Edutainment – making it work

The idea of educating through entertainment is appealing, but it’s tricky to get the balance just right. As Terese has noted, Sesame Street got it right in the USA. The BBC got it right with The Archers in the UK. And it has worked in South Africa for Soul City – a multimedia health programme that I was privileged to work on in the nineties.

Soul City was the brainchild of a young doctor, Garth Japhet, who  had seen babies dying unnecessarily of dehydration, abused women who were too ashamed to tell the doctor the real reasons for their injuries, and patients who had contracted HIV through ignorance. Believing that if information could be put across in an emotionally engaging way, people would be moved to change their behaviour, Japhet and his colleagues set up Soul City as a non-governmental organisation. At the heart of their programme was a television soap opera, with each episode containing a well-crafted health message skillfully embedded within a highly dramatic script. The TV show is backed up by newspaper inserts in national newspapers as well as radio shows in nine languages, and pamphlets and posters distributed via clinics around the country.

Today Soul City has over 35 million viewers in eight countries, and the organisation has gathered an impressive body of evidence through ongoing evaluations to show that the programme has caused behaviour change on a significant scale. Its founder, Japhet, recently won the USA-based Everett M. Rogers Award for Achievement in Entertainment Education.

What is it that has made Soul City such a successful example of the edutainment genre? There are at least four factors, I think.

Firstly, the Soul City developers go to great lengths to understand honestly the needs and views of the audience – many of whom will recognise their own stories in the serial. So for example,  they dealt with the domestic violence story in a highly nuanced and sensitive way, showing Matlakala as a sophisticated professional woman (not the stereotype abused working-class woman), and showing how the drama is played out between both families, and not just the couple.

Secondly, Soul City uses a cross-disciplinary team to develop the content. I participated in workshops with social workers, medical doctors, police officers, counsellors and religious leaders, to develop the primary health messages. Educational people were in the minority at these workshops.

Thirdly, the Soul City television show has consistently used the best actors, directors and producers in the country. The show is worth watching in its own right, and the viewer engages with the “messages” primarily on an emotional level. (This is perhaps where the medium is at its most powerful.)

Finally, Soul City and their funders have a commitment to building in evaluation to every stage in every cycle of the programme. The evaluation carried out amongst Soul City’s viewers, listeners and readers is rigorous, and feedback obtained in this way is literally fed back into the programme to enhance further its impact.

So if anyone out there thinks education and entertainment don’t go together, I hope I have persuaded you otherwise!

Gabi Witthaus

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