Ronald F. Johnson works with at-risk boys and teenage fathers at the
National Family Life & Education Center in Los Angeles. To his
surprise, he often finds his boys rushing back from school, not just to
take part in the many programs and activities his organization offers,
but to watch soap operas.
“I work with guys who carry guns. I work with guys who sell dope. And those same guys watch One Life to Live. They all like Carlos from this soap opera. So they're rushing home 'cause they gotta watch Carlos, 'cause they down with Carlos. He's a bad guy. But he's cool, I understand.”
After a bit of thought, Johnson adds, “So if Carlos would use a condom, we would get a lot of mileage out of this.”
Johnson isn't the only one to recognize the power of daytime serial dramas, for better or worse. Studies show Americans spending up to one-third of their free time in front of the tube; the average teenager spends more time watching TV than sleeping. In the daytime serial dramas favored by junior and senior high school students, the name of the game is entertainment, with all of the sex, scandal, and intrigue that entails. Each weekday, viewers are transported to a world where everyone is thin and Hollywood beautiful, cases of total amnesia are common but not incurable, people in comas are always picture perfect, and romance reigns supreme.
Unfortunately for impressionable young viewers, safe sex often does not. In one study cited by Advocates for Youth, adolescents actually mimicked the sexual themes of the soap operas they watched. In other words, if their favorite soap characters use condoms during sex, teenage viewers are likely to follow suit. The average daytime drama contains more than three sexual acts per hour, and research from 1994 showed that out of 50 hours of programming (containing 156 acts of intercourse), only five references were made to contraception or safe sex. The one time HIV/AIDS was mentioned, it was contracted through IV drug use. Frightening numbers from an industry that has such an impact on its viewers.
Armed with these statistics and more, the non-profit Population Communications International (PCI) decided that it was time to impress upon the daytime entertainment industry that it could do better. PCI invited soap opera producers and writers to a series of non-confrontational dialogues on issues of sexuality, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, and overpopulation. The goal of Soap Summits I and II was not to lambast the soap people for putting trash on television, but to encourage writers to use what PCI senior vice president Sonny Fox calls “a unique instrument for changing attitudes and behavior” to its best benefit.
Ronald Johnson and the other speakers at the Soap Summits strongly believe that the daytime writers can have a positive impact. Says Johnson, who works with at-risk teenage fathers in Los Angeles, “Self-image is important. Once we work on self-image, then we work on the vision of ‘what do you really want out of life?' TV helps the boys to construct a vision. And that's not bad. ... But someone has got to tell at-risk kids the truth. It's important to give them access to resources that make their lives productive, to teach young people that you can't play all the time and expect good results.”
Family planning choices
PCI has hard evidence to back up the importance of showing realistic stories and healthy lifestyles on television. The organization has demonstrated the impact of the educational serial drama in over 13 developing countries where women's status, population, and health issues are critical. PCI has collaborated with local media in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Kenya, Brazil, and elsewhere on family planning soaps designed to motivate individuals and communities to make choices that reduce world population growth. These choices include banning dowries, limiting family size through birth control, practicing safe sex, and elevating the status of women.
A recent study shows that 28 percent of new seekers of family planning services in Tanzania cited a PCI radio drama called Twende No Wakati (“Go With the Times” in Kiswahili) as the impetus that drew them to the clinics. Eighty-two percent of the same program's listeners said that the show caused them to change their behavior to prevent AIDS.
And the organization has seen similar results in each of the countries in which its dramas are broadcast. The village of Lutsaan in India recently sent a letter to producers of another PCI family planning soap stating, “All of us listeners of the radio soap vow not to take nor give dowry.”
Poor women whose families could not provide dowries had been “compelled to commit suicide” or were murdered by their husband's families for not bringing enough money into the marriage, the letter said. The villagers credited the soap opera for changing the prevailing attitudes on dowries.
In the same letter, the villagers said, “Our society has to take a new turn in its thinking concerning family size,” a realization they also attributed to the radio drama.
