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VALUES / Our culture, our beliefs, our responsibilities.

Better Brand of Soap

Hoping to improve society, a group urges TV and radio melodramas to explore such issues as domestic violence, teen pregnancy and AIDS.

June 02, 1999|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soap operas as vehicles for social change? Those steamy sagas wherein people get all tangled up with long lost children, amnesia of convenience, mistaken identity and secret pasts?

Absolutely, says Population Communications International, a nonprofit organization that encourages development of social content programming on radio and TV, with emphasis on soaps. The messages might be about population control, domestic violence, human rights, ecology or HIV-AIDS prevention.

"The soap opera is the most popular form of communication in virtually every part of the world," says Irwin "Sonny" Fox, the group's Burbank-based senior vice president, and, thus is a potent force for educating "hundreds of millions of people."

Since its founding in 1985, Population Communications has been instrumental in developing message-based TV or radio soaps in 10 countries, from China--where valuing female children was one theme--to Tanzania, where AIDS prevention was the goal.

Closer to home, the group has hosted writers and producers at three Soap Summits in Los Angeles or New York, and on Friday and Saturday will present its first Prime Time Summit at West Hollywood's Wyndham Bel Age Hotel in association with the Producers Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America West and the Caucus of Producers, Writers and Directors.

Recognizing the entertainment industry's interest in "responsible programming that is relevant to timely societal issues," Fox has planned a comprehensive program.

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher is scheduled to give the keynote address. In the wake of the Littleton, Colo., tragedy, he will discuss violence against children as a major cause of death in America.

Unwed teen fathers will talk about unglamorous realities, and Brenda Aris will relate a story more gripping than most soap scripts: Brutalized by her husband, Rick, she shot and killed him as he slept. She was granted clemency in 1994 by Gov. Pete Wilson, who cited "most extraordinary cruelty," and the case set a precedent for the "battered women's syndrome" as a legal defense.

The summit format will include dialogue between decision-makers in the entertainment industry and experts in other fields on how best to present accurate and compelling information within the parameters of entertainment.

In urging writers and producers to tackle the issues, Fox says, Population Communications is "not asking them not to get good ratings" or "stop doing sex" but, rather, to do it more responsibly. He calls his job "sandpapering sensibilities."

Among small triumphs: A "General Hospital" episode with an AIDS story line, two "Beverly Hills 90210" story lines about domestic violence, a message about responsible sex on "As the World Turns." "Bold and the Beautiful," the most-watched daytime soap in the world with an audience of 450 million in 98 countries, is doing a story about AIDS and teen pregnancy.

"What [Population Communications is] attempting to do makes a lot of sense," says Gerald Isenberg, a professor at USC and chairman of the Caucus of Producers, Writers and Directors. "A lot of these people really want to do stories that are issue based but just don't have the time to do the research, don't have the background, and are looking for inspiration. I think [Population Communications] is a pretty worthwhile venture."

Benefiting From Research

Bonny Dore of Bonny Dore Productions, which specializes in miniseries and movies of the week, says, "In Hollywood, we get hit on by a lot of folks [pushing causes, but Population Communications] does very, very intensive research. That always makes me very comfortable."

Ultimately, she adds, a good story is "the litmus test" and social issues make good stories. Citing domestic violence as an example, Dore says, "As a woman and as a producer, any information I can have that's new and au courant and on the cutting edge, I need."

Population Communications eschews what Fox, a former vice president of children's programming for NBC, calls "Draconian" tactics, preferring to "plant seeds" for change. Headquartered in New York with a $3.5-million annual budget, the group is funded by individuals and foundations as well as the United Nations, but Population Communications neither has nor wants corporate sponsors.

Domestically, the group faces the reality of a shrinking daytime soap opera audience, its numbers (about 20 million) eroded both by women working and the networks' diminishing audience share. But in developing countries, soaps are shown in the evening, when women and men watch.

Says Fox, "We have to change the men."

At home there are plans for more soaps, starting in 2000. USA Network will debut "The Avenue," a half-hour soap set in Queens, N.Y., a page out of the book of English soaps, which portray the lives of the working class. Columbia Tristar Television plans "Soap City," a 24-hour soap channel, while Disney/ABC's all-soap channel will repeat daytime soaps the same day in prime time.

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