Soap Operas Can Save the World

Melodramas promoting literacy and family planning? Tune in next week.
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East Los High's Maya and Jacob look good—but will they do the right thing? More important: Will viewers? (PHOTO: COURTESY OF POPULATION MEDIA CENTER)

East Los High's Maya and Jacob look good—but will they do the right thing? More important: Will viewers? (PHOTO: COURTESY OF POPULATION MEDIA CENTER)

Meet Jessie, a shy Latina teen in East Los Angeles who just wants to survive chemistry class, help out her single mom, and escape high school still a member of what she and her best friend call “the virgins’ club.” High-school society, unfortunately, has other plans.

Jessie is at the winter ball when she steals a dance with Jacob—the super- hot quarterback of the football team. Sparks fly, and Jessie is soon caught in a tempestuous love triangle with Jacob and his queen-bee girlfriend, Vanessa. So when an iPhone sex tape of Vanessa starts circulating, who could be to blame but Jessie?

Welcome to East Los High, a soap opera for young adults that debuts this June on Hulu. Filmed in L.A. and written in a slangy mix of English and Spanish, the show follows a handful of Latino teenagers as they preen, flirt, and brawl their way through high school. Between dance-offs, drive-bys, and grinding hip-hop soundtrack, casual viewers might think they were watching MTV.

“These are programs that play themselves out over hundreds of episodes. If the program is good, then you not only grab attention, but you grab it over a period of time.”

But East Los High is funded by Population Media Center, a Vermont-based non-profit that produces “pro-social” radio dramas in developing countries around the world. The shows address issues like family planning, maternal health, and HIV transmission. East Los High is Population Media’s first foray into both America and the Web. Whether the series bombs or goes viral depends on how well it weaves its do-right messages together with believable characters and compelling screenwriting.

The idea of marrying melodrama and public health was first developed in Mexico in the 1970s by Miguel Sabido, a television executive who believed that national welfare mattered as much as ratings. His shows promoting literacy and family planning became smash hits and generated impressive impacts. The year Sabido’s first program, Ven Conmigo, appeared, the number of people signing up for government literacy classes jumped from 99,000 to 840,000. Following the run of a second show, Acompáñame, sales of over-the-counter contraception spiked 23 percent.

Today Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United Nations Population Fund all have centers dedicated to promoting public health through Sabido-style educational entertainment. The Gates Foundation and USAID provide millions of dollars in funding for such efforts. Radio and television dramas based on Sabido’s model have appeared in dozens of countries. Educational entertainment is nothing new, of course. The sitcom Diff'rent Strokes was famous for its “very special episodes” tackling issues including bulimia, racism, and pedophilia. The 1988 Harvard Alcohol Project popularized the term designated driver by partnering with prime-time shows to dramatize the consequences of drunk driving.

And after a 2001 episode of The Bold and the Beautiful, in which 4.5 million Americans watched a character test positive for HIV, calls to the CDC’s AIDS hotline jumped from fewer than 200 per hour to more than 1,800. East Los High follows Sabido’s method, which draws on social psychology, dramatic theory, and Jungian archetypes. A “transitional” character— Jessie—is shown caught between doing the wrong (often popular) thing and the right (often difficult) one.

As the season unfolds, Jessie wavers between her friend Soli’s good advice and Jacob’s persistent overtures. Stick with the virgins’ club, Soli counsels her. “I’m not going to end up like my tías, waiting around for their welfare with loads of babies and no baby daddies,” Soli says. Then one night when Jessie tutors Jacob for an upcoming chemistry exam, they begin swapping positive ions on the couch. Jacob paws at her, but Jessie pushes him away. “If you don’t want to take it that far, I respect that,” he tells her.

“I just need more time,” she replies.

“Cool.” He fixes her with a smoldering stare. “Tomorrow?”

“This is not a one-hour after-school special, or a one-minute public-service announcement,” says Arvind Singhal, a professor of communication at the University of Texas-El Paso who has researched the impact of such shows. “These are programs that play themselves out over hundreds of episodes. If the program is good, then you not only grab attention, but you grab it over a period of time.”

To develop the shows, researchers typically spend weeks talking to people in the target community and identifying the issues that matter to them. That can involve some careful diplomacy, given the intense politics of reproductive issues.

“At the local level, there are sometimes frictions,” says Douglas Storey, associate director at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Communication Programs. “This kind of work involves cultural change. We sometimes don’t like to talk about it in those terms, because it sounds like it may be manipulative or coercive.”

Vanessa’s sex tape, it turns out, was leaked not by Jessie, but by Vanessa’s supposed best friend, bitter over losing the winter-ball queen title. Jessie’s cousin Maya, meanwhile, is busy robbing taquerias and selling cocaine when a local kingpin begins dropping bodies, nearly catching Maya in the crossfire. And Jacob’s father is on the verge of losing his restaurant, leaving Jacob torn between accepting a full basketball scholarship in Indiana and staying in L.A. to help run the family business.

Will Jacob give up his college dream? Will Jessie keep her virginity? Will any of this help reduce teen pregnancy? Stay tuned.

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