What TV can teach us

Can an initiative to educate public through entertainment make an impact on Israelis' lives?

bold and beautiful 88 22 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bold and beautiful 88 22
(photo credit: Courtesy)
TV can and must save lives. Such was the subject of a conference entitled "From Hollywood to Tel Aviv" held by the Rothschild-Caesaria School of Communication at Tel Aviv University last week. The event, which included a live video conference with writers and producers of well-known Hollywood shows such as Law and Order, Desperate Housewives and ER, sought to discuss the growing world of "edutainment" - the use of entertainment programs to educate the public on health and social issues. One of the central aims of the conference, which convened experts who have applied proven "edutainment" techniques in Brazilian soap operas and American TV shows, was to educate Israeli public officials and muster the impetus to bring such techniques to Israeli programming. Conference organizer Dr. Nurit Guttman from TAU's communications department explained that constructive health and education through popular TV shows was seldom used in Israel. "Our purpose is to learn from proven techniques... and begin to implement them here immediately," she said. The field of "edutainment" has proven promising. One of the earlier instances of its success came in 1987 when the American media began using the term "designated driver." A project orchestrated by the Harvard Center for Health Communication at the time sought to inculcate the concept of "designated driver" into the American psyche through popular television shows. With the help of major channels such as NBC, CBS and ABC, popular sitcoms such as The Cosby Show and Cheers began to make nuanced references to the term in its episodes. Soon "designated drivers" became familiar to the American public. By 1991, the term was a household phrase recognized by nine out of 10 Americans. The successful media campaign by Harvard didn't only impact the American public. Here in Israel, a massive public campaign in the mid-90s introduced the term "nahag toran" - designated driver. Although the campaign fell short of reaching entertainment outlets, surveys carried out by the Transportation Ministry showed a steep reduction in drunk drivers following the campaign. The lesson to be learned from the Harvard initiative, which spurred a universal change in behavior, explained Vicki Beck, a participant at the conference and director emeritus of the Hollywood, Health & Society (HHS) Program at the University of Southern California, is that people learn from television. And if the message is health education, TV has the potential to save lives. "We know that TV shows play a major role in the lives of people in the US and in Israel as well," said Beck. "More importantly, the people who are not in this room right now, the ones who are usually less aware of health issues, watch TV at higher rates than the average population. TV is the main platform through which we can educate them." The CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, aired in more than 130 countries to millions of viewers, is the most widely viewed in the world. Shows with such a large viewership hold inestimable power - the power to entertain, of course, but also to educate. In 2001, led by an effort of Population Communications International (PCI) - a non-profit group that pioneered the use of soap operas to educate the impoverished - the writers of The Bold and the Beautiful decided to inject health education into their show. In one episode, the character Tony tells his girlfriend, Kristen, that he is HIV-positive. Following a particularly emotional scene, a toll-free number for a disease control center provided by the show received an influx of more than 5,000 calls. The downside to "edutainment," of course, is that there is a fine line between helping TV show writers get their facts straight and imposing on a show's creative freedom. While people in the field of health communications don't stand to make economic gains on "edutainment," they must be careful not to "cramp" the writers' creativity. Davhi Waller, story editor for Desperate Housewives, says it's all about the approach. When the show writers decided they were going to give one of the characters lymphoma, they sought expertise on the subject. "Originally Desperate Housewives was resistant to HHS briefing us, [but] they came to us with a cooperative, win-win attitude. They help us get accuracy on our show, while we get viewers to learn about something health-related." Ken Storer, a writer for Law & Order, explained that TV show writers bear a great deal of responsibility. "People learn a lot from television. It is a huge responsibility for shows like ER and Law & Order, which are watched by millions of people worldwide, to educate people properly. We have the power to teach people the facts correctly." Conference participant Liora Walinsky, director of Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine at Maccabi Health Services, argued that the event couldn't have been timelier. Israel has recently seen a surge in sexually transmitted diseases, tobacco intake and drug-usage among youth. "Giving out educational pamphlets won't do the trick anymore. Kids use them to make paper airplanes," said Walinsky. "Israel is ready for education in popular entertainment."