The shows work, says Fox, because the facts in the radio soaps are not dry and passive, but dramatized in a way that gives them “a human face.”
When focusing on the United States, PCI chose not to create an American family planning drama, but to encourage the writers and producers to modify the existing programs. Even the smallest nudge towards responsible behavior by the characters in the soaps, with a collective following of over 40 million people, would have lasting clout.
Dr. Felicia Hance Stewart, a speaker at Soap Summit II from the Kaiser Foundation, cited responses to an 800 number on contraception as an example of the power of popular programs. The hotline was averaging about 130 calls per day until Kaiser decided to advertise it on MTV, the rock music video network. MTV ran a less-than-one- minute clip in the middle of April for two days. The calls jumped to 3,000 per day for that short time frame.
The first Soap Summit, which took place in 1994 in Los Angeles, and its 1996 sequel focused on overpopulation, reproductive health issues, and teenage sexuality. PCI brought in a cadre of experts and government officials, including US Secretary of Health & Human Services Donna Shalala, to speak to the daytime writers and producers, but it was people with a different kind of expertise that really brought the message home.
Daniel Taveras (see sidebar), a member of a teen father panel from Soap Summit II, admitted to being an avid soap opera viewer before he became a father at age 15. He admonished the producers and writers for making issues like teen parenting unrealistically simple.
“The soaps ain't real. They make it seem like two kids have a child, okay, they get married, and everything ends up good now.”
After having his own child, Taveras realized just how wrong the TV-land version of parenthood was. Soaps, he feels, could help young people understand the difficulties of teen parenting. “If you're going to make a soap,” he says, “make it seem like, yo, that could happen to me.”
Another panelist, Raymond Rios, age 17, sat with his one-year-old son on his lap and agreed with Taveras. “When it comes down to young kids having kids? That's real serious. And you really can't play with no situation like that. On the soaps it seems like a fairy tale that they're in love. ... It's not really like that.”
The third panelist, 21-year-old Max Soto, whose three children range in age from one to five, pointed out that in the soaps, kids disappear when they're no longer needed for the plot. “When a child is in a soap, all of a sudden the child gotta go somewhere, and you never see the child again. I mean, be real, you know what I'm sayin'? Leave the child there. You know, raise the child.”
Although Soto's mother tried to instruct him about birth control, he said that her words were just that – words with very little impact. “My mother used to bring condoms home for me, and I'd just throw ‘em right in the drawer, right in the drawer, right in the drawer,” he says, motioning with his hands. “And it was full – 378 condoms. And I threw ‘em all away as soon as my baby's mother got pregnant.”
Ben Powell, mentor to the three boys and counselor for the Inwood House Young Fathers Program adds, “You know, a condom is just a choice. ... You have to teach young people that they have a certain amount of power. And they have choices.”
Less glamor – more grit
Thanks in part to the powerful messages from the teen fathers, Ronald Johnson, and other speakers, daytime TV couples are now breaking out packages of condoms, characters are living with AIDS, and teenagers are finding that it's socially acceptable for an 18-year-old to be a virgin. Writers from Sunset Beach stated, “We all think twice about the possible ‘messages' we are sending with our story lines, plot points, etc. We found a way to get subtle, positive messages out.”
Writers from All My Children said they were also inspired by the Soap Summits to create more responsible scenes. On one such episode, a teenage couple was thinking about having sex for the first time. Laura was a virgin, and Scott had fathered a child in a previous relationship. At one point, the two are in Scott's living room and things start to get, well, steamy. Laura brings out a condom, and at that opportune moment, Scott's father walks in. Instead of acting scandalized, the father plunks down between them and starts a dialogue about responsible, safe sex and delaying intercourse.
