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'It is criminal for TV not to think of social change' - PMC's Kriss Barker

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For most programming executives and management in TV companies today, television is all about running on a treadmill chasing ratings, viewership, and the concomitant revenues, followed by the next bonus and promotion. Every trick in the creative book and outside it is resorted to, to keep the ratings of a show on a high.

Hence, it comes as a breath of fresh air when one comes across a senior media professional who does not care much about ratings or twisted elongated plots, rather focuses on helping the creation of TV and radio content with meaning, which has an impact on society and sparks off social change. US-born Population Media Centre vice-president international Kriss Barker has been behind creative initiatives on TV and radio in 56 countries over her 20-year career.

She is in India at the invitation of a Hong Kong-based financing and production house and Indiantelevision.com’s founder Anil Wanvari to train Indian TV writers to produce entertainment education, which is based on the PMC Methodology. The latter itself is based on the Sabido scriptwriting methodology, which has been used to write television shows in about 80 languages and more than a 100 countries. The workshop is underway in Mumbai currently and ends on 3 December. Indiantelevision.com ‘s Kirti Chauhan got into a conversation with Barker – who is a PhD in public health  and has made Cape Town South Africa as her home , but travels 300 days each year, preaching the gospel of television with purpose – on the importance of TV as a medium to spark social change and how it can be done in India. Excerpts:

What are the factors behind your shift from being a health practitioner to a media practitioner and scriptwriter trainer?

My background is in public health and I have spent a lot of time working on public health inventions. And you find that you are spending so much time treating illness and diseases which are preventable. Public health has avoided doing it for years. We are treating conditions at the very end of the situation, rather than at the beginning. We do not focus so much on prevention, rather we have our eyes on treatment.

When I found this powerful communication tool, which we call the Sabido or PMC methodology, it really helps to motivate change that can lead to prevention using media.

Miguel Sabido – a TV researcher from Televisa in Mexico in the sixties and seventies – created this methodology, which focuses not on the story – but the social issue or problem. The story comes last. First, I first need to get ‘what’ is the real problem, and ‘why’ does that problem exist. And then look at ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ values that people in society hold around that. We need to honour these values and we need to integrate those people holding those into the TV show’s script and let those voices be heard.  Sabido or PMC methodology believes there are three characters every story or TV show has: positive, negative, and transitional. The transitional character is the one who has the journey – it is the one, the audience has to identify with. That is the doubting character, who does not know what to do. The positive and negative role models are almost like archetypes – they are too bad and too good to relate to me, but the one in the middle is exactly like me. He or she is the one I relate to.

In Toilet Ek Prem Katha, the father is the negative character, the daughter is the positive one, and Akshay Kumar is the transitional. You love him.  All three are needed to help tell a story that in turn helps influence and bring about the desired social change.

There are socially relevant shows being made on TV? What’s so special about a Sabido methodology show?

A lot of people think they are doing social shows but this is not done effectively. I think it because only some (not all of them) of a whole gamut of theories and golden rules have been captured and used in these shows. You feel you have mastered the techniques but the fact is that you have not mastered the refinements. And you know that a lot of these programmes fail because of this. People have made music videos, short films around responsible parenting etc. Over the years, what we have learnt is that it needs to be a long running TV series, it needs to be a serial drama. You can’t do this in film or documentary, music video or a short number of episodes. You can’t cut short this; everybody is looking at a shortcut. But like in life, you get what you put in and hence, they have failed.

When we go into a country we do a lot of formative research which helps creative people, the writers, to understand the realities of the situation of the social issues. But we have to be very careful all along the way. For example, we design a show about women inequality, women’s empowerment, the question is how far do you go before women say: no, no, that’s not me! So you have to take it a little bit aspirational, but you can’t take it too far or it is no longer believable.  And it is no longer even desirable.

How important is it for TV channels and OTT platforms in the modern world to engage in social change shows? Why should they do it?

