Yesterday I flew down to Studio City to have lunch with Sonny Fox, a tall, distinguished 80-year-old whose first successful career was in children's television. For a number of years he was president of Population Commmunications International, which supports the production of TV and radio series for Third World countries to educate viewers about reproductive health, empowering women, and the environment.
And boy oboy, are they successful! For example, they regularly reach 150 million TV viewers in India and perhaps an equal number in China. (The most popular American TV dramas reach no more than 18 million viewers these days.) Not everyone in India or China owns a TV set, of course, so there’s a tendency for the neighbors to join in viewing and then stay to discuss the story, which boosts the effectiveness of the messages. There was one story about a little girl with AIDS. Her schoolmates wouldn’t play with her, for fear of catching it. They included the message that nobody catches the disease that way. There’s another story about a 14-year-old girl in India who is forced to marry, though she wants a career instead. After resisting consummation of the marriage for a long time, she gives in. She becomes pregnant and eight months later dies. Millions of Indian fathers decided they did not want their daughters to have to marry against their will.
My book covers only a bit of the research on the effects on public behavior, but Sonny told me of more evidence, largely authored by Arvind Singh. One study compared the responses to drama and factual information in America. There was a story in The Bold and the Beautiful about a character who gets AIDS. At the end of an episode, the actor looks straight at the camera and tells viewers to phone a certain number at the Center for Disease Control (I think it was) if they have concerns about anyone possibly being exposed to HIV. The same kind of announcement was made at the end of Sixty Minutes, which gets far more viewers. Where the usual response rate is about 95, the public did not respond much more than that to Sixty Minutes, but the peak after The Bold and the Beautiful was 1400. This differences is explained by the audience's greater identification with the characters.
Sonny himself is now a consultant on the purposeful uses of soap operas. He started a research project funded by a US government agency to see whether a story’s effectiveness is generalized or culturally specific. It was designed to last three years and compare responses in several different countries to the same show, but after one year Rush Limbaugh heard of it and lambasted the “waste of taxpayers’ money” until politicians were forced to terminate the project. However, his one-year comparison did enable him to infer that you can’t expect an American film about American protagonists to influence people in a different society. If the story is too far from the realities of life in the foreign country, the viewers may enjoy watching it as entertainment and may even say, “I wish I could live that way, but I can’t.” Then they ignore the message. For example, they will say that they wish they could mention HIV in polite society, but they can't.
On the other hand, Sonny thinks it’s possible to be influential in other countries by creating characters with whom the locals can fully identify. For example, he mentioned a story (I’m not sure whether it was an actual one or only a hypothetical one) about an Iraqi doctor who moves back to his home country after living in the West. He’s fully Iraqi, speaks Arabic all the time, but has been ‘infected” with Western culture. Middle Eastern people will engage with his story and follow his journey as he tries to reconcile his traditions with his newer modern beliefs.
Sonny Fox has had invitations from diplomats in Washington to consult on the production of films. He mentioned Karen Hughes in particular as keenly interested in finding alternative ways of promoting democracy abroad. Naturally, the government has abundant funds for this approach if they choose to use it. He said he had agreed to help with one such project, on condition that they not expect it to make Islamic societies love America. If you want to do that, you’d better change the actual policies that harm and offend Muslims, he said. You can’t do that just through movies and television. He evidently expects one of the pending productions to be realized, though he didn’t elaborate. He suggested that I send Karen Hughes a copy of my book, because he knows she’s thinking along those lines.
I mentioned Participant Productions and Jeffrey Skoll’s new films. He has seen Good Night and Good Luck, as well as Syriana, but he expressed doubts about the impact of the latter. In fact, he thinks it may be counterproductive, since it shows an overwhelming problem without pointing out any solution. Viewers may be demoralized instead of inspired to act. I said that the web site does suggest actions for them to take, including lobbying government. Participants are supposed to download a list of things that they can do to reduce their dependence on oil. But I had to agree with him that the film would have been better if it had indicated a plausible solution. (I didn’t go into my main quibble: that the writers went too far with their “show, don’t tell” motto, expecting ordinary viewers to follow a more complicated plot than most of us actually can. This film resembles those contemporary TV shows that Steven Johnson believes are making us smarter. They probably do exercise the brains of people who try to follow those complex plots, but they don’t work for everyone. I just overheard a coffee shop conversation between two brilliant university students who couldn’t follow Syriana.) Nevertheless, I believe that Fox and Skoll have a lot in common and should meet to compare their approaches to saving the world.