Friday, April 6, 2012

The Soap Operas Begin

The soap operas begin…(sorry, no pictures this time)

A while ago I wrote about Population Media Center (PMC) and their work using soap operas to change behavior.  This past week I had the privilege of observing their training session for the people who will write the scripts for the two radio soap operas to be broadcast here in Burkina Faso.  The 24 participants are people who have applied for the position of script writer. Based on their experience and credentials, they were chosen as the finalists and this week is their training in the Sabido methodology that PMC uses to produce these serial dramas to change behavior.  After four and a half days learning about the Sabido method they each created a 5 minute radio script. This was the basis of the final decision about who the writers will be. 

The workshop was facilitated by Kriss Barker and a number of people who worked on PMC soap operas in other African countries including Mali, Rwanda, and Senegal.  Based on how well the writers have understood the method, and how creative they are, PMC will select the four best writers who know Djula and the four best writers who know Moore, creating two teams who will write the two different soap operas.  As I have mentioned before, Burkina Faso has many different ethnic groups and each group has its own language.  People want to preserve their ethnic identity so they speak that language at home and teach it to their children, leaving it to the schools to teach the kids French. Also, people who did not go to school or who did not succeed in school often only understand their local language. The target audience for the soap operas is mostly the rural population, who do not have access to TV and who may not have learned French in school.

The first day introduced the general idea of soap operas to change behavior, but the biggest part of the day was devoted to a report of the formative research that was conducted.  The researchers used several methods to get information.  Probably the most important was the use of focus groups to find out what people believe about certain issues. In selecting the participants they tried to get representatives of all sectors of society. What the people in the groups said was recorded and transcribed so the script writers will be able to look over what people said and adopt the words and phrases real people used when talking about the issues.  This is important because it makes the characters more real and like the folks next door.

The opinions expressed by the participants in the focus groups were analyzed and basic attitudes expressed were summarized to give a general picture of how people of various ages and both sexes feel about the various topics. One question was, “what is the family?” People said that there is the linear family, those related to you by blood, but there is also the extended family that includes relatives by marriage and distant cousins. Even close friends and neighbors may be considered to be brothers and sisters here and are thus part of the family in this sense. I have noticed this here, where someone will introduce a good friend as his brother or sister.  I sometimes ask later whether that was a “real” brother or sister and often find out it was a close friend, who is like a brother or sister to the person.

In spite of modernization, traditional views of the roles of men and women remain.  People say that men are the “chief” or head of the family and make all the important decisions for the family.  The role of women is to obey their husbands, have children, and take care of the household. They are always expected to be submissive. Because of their vulnerability, they need to be protected by the man. The role of the children is to help with tasks and to obey their parents. Children are considered to be the wealth of the family. These attitudes were expressed by both men and women.

The researchers also did an analysis of the existing research on some of the major issues and my favorite finding was the average number of children Burkina Faso women have, depending on their education.  Women who have no schooling have an average of 6.5 children, women completing primary school have an average of 4.9 children, women who finish secondary school have an average of 3.4 children and women who complete college have an average of 2.4 children. Educating women is one of the best ways of slowing population growth.

The Sabido method uses melodrama as the basic theatrical form.  In a melodrama there is a clearly bad person, and a clearly good person.  The Sabido method adds a transitional character, one who struggles to make a change of behavior throughout the series. This person is influenced by the bad person to behave in a bad way and by the good person to behave in a good way.  This is the critical character, the one with whom you want the listeners to identify and the person whose behavior you want them to adopt.

The Sabido method actually creates long running serial dramas rather than soap operas.  While soap operas can run for 20 years, the serial dramas have a long but limited run, usually a year and a half to two years.  It has to last long enough to let listeners see the change in the behavior of the transitional character over time, and to see that character facing some of the difficulties in making a change in behavior and how those problems can be overcome.  That helps show people how to deal with problems they are likely to experience if they also try to make a change in their behavior.

In the Sabido method, you start with the theme, or problem you wish to address.  This leads you to an idea about the behavior you want to change, but you need to do the formative research to confirm or change your focus.  For example, a campaign aimed at married women to help them avoid AIDS will do little good if they are contracting it from husbands who become infected while working in the city or another country.  The behavior you have to change is really that of the husbands and not the wives, so your transitional character has to be a man and the program has men as the target audience.

After you are sure of the behavior you want to change, you make a “values” grid, listing the values that would be held by the negative character and the values that would be held by the positive character. Only after you have the values clearly in mind do you identify who the three important characters will be and begin to make a plot line. This is completely backwards from the way most script writers approach writing.  They usually start with a story idea and develop characters after they have the basic plot. That is the reason for the week long training in this method.

In reality, each serial drama has three or four different themes that move along in parallel throughout the series. Sometimes they intersect, but most of the time each plot line is separate. Each group of characters has to be introduced and the audience has to be hooked on the story before you get to the place in the story where the behavior of the transitional character starts to change. The audience must recognize the good character as good, the bad character as bad, and find the transitional character to be likeable and realistic. The bad character must be really bad, but not despicable.  That is, the bad character has to clearly believe that his or her behavior is not bad, but completely justified.

Once the plan for the show is made and the first few episodes are written, they are tested with audiences to see if people are reacting to the characters in the expected way.  Kriss told about a time when the writers had a negative character who was a man who beat his wife and spent a lot of money drinking.  The script writers thought they had developed a character was clearly bad, but the test audience thought his behavior was normal. This kind of testing to see that the program is working as it should is carried on throughout its production and the characters and plot may need to be adjusted.  That is why these writers will be hired for two years, although they might be able to produce scripts for the number of episodes needed in less time.  They need to make adjustments as the show is broadcast, to be sure it has the greatest effect possible.

Because the writers selected for these jobs will have employment for two years, I am sure the competition will be keen.  I was wondering if this competition among the potential writers would result in hostility between them, but as far as I can see folks get along well. I don’t know who I would hope to get the jobs.  I like them all.  It has been a real pleasure to meet so many bright and talented people all in the same place! This is, of course, just a summary of the highlights of the training, but I found it fascinating and was grateful for the chance to see the training done.

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