10 March 2008

Disease Prevention: Integrating Television Storylines to Promote a Healthier Society

The age of the "After School Special" is over. As society grows and changes in new directions, television producers must think of innovative ways to implement socially conscious messages into their programming. With the success of telenovelas in Latin America and The Norman Lear Center's Hollywood, Health, and Society Program, using embedded storylines to promote health awareness has become more popular than ever.

For those who do not know, a telenovela is a limited-running television serial that was created and popularized in South America. The programs became so popular that South American health promotion and disease prevention agencies asked producers to implement storylines bringing awareness to issues affecting Latino communities. The results were positively staggering, and after running storylines on Alzheimer's Disease and adult literacy, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to their nearest health and literacy centers. With proof that the formula could work, American producers hoped to replicate this same success in the States.

Initially, health conscious programming began with youth-based shows like Saved By The Bell , that advised children against the perils of drugs and alcohol, but prime time programming like Friends used their immense popularity to promote issues like safe sex and STD testing. Even recently with the first American adapted telenovela, Ugly Betty (pictured left), the characters have made positive strides in the advancement of immigration reform and healthy body images by integrating those themes into their storylines.

Current Presidential candidate Barack Obama, despite not being an actor or television personality himself, has released a series of telenovelas hoping to garner Latino support in California. Obama recognizes that issue-embedded entertainment programming is a valuable tool, and creatively speaking, that puts him one step ahead of his competitors.

So why television? Why has this medium proved most effective for translating social content? Well, with the repetitious nature of T.V., viewers are able to develop parasocial relationships with characters over a long period of time. Christine Camilla, a researcher at West Connecticut State University, had this to say on the matter, "Depending on the amount of time spent watching, a [viewer] may create the illusion of friendship and or relationship to a television persona that in fact they have never met. Theorists have claimed that these relationships can in some cases be life changing and personality molding, but definitely life impacting." Constants in everyday life tend to shape who we are as individuals, so it is entirely possible for our world view to grow and change based on the type of programming we have available. With the rapid change in television shows and the increase of mind-numbing programming (like Flavor of Love on VH1 or Next on MTV), producers often feel they have a social responsibility to promote issues relevant to the current culture. Kristin Moran, from the University of San Diego, studied the impact of telenovelas saying that, "the largest portion of learning involving one’s adaptation to society takes place through such observational learning... especially when it comes to new experiences. If a teenager has little or no experience with an activity the observational learning from others becomes more important." Television programs provide a window to other ideas, values, or cultures that an individual may not otherwise be exposed to on a daily basis. Watching shows in which characters take the right course of action concerning a particular dilemma provide a visual reference point which viewers can refer back to in future situations.

The Norman Lear Center's Hollywood, Health & Society Project, was recently established to provide television executives with up-to-date medical research to incorporate into their health-based storylines. On the new ABC show Eli Stone, The HHSP worked in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control, and placed an information title card (pictured right) at the end of the closing credits, asking viewers to strongly consider the importance of childhood vaccinations and autism testing. On another ABC show, Guiding Light, one of the main characters contracted HIV, and the network subsequently set up a website to help answer viewer questions about the disease.

While all of the US intention is well and good, as of yet their integrated programming has not had as widespread of an affect on viewers as the Latin American telenovelas. This may due in part to the much larger selection of programming Americans have available, and if audience members are forced to split their attention between different shows it could mean less focus on education-entertainment. It may also be the way in which the shows are presented. If an episode becomes too didactic or preachy, American viewers especially are more likely to be turned off by that and change the channel.

Regardless, critics of the programming must realize that change cannot occur overnight. Since foreign programming does not translate easily into American markets, television networks must experiment with their shows to find the most effective method. We should not be so easy to dismiss this type of educational entertainment, because it is an unobtrusive, wide-reaching tool that may just save a person's life someday.

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