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Adult Literacy, Birth Control Addressed in Dramas : Third World Soaps Tackle Social Problems

September 20, 1987|JEFF CRIDER | United Press International

A new wave of television soap operas is sweeping the Third World, but according to a USC researcher, the newest soaps are intended to affect more than the viewers' emotions.

"In a growing number of Third World nations, soap operas are being used as a tool for social change," said Everett M. Rogers, a professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communications.

Rogers and Arvind Singhal, a USC doctoral candidate, have spent more than a year researching the popularity and influence of educational soap operas in the Third World. Their findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Communication.

"While we haven't yet analyzed all of the data, the research we've done so far indicates that the soaps are having a positive impact in the Third World," Rogers said.

Rogers said the first educational soap opera, "Ven Conmigo" (Come With Me), was aired on Mexican television during 1975-76.

"It promoted adult literacy and was partly responsible for the enrollment of a million illiterate people in adult education classes," Rogers said.

He said "Ven Conmigo" was so popular that Televisa, the Mexican television network, aired another educational soap--"Acompaname" (Come Along With Me)--during 1977-78 that promoted family planning.

"It also scored high ratings and motivated nearly half a million men and women to visit government family planning clinics," Rogers said.

Several other educational soaps have aired on Mexican television since 1978, including "Vamos Juntos" (Let's Go Together), which promoted better treatment of children, and "Nosotras Las Mujeres" (We the Women), which encouraged women to be more assertive. A soap promoting family planning is scheduled to air in Mexico early next year, he said.

Rogers said the success of educational soap operas in Mexico prompted other Third World nations to develop their own pro-development soap operas.

"India was the first major Third World nation to send a delegation to Mexico to study how the educational soaps were made," he said. "In 1984, they produced their own version of a pro-development soap opera, which they entitled 'Hum Log' (We People). Although family planning was the show's main theme, the stories tackled other social ills as well, including the unequal status of women, national integration, dowry, alcoholism and drug abuse."

Rogers said "Hum Log" attracted 90% of the television households in India during its 156 episodes. Although most people in India could not afford to buy their own television sets, neighbors of those who did often invited themselves over to watch their favorite shows, he said.

"An Indian man told me that as many as 50 to 70 people cram into his 20-foot-by-25-foot sitting room every night to watch television," said Rogers, adding that satellite transmission has made it possible for even people in remote Third World villages to have daily exposure to educational television soaps.

"Ninety percent of the population of Mexico has daily access to television. The statistics for television exposure in China are similar. Except for the most isolated areas, TV reaches nearly everyone," he said.

Rogers said China began producing educational soaps of its own last year. He said that next year Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, Zaire, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia and Brazil will begin broadcasting their own soap operas, each of which will emphasize family planning.

Rogers noted that the soaps generally approach sensitive issues, like family planning, with a fair amount of discretion.

Attract Public Interest

"In one episode of 'Hum Log,' a woman visits a social worker and he tells her she doesn't have to become pregnant if she doesn't want to. He then names three or four methods of birth control, although you never see the methods explained on television. Basically, (the purpose of the soap) is to arouse public interest in birth control."

He added that most people are unaware of the educational thrust of the soaps.

"People are attracted to the programs for their entertainment value. My impression is that most people don't recognize that educational themes and entertainment are being mixed.

"You could say these soaps are manipulative, but there are very few people who would object to the educational goal of the programs."

Educational soap operas have yet to be broadcast in the United States, although Rogers noted that Norman Lear dealt with the abortion issue in one episode of "Maude," the popular 1970s television series, and with the topic of vasectomies in a 1970s episode of "All in the Family."

"While controversial, both shows scored very high ratings when these episodes were first broadcast. All of this suggests that there may be a market for educational soaps here in the United States as well," he said.

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