MTV Shuga: Television That Changes Lives
Television serves as one of life’s biggest sources of entertainment, but sometimes we forget how much of a changemaker it can actually be. MTV has always been a staple in this kind of “edutainment” style of programming, with its array of reality shows that plunge into real-life issues that teenagers grapple with day in and day out. The force behind much of the network’s footprint in this type of behavior-changing content is the MTV Staying Alive Foundation--MTV’s international and grant-giving initiative dedicated to HIV prevention.
Throughout the past nineteen years, the foundation has morphed from airing one-off documentaries to producing shows in developing countries that end up saving lives. MTV Shuga, which was screened at NCTA earlier this year, is one of those shows that has proven to be life-changing for millions of viewers. In an interview with NCTA, Georgia Arnold, executive director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation and the senior vice president of social responsibility for MTV Networks International, shared how this particular show has not only strengthened the work of the foundation, but also made a difference worldwide.
"Our content has changed a lot since our one-off documentaries, which were powerful, but they weren't exactly behavior-changing," explained Arnold. She can pinpoint to when this shift actually happened, back when she was working on the documentary, "Meeting Mandela." One of the Ugandan boys in the film, who was HIV positive, had the drive to educate other young people about HIV prevention and testing, but he needed the funding and formal training to accomplish this mighty task--and that's how the foundation really got started. Now MTV Staying Alive gives grants to young people working on HIV prevention around the world, which pays for adult mentorship and training for four years. To date, the foundation has given out $6 million to hundreds of projects worldwide, trained approximately 21,000 young people into peer educators, tested over 206,000 people for HIV, and educated over three million people on HIV and sexual reproductive health.
The MTV Shuga show is very much at the core of the foundation's media content. Through raising awareness about HIV and reproductive health on TV, radio, social media, print, mobile and digital channels, the TV drama centers around kids in African countries and is distributed to 179 broadcasters around the world . "I think in the world we live in today, I think we need to be more global than ever. We should be looking beyond our own front door in terms of understanding the world that we live in," said Arnold. "Because one of the great things about MTV Shuga is that even though it's made specifically for different countries, it has a really strong global message."
Kids continue the show's tough and emotional conversations on Twitter, and the foundation also sends teams to schools in these developing countries to continue discussions about sexual health, contraceptive use, and to point to resources the kids can turn to. In addition, MTV Shuga conducts polling at the end of every episode by posing questions and a number to text the answers to. Though not scientific by any means, the questions act as "reactive info" and allow the foundation to measure how well the audience understood the messaging of each episode. If the answers seem a little far off, the show's producers can respond to that immediately by adjusting the content online and strengthening the message.
Thanks to the MTV brand, MTV Shuga and the foundation have access to millions of viewers globally, and musicians and artists who can help spread the messaging. But the best part about this show, said Arnold, is that it's created by young people from the start. MTV Shuga brings in focus groups of young people before the creative teams begin to story arc, and they get a chance to weigh in on what's important to them and what's realistic.
Anecdotally, Arnold has heard many stories firsthand about how the show caused kids to think twice about their behaviors and how it was affecting their health. One of the show's actors even made a difference when he went back to his college in Nairobi. He told Arnold the story about how a girl thanked him for saving her life. In the show, his character found out he had HIV. The girl and her boyfriend talked about the show after watching it, and decided to get tested before taking their relationship further. It turned out her boyfriend tested positive.
Plus, studies that have evaluated the show's impact say it all--the show is working. According to a World Bank study that specifically looked at MTV Shuga's impact on young people in Nigeria, more than double the amount of young people who watched the show went to get HIV testing done than those in a control group who did not watch it.
“When you take MTV Shuga off the TV screen, that's when it becomes very powerful,” said Arnold.