Where would you expect see a television message which talks about AIDS? Where would you see a family planning commercial? Where else but on a public broadcasting system like Doordarshan. But why? May be because sending out social message on a public broadcasting system is the domain of the government. It's there responsibility. It's there social and moral obligation. Correct, Probably yes.
But can we imagine a message on 'AIDS' or 'Safe Sex' becoming a part of the subject line of 'Kyonki Saas Bhi kabhi Bahu thi', or 'Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki'. May be not. It will be 'crazy' to believe that such a thing can ever happen with the format of 'popular entertainment'. How will the people react? What will happen to the televison rating of these programmes? What will be the fate of the "K" series and its likes? Probably all of them will disappear within a week's time. But what if we can create a soap, which is both, popular in terms of ratings and successful in terms of commercial business. And which is effectively able to convey some serious social messages.
In a country of a Billion people, and with problems of AIDS and population explosion, wouldn't it be possible to reach out to several C&S homes if the popular soaps incorporated social messages. The answer is a big 'Yes'. As Dr. Arvind Singhal, Presidential research Scholar and Professor at the School of Interpersonal Communication, Ohio, USA will put it, " all it takes is a single man's efforts and some localized initiatives to make it a reality." The living example is success of a programme called "Soul City" which appears on the South African Broadcasting Corporation, (SABC) in South Africa. The programme combines important health issues with entertainment and it enjoys a very high viewership. So financially also its a success story.
According to Dr Singhal, 'Soul City' was started by a Doctor who wanted to spread the right kind of health awareness messages amongst the masses. With exhaustive research and toil, he brought a team of top-shot script writers & directors and produced the show. It worked. Its a classic example of a successful marriage between development communication and entertainment, which Dr Singhal terms as 'Entertainment Plus'.
This initiative was furthered by Dr Singhal when he worked very closely with the team of 'The Bold and the Beautiful' between July 2001 and January 2002. During this time period one of the character of 'The Bold and the Beautiful' called 'Tony' discovered that he was HIV Positive. The entire storyline was tailored around his problem and his concerns regarding it. Questions such has 'should Tony tell his girl friend about it or should he get married, came up in the story? The viewers keenly followed his story. At the end of one particular episode Tony actually gave out the hot line number for AIDS control. And in that week there was a significant 3% jump in viewership.
But can we experiment with the same concept here? Dr Singhal says that Indian media is skeptical. "Indian television programming is sticking to a format that they are comfortable with. At this stage, they are unwilling to experiment," says Singhal. He though points out 'Jasoos Vijay' on Doordarshan as a successful programme currently on air that weaves aids in the story line.
The key to the concept of 'entertainment plus' is good story telling and slick direction. With the kind of reach and impact our soaps have, spreading any social message will be more effective through the soaps rather than 'stand alone TV campaigns'. All it takes is some initiative by our brilliant creative people and some guts by the producers. With so much of television talent, it should a matter of time before our television entertainment industry adds social responsibility to entertainment and we will be able to see some socially effective and financially viable soaps on air.
Ashish Sinha - exchange4media News Service