Centre for Maternal, Adolescent, Reproductive, and Child Health

MTV Shuga – Storytelling to save lives

By Priyanka Rajendram (MSc Public Health Candidate)

GeorgiaFor over 20 years, Georgia Arnold has dedicated her life to trailblazing innovative pro-social initiatives for Viacom International Media Networks as their Senior Vice-President of Social Responsibility. She is also the co-founder and Executive Director of MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation which focuses on raising awareness around HIV and investing in youth-led HIV prevention projects worldwide.

No stranger to LSHTM, Georgia Arnold returned to the school on the 26th of October 2017 to update us on the progress of the award-winning MTV Shuga. The multi-channel drama series uses the power of entertainment to generate positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes amongst young people. It is at the core of a 360-degree mass media campaign designed to effect positive change in the lives of millennials around the world. MTV Shuga, now in its fifth season and already in pre-production for a sixth, was first released in November 2009. It has since been broadcasted in over 61 countries across the globe and has reached over 720 million people worldwide.

We talked with Georgia Arnold about MTV Shuga and the possibility of a future collaboration with LSHTM.

Could you tell me more about MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, MTV Shuga and your role as Executive Director?

Our 20th anniversary is on 1st December 2018. I am the co-founder of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, so I have been working at MTV for 23 years now. I have this amazing role where I have a job working for Viacom, which is MTV’s parent company, and they pay me to run the Foundation.

The Foundation is an independent charity and we are allowed to use the MTV brand and they [MTV] cover my salary costs, our office space costs, legal costs and all other important stuff like that. But they don’t give us the funds to do what we do, so a lot of my time is spent fundraising and the Foundation is split quite clearly into delivering two things:

First, it is about reaching young people on the ground working in HIV; and why that is so important, is because we believe that they know the solutions within their own communities. We will find and fund the young people in their last mile, where no one else will go, no one else will listen to them, hear them or trust them. We see that that is our role and when UNAIDS talks about 90-90-90[1], we believe that if we are ever going to really get to that last 90, you have to find these young people where they are. So, we give out small scale grants to young people working in HIV within their own communities.

The other side, which is the absolute opposite, involves reaching millions of people around the world with mass media. We create behaviour change and demand creation campaigns and have become known since 2009 for MTV Shuga.

MTV Shuga is a large-scale behaviour change campaign that has existed to date in Sub-Saharan Africa, but we are expanding- which is very exciting. It is focused around a TV series, but it is more than that. It is a radio series, a graphic novel, peer education on the ground, digital and social media. It is about reaching young people where they are with content and characters that they relate to, that they don’t feel patronised by and that they identify with. The TV series focusses on the lives and loves of young people. It started in Kenya, moved to Nigeria, and this year was in South Africa. We are back filming in Nigeria again for another 2 campaigns. We have just started pre-production in Egypt and we hope to be in India next year. So, we are really expanding which is very exciting.

What goes into the creation of a show like this? Do you consult with behaviour change specialists and is it based on a model?

I would say that we have created a model, like a theory of change, as Shuga has grown. The first series was very much a pilot series and to be honest, we didn’t necessarily quite realise what we were doing and the impact that we could have with it. The way that we work now is: before we start any production, we do formative research. We get a really good understanding of what the issues are in each country that we are working in, what young people do in terms of how they access their media, what music they are listening to, what clothes they are wearing, how they speak to their parents and their teachers and how they talk about them behind their backs and much more.

From that point, we then have a production company that we base in-country. We have a very small core team based in London, 5 people. Everyone else we will hire for a production. The production team, the writers, director, actors, producers, editors, everyone. We will work with them because they are experts at their country and we obviously work with a lot of music talent. From the formative research, we can scope out what our core messages are going to be. For example, in Nigeria, we focused on family planning and HIV somewhat. In Egypt, we are looking at child marriage, FGM and contraception within marriage. The one thing that ties every country together, unfortunately, is gender based violence. We haven’t done an episode without it which is a sad indictment of society today.

We put together a story arc which is, I guess, a PowerPoint deck of about 10 slides showing how we think the series will look. We will have various people input into that. From that, we then do what is called beat sheets. Beat sheets are a description of every episode written out in full but without dialogue. Once everyone inputs into that, we then expand it into the script.

Now, in between all of this we set up focus groups. The focus groups will be made up of young people who are very relevant to the messaging and based in a location where we will be filming, or similar. For example, in South Africa, we were set in a fictional township called ‘Zenzele’ which we had assumed was 15km outside of Johannesburg and so we went to a similar township to do focus groups.

The focus groups are really important because we treat them as equal partners. If a young person tells us they would never speak to their parents like that, that’s really important for us to know because they are not going to relate to it on the screen. For example, I did some focus groups before we even started scripting for South Africa and there was a young 16-year-old girl. She wandered up to the front of the group and took the microphone from me because I was asking what storylines young people would want to see if we brought it [the show] to South Africa. She was fantastically sassy. She said to me, “Well, you know that someone has got to die, don’t you?” I said, “Oh! Okay. Why do they die? What do they die of? Do they die because of AIDS? Do they die because an abortion’s gone wrong?” She goes, “well I don’t care, and that’s so not my problem!” I asked, “Well, why does someone have to die?” She said, “Someone has to die because in our life, someone always dies and if you want MTV Shuga to reflect our life, someone has to die.”

So, in the series, someone dies and actually I’m now gutted about the character who dies because the actor (I won’t tell you the gender) is so strong, as an actor and as a real person, and has done such amazing ambassadorial work for us. I’m trying to figure out if they can be a ghost in the next series or you know, have a twin (laughs), because they are so strong as their real-life persona.

