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The rise of edutainment: taking stock of the evidence

Sonia Whitehead

Head of Research Programmes, BBC Media Action

Around the world, growing numbers of people have more and more access to endless distractions. Global smartphone ownership is on the rise. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, the number of Nigerians going online multiple times a day increased by 20%. Entertainment companies are increasingly global in their ambitions; take Netflix for example, which hopes to emulate the success of its Brazilian operation – estimated to have attracted 4 to 5 million subscribers – in a host of other countries.

In this age of media overload, you can’t simply present people with unadorned facts when trying to convince them to make healthier choices or get involved in politics. They’ll simply switch off and find something more interesting to read, watch or listen to.

Enter ‘edutainment’, the buzzword for carefully designing media both to entertain and educate, which is the bread and butter of what Media Action does.  

What does the cutting edge of edutainment look like?

We pioneered edutainment for HIV prevention over a decade ago with Story Story, a radio drama about a fictional Nigerian market that’s still on air today.

From the ‘Afghan Archers’ to our Syrian soap opera, we use drama to encourage people to hold their leaders to account, question why women face restrictions, and foster a sense of shared identity – among much else. We’ve consistently found that good scripts are key to keeping audiences tuning in, as well as delivering a message without preaching.

Of course, we’re not the only ones in this space. Commissioned for eight series, Love Patrol was the first TV series ever produced in Vanuatu. It tackled a range of issues from unemployment to government corruption to HIV/AIDS.

MTV has brought its brand to Shuga, a series that aims to improve the sexual and reproductive health of young people. The success of MTV Shuga shows that public health messaging and popularity aren't mutually exclusive.

And Shuga certainly seem to be doing something right. Forty-two African countries have signed up to broadcast the latest season and it’s been the number one drama on South Africa’s biggest TV channel, SABC1, proving it can compete with commercial big-hitters.

What have evaluations proven about the value of drama?

But well-produced and fact-driven stories aside, what do edutainment programmes actually deliver in terms of measureable outcomes?

Our first-ever randomised control trial (RCT) can offer some answers. The trial was conducted in Bangladesh and assessed whether watching our health drama and companion discussion show influenced people. We found that women who watched the drama knew more about antenatal and early newborn care. They also were more likely to believe they could make healthier choices.

Victor Orozco, a World Bank economist deeply involved with a multi-partner evaluation of MTV Shuga, has come to praise edutainment as one of the most cost-effective ways of getting people to do things differently. Conducted in Nigeria with 5,000 young people, the evaluation found that those who had watched the show in community screenings were twice as likely to go for an HIV test half a year later. Viewers were 35% less likely to think that HIV is a punishment for having multiple partners. Among women, chlamydia infections dropped by 58%.

However, the study also highlighted that viewers felt sympathy for a character who committed domestic violence. This finding demonstrates the importance of media development organisations systematically checking audience responses to their programmes.

What’s the wider significance of these results?  

Rigorous evaluation is key to building the evidence base around the role of drama in development and deciding what to scale up.

I recently attended a workshop in Lagos organised by the World Bank’s Development Impact Evaluation unit (DIME), which brought together government officials, academics, NGOs and the media to plan RCTs to test the effectiveness of health initiatives. Two of the five concept notes included a media component, showing growing recognition that the effectiveness of communication should be assessed.

Demonstrating the kind of impact media can have, actors from our Story Story show played out a scene about buying condoms from a local store. Hilarity ensued as the characters struggled to say the word ‘condom’ and resorted to using a range of pseudonyms instead, which the shop owner didn’t understand.  

This scene sparked a lively debate. Although the people attending the conference were from different backgrounds, nearly everyone could relate what they’d seen to their own personal experiences of nervously buying condoms in public. It’s a case in point about how stories can spark meaningful discussion of real-life issues, which might otherwise be difficult to bring up in conversation.

A lot is still unknown about the exact role of edutainment in development. How effective are public service announcements at engaging people versus street theatre? What’s the most potent combination of media interventions to improve health or boost people’s engagement with politics? The jury is still out on these questions but one thing is for sure, the big hitters of the development world are increasingly committed to finding out the answers.

Sonia Whitehead is BBC Media Action's Head of Research Programmes, overseeing research across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Correction 27 July 2017: This blog originally noted that MTV Shuga viewers were 43% more likely to think that HIV is a punishment for having multiple partners. This has been corrected to say that they are 35% less likely.

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