Research performed for PCI showed that the Summits influenced soap writers to create characters with decidedly unglamorous drug or alcohol problems, integrate people overcoming illiteracy into their plots, and examine issues of women and negative body image. Many followed up on the Summits' suggestion of airing toll-free information and referral numbers after shows dealing with such issues as illiteracy, domestic violence, and drugs. All told, seven out of the 10 dramas made modifications directly attributed to the Summit presentations.
Fox says that the Soap Summits will continue because the writers and producers want them to. In the words of Francesca James, executive producer of All My Children, “The Summit focused our caring and made people who are empowered and responsible for creating the information highly sensitive to their responsibilities.”
That's not to say that the fantasy element of the soaps isn't still there. Remember Carlos, the character that Ronald Johnson's boys were following? Well, he died and the actor magically reappeared as his long-lost twin. Weddings are still interrupted at the eleventh hour by presumed-dead spouses, and villains still manage to cheat death in the face of explosions, falls from cliff edges, and fatal car crashes.
However, the Summits have inspired new scenes that insert realistic messages into the fantasy and even foster dialogues between kids and their mentors. Ben Powell recalled an episode from The Young and the Restless: “This guy was cheating on his wife, and the girl, Keisha, she had HIV, and she died. And then it messed up the whole family,” he says. “That whole scene – that was real. That really hit home. I brought a tape of the soap opera in, and we talked about it to the group, because that was something that was concrete that everybody could relate to.”
more information, write to Population Communications International,
4421 Riverside Drive, Suite 204, Burbank, CA 91505. E-mail:
PCIUSA@earthlink.net. Web site: www.population.org
Daniel Taveras, a 17-year-old father with a son, Daniel Jr., age two, described his life to writers and producers during Soap Summit II. This story is taken from a transcript of the Summit.
Ben Powell, Daniel's mentor and counselor at the Inwood House Young Fathers Program in New York City, says that Daniel's newfound maturity is not exceptional among the teen fathers in his program: “Once you help these guys help themselves and deal with their problems – poverty, lack of education, limited knowledge about birth control, unemployment – they can start to care about others, including their children.”
My son's mother was pregnant when I was 14, but she had the baby when I turned 15. I see her every day, almost, but we don't get along. We try to fix our problems, ‘cause we have a son. I have temporary custody until she finishes college. Then he's going back to her.
I had condoms in my pocket, but I didn't think of using them. I heard about ‘em, but I never took the time to learn how you put them on, or anything. I just had them in my pockets, just to say, “I have condoms.” That's it.
I was just 14. When I saw that body, I was just thinking about gettin' busy. There was no condom on my mind, see? I was just thinking about having sex.
In my family, there's never been an abortion. And there's not gonna be one by me. So when I found out my girlfriend was pregnant, I told her, “Keep that child. I'll try to feed him any way possible.” I asked her to keep it. Her mom was gonna make her have an abortion, but I said, “No way.” I took her to my house, and she lived with me for a couple of months.
The first time I told my friends the news, they were like, “Danny, you're the man! You're the man!” And I was feeling glad, ‘cause I was really not thinking.
There are some problems that I can't handle, ‘cause, you know, I never had a father. But there's so much love between me and my son, it's kinda easy for me. I never had a father, but I love my son so much, I can understand everything. I can understand when he's hungry, when he's feeling sad, when he needs his mother. I understand everything.
My child is why I'm going to school and why I'm working. ‘Cause before I didn't have no life at all. I dropped out of school. I was just in the street. I think my child came into this world to make me realize that life ain't no joke. Since my kid came into this world, the first thing I said, “My kid's not gonna be on welfare.” He's not on welfare yet. He has a father with a body. Talk of working, busting my ass.... I'm still gonna make money for my son. He's never gonna be on welfare. Because he has a father.
I use condoms now. A condom is sort of about respect. Back then, I didn't respect the woman, ‘cause I didn't know nothing about it. But now I think, even if my girl loves me and she don't want to bring up the condom, I use it, ‘cause even if I don't like it, I respect her body, and now I wouldn't like nothin' to happen to it.