From soap opera

Can soap operas solve our problems?

Mark Fowler in Eastenders who was HIV+

The UK television soap opera Eastenders celebrates its 30th anniversary this week. Which is a good an excuse as any to look at how soap operas can be used to give advice.

What’s a soap opera?
I’m guessing you’ll be familiar with, and perhaps a fan of, soap operas. But if you’re not sure what they are they’re a drama on radio, television, or more recently online. Where interlinking stories show the lives of different characters. Often, although not always, based around a particular town, business or area. The name ‘soap opera’ originates from these early dramas being sponsored by soap manufacturers.

Arthur Fowler struggled with mental health problems

What can soaps offer us?
Aside from entertainment and distraction from every day life, the often unrecognized role of soap operas includes company. The characters in a soap opera and their regular scheduling on TV or radio can either fill the role of family or be an addition to your family. This may be of particular benefit to those who are socially isolated, including stay at home parents, carers, older people, or those who are housebound.

When it comes to advice giving, soaps can play an additional role of education, and outreach. They have been used worldwide through television and radio serials to cover anything from farming advice to dealing with landmines or information about immunization programmes and safer childbirth.

 

Teenage pregnancy and paternity issues in Eastenders

The way advice giving via soap operas has developed is either as a serial specifically developed to raise awareness, usually funded by an NGO or charity – for example New Home, New Life in Afghanistan (radio) or Soul City in South Africa (television). Or where an existing soap opera links with a charity or organization to bring in a particular storyline where an issue is focused on.

This can result in highlighting issues that may not always be noticed or talked about. For Eastenders some storyline examples have included:

Mental distress, mental health problems and break down
Gay and lesbian relationships
Teenage pregnancyLittle Mo is a victim of Trevor's abuse
Drug and alcohol abuse
Domestic violence
Historic child sexual abuse
Infant death
Assisted suicide

 

How are issue-based storylines assumed to work?

The reasoning behind covering a particular issue within a soap opera is primarily to raise awareness. Viewers with a problem may feel less lonely or isolated if they see another character going through what they have experienced. It may alert people that help is available and encourage them to make use of support services, charities or healthcare. Particularly if programmes signpost to other sources of help (websites, telephone helplines etc) at the close of each episode.

Kat Slater was abused as a child

People may also be able to model their behaviour based on what they see characters in soaps doing (or decide to do the opposite). While a storyline may make others aware of issues and problems and give them ideas on how to support friends/family who may be in need.

Having characters that audiences relate to going through problems in life may reduce stigma, as viewers or listeners will want their favourite characters to be okay (for example a character to escape a situation of domestic violence). Or familiarize audiences with individuals or issues they may have previously been intolerant about. Such as a gay or lesbian couple, a character with disabilities, a Transgender character, or an ethnic minority family.

Couple Colin and Barry

A storyline on a particular problem also allows charities or other organisations to talk to other news and entertainment media which both raises the profile of an issue and/or those who are best placed to offer support if it affects viewers. Which in turn might also increase support and donation to charities.

 

Yes, but do soap operas really manage this?

Criticisms of soaps are they mix so many issues, cliffhangers and melodrama across storylines that particular problem based themes can get missed out or perhaps not taken as seriously as they should be. It’s no coincidence that all the very worst crises in soaps seem to coincide with important holidays or peak viewing times (in the case of Eastenders the Christmas episodes are usually particularly eventful). And with soaps competing between each other for viewing figures, the pressure to find different problems to bring into storylines can mean audiences are fatigued by or inured against topics they may benefit from paying attention to.

Ethel asks Dot to help her end her life

The impact of soap opera problem-based storylines on our daily lives has mixed results. Some stories appear to have more of an impact than others. Which can be partly based on how they are portrayed, the popularity of the characters, how convincing the actors are, and how sympathetically audiences respond to characters and issues shown.

Some have argued performances can reinforce, rather than challenge stereotypes For example in Eastenders, Arthur Fowler’s breakdown was greeted with mixed reactions as some felt it showed an overly dramatic and frightening portrayal of mental distress, while others believed it realistically showed someone in crisis.

Or in order to boost ratings, storylines can be embellished in ways that could harm those affected by the very issue they’re trying to raise awareness about. In Eastenders this was most recently shown in the storyline where the character Ronnie Branning experienced the death of her child to SIDS later responded to this trauma by abducting another character’s baby. Unsurprisingly viewers, many of them affected by cot death themselves, angrily reacted to the idea that bereaved parents were unstable, dangerous and a risk to children.

Ronnie and baby

Overall the impact of issue-based storylines tends to be short term. These stories will raise awareness during the time they are being aired, but may not be recalled once the drama has moved on. Moreover knowing that an issue has been covered in a soap does not always relate to any meaningful behaviour change. We might be able to say which character’s been through which problem but we don’t necessarily use that to make any useful changes in our own lives.

Driving attention to charities and services can be a beneficial aspect of issue-based storylines but can also increase the burden on services and charities from people wanting their help. While bringing them no additional financial benefits.

Where charities and NGOs are involved with soap opera storylines they may assume this partnership is enough of an activity and do no further work to evaluate impact or sustain public attention or engagement. They may have the noble idea of ‘increasing awareness’ but have no sense of what that awareness might entail, how to measure its impact, or how to support people once they are more aware of a topic.

Phil Mitchell struggles with alcohol and drug addiction

When are they effective?
Although issues-based storylines don’t always ‘work’ it would be wrong to dismiss both the popularity of the soap opera generally, and the impact some storylines have had.

While some organisations and media outlets may prefer short-term storylines and impact, for major issues the best way to bring about greater awareness and behaviour change is through ongoing, sustained messaging. Soul City in South Africa is an example of how this can work. It is highly effective both as an entertaining soap that has run for decades but keeps within it core messaging around HIV. One-off storylines can be effective in the short term but don’t tend to have long-term impact.

If you’re working in media, healthcare, or for an NGO or charity and want to introduce an issue to a soap opera you’ll be more likely to make a difference if you:
– diligently research audiences before storylines are introduced to identify specific issues they might be helped to know more about
– develop characters and storylines to appeal to viewers or listeners so audiences can relate to characters going through/representing particular issues and engage more actively with story lines
– make careful links between those with expert understanding of an issue (patient groups/support networks/charities) and those able to translate this into a believable storyline
– support stories with additional materials – a website, cartoon, links to helplines etc
– have clear outcomes for impact from the outset. What behaviour do you want to change and how do you want to change it? If you want to raise awareness how do you want to do this and for what purpose? How can you build this into programming, enable it further through multimedia platforms, and most importantly how will you assess whatever work you do to see what effect storylines have?

As mentioned previously on this site, bad advice giving tends to tell us what to do not how to do it, which is the trap I’ve fallen into above. So, in the tradition of all good soap operas, all of the ideas on how to actually make an issues-based soap opera will be covered in a future episode….