TV: The World's Next Superhero?

Old-fashioned tv
Old-fashioned tv

For all the hype about the power and impact of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Snapchat, the television set remains the most far-reaching and influential global communication medium in today's lucrative yet ever-shifting media world. Social media boasts of users in the hundreds of millions, but the TV still has a phenomenal reach amongst our planet's 7 billion souls. Whether it is in the corner of our cozy living rooms or hooked up via shared wiring along a row of slums in Caracas or placed front and center in a community hall in Delhi, it is ubiquitous in its worldwide digital reach.

With this kind of power comes responsibility. What television can provide, in ways 140 characters or less cannot, is an opportunity to change not only attitudes but also positively influence behaviours. While social media platforms are increasingly being harnessed for charitable and campaigning purposes -- such as the Ice Bucket Challenge of summer 2014 -- TV is still called upon to successfully deliver programming with the emotional engagement necessary to create behaviour change. Just as a superhero is "a fictional figure having superhuman powers or greatly enhanced abilities, usually portrayed as fighting evil or crime," so can TV use its power and scope to fight something equally as malignant: complacency and ignorance. In this case, educating key constituencies in developing countries about HIV and AIDS. With that definition of superhero, MTV Shuga proves just that. At its base, MTV Shuga is a television series that portrays the lives and loves of a group of young people in Kenya (Series 1-2) and Nigeria (Series 3-4), while at the same time weaving vital messages related to HIV and other important sexual health messages into the storylines.

But it is so much more than that. Shuga is a ground-breaking TV program that uses a 360-degree approach -- the campaign also produces a radio drama, a website, social media platforms, mobile interfaces, free-phone helplines, a graphic novel, peer education, and touring Shuga festivals -- that aims to alter people's attitudes, and ultimately promote behavior change. Our goal in producing and broadcasting Shuga is not only to teach adolescents and young adults through a medium they will not roll their eyes at, but also to direct them to the health services they need, and give them easy opportunities to take action to protect themselves. As we mark World AIDS Day, the grim fact remains that Sub-Saharan Africa has cornered the market in superlative statistics about HIV/AIDS: the highest HIV infection rate in the world, the highest mortality rate from AIDS; more than two-thirds (25.8 million) of all people living with HIV, live in Sub-Sahara Africa -- including 88 percent of the world's HIV-positive children.

But Shuga is armed with its own set of superlatives in the fight against this killer. Shuga reaches 719 million TV homes across 72 countries, and a further 42 million individuals through social media. It touches every continent apart from Antarctica. It is given away to 158 broadcasters around the world and is produced by the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, rights-cleared and cost-free due to grants and support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, PEPFAR, UNICEF and the governments of Nigeria and Kenya, to name a few. Most importantly, the show has accessed the millennial generation in a way where they will listen.

How do they do this? A common theme throughout all 4 series of MTV Shuga is that of the importance of knowing your HIV status. Characters from all series, including 'Ayira' (played by the Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong'o in her first starring role), 'Leo', 'April', 'Femi', 'Sophie', 'Ekene', 'Foye', 'Princess' and 'Leila' have all been tested for HIV because of their actions (with Femi and Princess the only two to test positive). There are clear lessons learnt by all the characters, regardless of their status, and these storylines in particular see huge engagement with the audience, who have told Shuga how "Femi's storyline inspired me, and after watching Shuga, I went to get tested, because I wanted to know my status" (male, 18, Lagos).

Since MTV launched, it has understood the importance of supporting and promoting the social causes our young fans care about. And we've tapped into the market in an effective way. One nineteen-year-old recently said "It's like Shuga has a classroom of 700 million to reach out to, and impact." A far cry from teachers in a classroom handing out condoms or advocating abstinence.

The show's influence has been documented in several studies since it first launched, including Johns Hopkins University (2010) which looked at attitudinal changes due to Shuga. More than 60 percent of young Nairobians had watched the first series and of those who watched it, more than 80 percent said they would get tested for HIV and that they would have less multiple concurrent partners as a result. And a recent poll in Nigeria reported that one in five young Nigerians who watched the show got tested as a result. What all this tells us is that Shuga significantly increases HIV testing in control groups and positively changes the attitudes towards people living with HIV. MTV Shuga is opening the minds of a generation, and they are showing that they're willing to listen and act upon it.

As digital signals find it easier to reach the most remote villages, and the world continues to shrink as a result, television can make a difference and influence behavior change in a positive way. Like superheroes who set out with moral purpose to fight crime and overcome evil, television just might be capable of changing the direction of HIV and AIDS, an 'evil enemy' we all would like to see conquered.