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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.

Global warming, food and water crises, even international conflict -- you can trace all these societal and environmental problems to overpopulation. Experts believe that Earth reached its population capacity in the 1980s, meaning we now consume natural resources at a rate much higher than they can be replenished. And of course, as we take away natural resources, we're adding a slew of unnatural, toxic matter into the mix that brings about a host of other problems.

Currently there are just over 6.8 billion people in the world. By mid-century, we're expected to number 9 billion, roughly the equivalent of one-tenth of all humans who have ever walked the planet. Curbing population growth is a logical goal if the human race wishes to ensure its own sustainability -- and that of the other species with whom we share Earth. (Not to mention Earth itself, too.)

Bill Ryerson has dedicated his life to the stabilization of human population numbers at a level that can be sustained by our ecosystem's resources. He is the founder and president of the Population Media Center, a non-profit that seeks to improve the well-being of people by using -- believe it! -- melodramatic soap operas on radio and television throughout the developing world (and soon, the U.S.) to teach listeners and viewers important lessons relating to family planning, reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and environmental preservation, as well as a thing or two about women's and children's rights.

Ryerson and I met recently in San Francisco to discuss the peril our fragile ecosystem faces as a result of our unsustainable growth -- and how we might save us from ourselves.

Daniela Perdomo: Before we get started on the specifics of your work, I was wondering if you could give me some understanding of just how many people listen to the radio, how many people watch TV, how many people own their own TVs -- in other words, what is the reach of media among developing-world populations you are trying to reach?

Bill Ryerson: Of course it varies from country to country and region to region. The place that has the least media coverage is Africa, particularly with regards to television. An example of that is Ethiopia where 4 percent of the population can afford a TV, but even there well over half have radios and listen to them on a regular basis. So it’s a majority of the world’s population that has access to broadcasting. Outside of Africa, which is still dominated by radio, certainly in Latin America and in Asia, television is the dominant medium and it reaches almost everybody. If you look at Vietnam, for example, an excess of 90 percent of the population is watching TV.  I was in Pakistan last week and that is a TV society with maybe two-thirds of the population watching TV on a regular basis. 

DP: Your organization, Population Media Center, uses the Sabido method to reach your target audience. Could you describe for the laymanwhat the Sabido method is and why you chose this as your driving platform?

BR: When I first heard about the idea of using what Americans call soap operas for trying to achieve global sustainability, I thought it sounded ridiculous because I have never been a big fan of soap operas. The Sabido methodology actually refers to the Latin American version of soap operas, which are telenovelas, which are television novels, and they are quite different from American soap operas because they don’t try to go on for 40 years. They are truly novels with a beginning, middle and an end, and they tend to last two to three years. They are the dominant prime-time format in Latin America and they are very, very popular, as you know.

DP: Yes, they are far better than American soap operas. They are engrossing.

BR: Yes, and they are highly melodramatic -- that is, melodrama as really as the battle of good versus evil. So there are good and bad characters and they are battling it out over some set of issues. Miguel Sabido was a vice president of Mexico’s largest commercial network, Televisa. He oversaw the audience research division and he also was a key producer of some of their prime-time telenovelas. He realized through his research that he was having a huge impact on his audience on things like fashion and so on. He began looking at ways in which he could modify the typical design of the telenovela to systematically provide audiences with information that would improve their lives, while at the same time retaining high ratings. He created a research-based and theory-based approach to the creation of serialized melodramas that has proven over and over again to be highly influential in changing social norms on all kinds of issues. 

One of the theoreticians that he read the writings of is Stanford psychologist Alfred Bandura. He is the world’s authority on role modeling and how role models influence behavior and what makes a parent or a peer of a celebrity more or less influential on the people who are observing them. One of the things Bandura is known for is his work on self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is really the concept that I have the right and the ability to accomplish some task. So if I see an 80-year-old man climbing up a mountain, I may change my own view of whether or not I’m capable of doing that. The role model, if that person is influential and I can look at them and say, yes, I can achieve what that person achieved, can lead me to change my behavior without ever telling me what to do. That is really the concept. 

If you have societies in which, for example, girls are denied education but are instead married off at puberty to older men in polygamous relationships and are not given the right to determine how many children to have and so on, changing the attitudes and behavior of the men as well as the women can be done through this strategy, by creating characters who in addition to the positive and the negative characters who are battling it out, these transitional characters start out in the middle of the road and are representative of segments of the audience. They sort through the conflicting advice they get from the positive and the negative characters and figure out who is right, and they evolve into positive role models for the audience, both demonstrating how to overcome the obstacles to change in that society and showing the benefits of their new behavior. 

In the Sabido methodology, the negative characters always suffer the consequences of their behavior. So in a period of a couple of years the audience learns what they might not otherwise learn in a lifetime through the school of hard knocks. We have gotten thousands and thousands of letters from people thanking us for having addressed various issues in our programs, now in 24 countries around the world, because it helped them to avoid the mistakes that they saw the negative characters falling into -- characters who are so much like people in their society. 

DP: Do your shows play in prime-time slots?

BR: Yes.

DP: So you really do reach a lot of people. Can you give a tangible example of the effect PMC's programming has had?

BR: In Brazil, we have a project in Rio that works with the writers at TV Globo [the country's largest television station] that monitors the impact and the content of their programs. So, for example, there was a program we developed called "Páginas da Vida," "Pages of Life," that contained a teenage pregnancy and parenthood storyline. We set up research at the Planned Parenthood affiliate, Benfam, to ask women at the clinics during the time of that telenovela why they were there.  Thirty-six percent of the women at the family planning clinics were there because of that program. 

DP: Because they heard about this kind of clinic in the show?

BR: Yes, exactly, and they did not want to fall into the trap and the poverty and all the health problems that this teenage mother had fallen into. So they learned from that and they went to family planning. 

DP: That's amazing. But here's a question. Is there any danger of romanticizing the kinds of problems presented in a soap opera because it’s so melodramatic and the actors are so good-looking and people want to be like them?  Would people almost want to have the same problems?

BR: When people identify with a negative character, we call this the Archie Bunker effect. We actually measure this. It is a very, very small percentage because we are very careful to create the negative characters as extremely horrible. So it’s highly unlikely people would be attracted to emulate them, and they are not attractive as characters. They are pretty evil people.

DP: Even if you depict, for example, teenagers having unprotected sex, they’re bad characters? They’re not the heroes of the story?

BR: Exactly. Another important thing to recognize, particularly in Africa where we are working, and are doing radio serials -- kind of like the 1930s radio serials in the U.S. You’re not seeing the character, you’re just hearing their voice and learning about their behaviors through the dialogue.