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Soaps Develop a Social Conscience

While soap operas have long entertained audiences around the world, the genre has become an increasingly popular vehicle for addressing and educating viewers in the developing world about such social issues as AIDS.

 "The idea has been to make the issues entertaining so people will watch and then include educational content,” said Population Media Center senior VP of international programs Kris Barker in a phone interview from South Africa. Over the last nine years, the not-for-profit organization has been involved in a number of radio and TV dramas and is currently developing a serial drama for Egyptian TV.

“It is more like product placement [than preaching a message],” she added. “If people are going to sleep together anyway in a soap, then you might show an open condom packages beside the bed.”

Some of the challenges of creating these shows will be subject of several panels at the 2007 International Emmy World Television Festival, which will be held on Nov. 17-18 in New York City.

In Brazil, TV Globo has made a major commitment to integrating social issues into its popular novellas, and over the last decade, the BBC World Trust Service has worked with local producers and broadcasters to create serial dramas that address a variety of issues in such markets as India, Cambodia and Nigeria.

Not for profit agencies, such as the Population Media Center, are also actively working with producers to create shows dealing with family and reproductive health.

Among its many projects, PMC worked with TV Globo on its Pages of Life novella to incorporate Down Syndrome into the storyline. The novela featured a young girl who got pregnant and had a baby with Down Syndrome.

The series was a huge success for Globo and follow-up research showed it raised awareness of the syndrome and family planning issues, Barker said.

Such research is particularly important to the development of these soaps, said Stephen King, Director of the BBC World Trust Service.

In India, for example, to raise AIDS and HIV awareness among young men, the company settled on a drama starring a private detective after research showed the target audience preferred hard-hitting crime shows over traditional soaps.

“The idea was to create a very entertaining show with a character who was basically a private detective involved in solving cases of kidnap, murder and blackmail,” King said. But discrimination and AIDS awareness was woven into the storylines.

The BBC also agreed to set up a five year training program at state broadcaster Doordarshan for its staff and in exchange got an excellent primetime slot for the show, which proved very popular, garnering about 30 million viewers an episode, King said.

Camille Bidermann-Roizen, IATAS senior VP and executive director, said her company came up with the idea of focusing on programming dealing with social issues after a visit this spring to TV Globo in Brazil.

“We wanted to highlight broadcasters like Globo who take their social responsibilities very seriously,” she said.