection. The most common change they said they had made was reduction in the number of sexual partners. The second most common change was condom use. 

We weren’t able to verify the claims of the numbers of sexual partners, but we got the condom-distribution data broken down by district. In the districts that did not hear the program but got all the other programs about HIV/AIDS, there was a 16 percent increase in condom distribution. While in the broadcast areas of the Sabido-style serial drama, there was a 153 percent increase in condom distribution. There is a similar differential between family-planning use, a zero percent change in the control area where they didn’t hear the program, a 32 percent increase in the broadcast areas. I got the minister of health to have health-care workers ask new family-planning adopters why they had come in, and 41 percent of them named the program by name.  Just to be sure it wasn’t something else going on with the control area, we then ran the program in its entirety in that region and we in fact then experienced an even bigger increase in family planning adoption there in a place where there had been zero change the previous two years when they didn’t hear the program.  At the ministry of health clinics, 41 percent again named the program as the reason they had come in. 

DP: A lot of people are out there trying to affect change in behavior throughout the world. Some things work, some things don’t. Could you tell me a little bit about why you honed in on the Sabido method over other approaches?

BR: Oh, yes. But the quick answer to your question is that per capita behavior change this is the most cost-effective approach that I have found anywhere in the world. For example, in the Tanzania project we were just talking about, the cost per person who adopted family planning was 32 cents. The cost per person to change behavior to avoid HIV infection was 8 cents. When you can save lives at 8 cents a person, it is worth doing something. 

When I have looked at other strategies, at even cheaper programs like public service announcements, health messages, two-episode dramas, 10-episode dramas, they’re not nearly as effective because they haven’t allowed the time to attract an audience, to make them fall in love with the characters, and then to move them with baby steps in a way that doesn’t create backlash. They can’t measure the kinds of dramatic changes that we can over a two-year period, even with repeated efforts at telling people what is in their interest, in part because they are not as entertaining. 

High entertainment value obviously attracts an audience, and if you’re just doing intellectual blah, blah, blah, people don’t remember it as well. But when there is a highly emotional element, when you are emotionally involved in something, you remember it far longer. The reason for this is emotional involvement enhances memory.  It’s kind of crazy that our school systems just do intellectual blah, blah and hope the students will remember it. An emotional program with changes in the life fortune of characters that you are in love with is something that causes audience members to remember the rest of their lives the lessons they have learned from those characters. That is part of the reason why this approach is so effective.

DP: Thirty-two cents, 8 cents. That sounds very cost-effective but are you taking into consideration everything that it takes to produce, say, a two-year soap opera in Tanzania?

BR: Yes. Including the research.

DP: Does everyone who works on these projects get paid?

BR:Some of our trainers work pro bono but for the most part when we’re taking people’s time in a developing country setting, we are paying them for their time. In our case we don’t send ex-pats into any country. All of our projects are run by country nationals. We hire the best writers in the country. We get people from the drama department of the university in the capital city or from the national theater. We hire actors who know how to do radio or, in the case of TV, TV acting. We train them with trainers from other developing countries who have used this methodology successfully, including Miguel Sabido who we have had do training in a number of countries.

DP: So there is really a lot to be said about the in-culture, in-language approach, as opposed to an American guy coming in telling people in other countries how to plan for their families.

BR: Yes. Now, who would I be to go and tell the women of an African country they should try to emulate Gloria Steinem? If I did that, I would be thrown out on my tail.