It is criminal not to. Media is such an important powerful tool, and it has been misused a lot. We just play with it. And then we get things like the Columbine shooting or people going and shooting a cinema because they saw it in a movie or in a TV show.

If you want to make a powerful product even more popular, make it more relatable. That’s the big disconnect. That is why the biggies are losing to Netflix and Hulu in the US because the former decide what they want people to see and they forgot that people really want to see themselves.

What are the challenges you have faced?

Funding is the big challenge. For example, a radio programme running at least twice a week over a year needs at least 104 episodes. In television, it is at least for a season. However, to get an investor or donor to commit to that is challenging. A radio show of that duration in Africa takes around $1.5-2 million. This is a lot of money for even a donor or investor, or a bucket of investors. They would rather do billboards or a comic book is what we hear sometimes.  The biggest challenge is to convince the investors that if they really want mass change on a big scale, this approach is cost effective as you can reach out to millions of people.

How receptive have television stations and research been to using television as a tool for changing society?

They are getting more so now because they have started realising that by not doing this, they would lose the market. For example, we are currently negotiating with Televisa Mexican, they are struggling (especially younger market) to find a way to get back into the market because of Netflix. We come in, and we say that the way to get back that market is to make a show about them.

We had a hit show in LA, East Los High and the reason behind its popularity was that it was the only show ever produced in LA by Latinos and for Latinos. The whole production and acting cast and crew were Latinos. That’s the first this had ever happened. It seems nuts to me because this was in East LA where the majority of the population is Latino. People will watch shows of a lower production quality as long as they see themselves in the characters and the story. Like in Nollywood where the production quality is not great, but some of them connect so well.

You have had a legacy relationship with India? Can you elaborate?

Our predecessor organisation worked here many years ago and helped produce Hum Log, Humrahi on Doordarshan. Since about 2003, we have been wanting to get into India and just haven’t managed to get any inroads. Right now, we have been engaged by south-east Asian investment organisation One Talk Media and then they partnered with Indiantelevision.com. We are training some of the writers in our methodology and we hope to carry something to fruition with the two partners. India is a sophisticated market like Mexico and the US, and this is a model we will follow here. 

 Tell us about your reason to enter India.

We have been trying to get into India for a long time - it’s a huge-huge market. The reason behind PMC is to try and create a sustainable population for the world. Whether you like it or not, India has a huge demographic impact on world sustainability. So, to be here and looking at societal behaviour change and looking at family planning and population dynamics, looking at women’s empowerment, children’s health - these are exactly the kind of things we need to be doing in a huge powerhouse like India.

Have you ever cast big stars or are you planning to cast in your social issues related shows?

We tend not to. And one of the reasons is cost. Our shows are trying to be a slice of life. We want you to believe that these are real people and if you get a big star or a known person, whether for the radio voice over or for a TV show, our viewers are not going to believe that the character is real no matter how good the actor is. So, we tend to take younger, less known voices and faces because we can make him who you want him to be.

How effective has the Sabido method been in attaining its objective of social change?

50 of the 55 shows that have been made using the Sabido or PMC methodology have achieved the desired social change objective. So the method works. The four or five that did not work was because we deviated from the methodology or put them in the wrong time slot.

We lowered the fertility rate in Ethiopia by over a child and a half in a period of two and a half year period.  So it works.

What is the relevance of societal change in a world of so much audio-video content? What role can it really play?

A couple of things. Identification is big, these shows are built around that. So it’s entertainment that has a purpose and I feel most of us, I believe, like to be entertained. We want to go in that space where we can just relax, not want to think, but at the same time most of us like learning something. There is no preaching. These are ‘educational’ shows, social change content shows but we are not doing a good job if anybody recognises it to be that. For instance, a viewer in Africa should not tell me that the show is about female genital mutilation. Rather she should tell me it is about Fatima (a character) who had a rough time in her life. Just the educational content should be a part of the entertaining story. If you can build a story about someone who is like ‘me,’ then you have me in. 

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