So, that’s sort of how we make it. We make some good formative research, but we also listen a lot to young people.

That kind of leads us nicely to my next question, which is whether you have a favourite storyline? Which storyline or character has resonated with you in the series thus far?

I’ve never been asked that question, that’s brilliant! So, if I say I have a favourite storyline, I know many of the actors will likely get annoyed (laughs). I would say this series in South Africa is definitely our strongest. It’s beautifully shot, the colours are beautiful, the soundtrack is fantastic, and the acting is definitely the strongest we’ve had. There is a storyline in it – well, there were 2 storylines in it – that I found very moving.

The first is Reggie’s storyline. Reggie is a young, 17-year-old boy who comes out to himself first of all, and then to his best friend, his parents and his other friends. The way they each respond to him, both positively and negatively, is so beautifully done. When we screened it the first time, there was a young Jamaican guy in London who came up to me and said, “No one has ever told my story before. I don’t see my story on screen and I just felt you speak to me.” It’s beautiful and I love it and I think it’s really doing good.

The interesting and really tricky thing about it is that although it is legal to be gay in South Africa, we don’t just air Shuga in South Africa, we air it across the continent and around the world. We had this real dilemma because we knew that in Nigeria, for example, or Uganda or Tanzania -name the rest of the countries- they wouldn’t air it if we had that storyline. We had this big internal debate about whether we stick with our principles and stick with the story. However, that then means that millions of young people are not going to watch it because they don’t have access to it. There are many messages in that series, it’s not just on Reggie’s story. So, we made two versions. The second version, which was Pan African, was about Reggie and his fight with his father about being who he wanted to be. Now, quite frankly, it was pretty obvious who he wanted to be, but we did it around the idea that he wanted to be a creative and his dad wanted him to be an academic. It’s a very similar storyline to the original one but just with a few different scenes and some tweaked dialogue.

We did not censor and we offered both versions to broadcasters. We told them the differences and they could air either one. Every country outside of South Africa chose the Pan African version, but on YouTube you can only watch the original ‘Reggie is gay’ storyline. Very interesting conversations went on on Youtube with a lot of people making a lot of homophobic comments and we started to moderate it. Then, the audience started to moderate it. The argument from some of the audience was that no one in Africa was gay until the West brought it over, like it’s a disease, and then the rest of the audience is going, “Are you stupid? You know, gays have been around in Africa since day 1 and you just need to accept it and wake up and change your perception.” So, we left them to it. So, that was very interesting and I was really touched by it [the online moderation by the audience].

The actor who plays Reggie is not gay himself and when he got offered the part – he didn’t actually audition for that role. He had auditioned for a different one and the director said I want you to audition for Reggie – he found out what it was about and he said he had to really think hard about taking the role and whether he was going to, sort of, discriminate against this role. He had to think through behind it and he knew that as an actor, he is often recognised on the street for who he’s playing, not who he is. Within a week, he went, “Right, I’m going to take this role.” So, we got him trained by GLAAD, which is a brilliant LGBT agency in the US. He was given training on how to support someone who stops him on the street asking for help and where to advise them to go. He was also trained on what to say and what language not to use if he got trolled. Yes, I really love that storyline.

The other storyline that I love in Shuga is around a character called Leo and his growth throughout the series. Leo has been in it [MTV Shuga] since series 1 and his growth as a character in the way he changed gave real agency to both, I think, the actor Nick Mutuma and his character. He starts off in series 1 as such a good guy whom everyone loves because he is so perfect. The girl he really fancies tells him she’s HIV positive and he kisses her and it’s all so wonderful and lovely. Then in series 2, he was in a love triangle and it starts to get a little bit nasty. He’s in it in series 3 but not so much, and in series 4, he crosses the line with his girlfriend and attacks her because he doesn’t realise she’s saying no. So, it’s a storyline around consent. In series 5 in South Africa, he comes to realise (because he was in total denial) and understand what consent is, without turning all the way into ‘Mr Perfect’ again. So, I love the way Nick and Leo have grown through the series.

Is there any issue that you would hope to see covered in future seasons?

I am really interested in how we’re going to tackle FGM in Egypt. I don’t know how we’re going to tackle it yet. I know that 93% of women in Egypt are mutilated although, thankfully, that demographic as you go lower in an age group becomes around 70%. So, it’s getting better but still, it’s horrendous numbers although it is illegal in Egypt. I am really interested to see how we tackle that and the impact that we could possibly have.

The other thing I am really interested in seeing, which I hope will happen (we don’t know yet because we haven’t got funding), is for us to go back to South Africa to develop Reggie’s storyline further. Reggie was all about his coming out but in the next series, if we do it, he will have a boyfriend and I think that’s really exciting.

How is the impact assessment for the show carried out?

We use a little bit of everything. So, the easy part that we can do is we can look at distribution. We have 180 broadcasters who have aired MTV Shuga around the world in 720 million homes. We can also look at numbers on YouTube and social media.

In terms of scientific impact assessment, that’s done independently. The World Bank did one on MTV Shuga season 3 and it was a randomised control study in Nigeria where they studied the biomarkers for Chlamydia between those who watched or didn’t watch the show. There were 58% less Chlamydia infections among the girls that watched MTV Shuga compared to those who didn’t and double the number went to get tested for HIV versus those who hadn’t seen it. So, we’ve had really great, strong impact.

Yes absolutely! I think that the data demonstrating the success of edutainment has been really compelling and it is the main reason why I’m really interested in it. Coming from Singapore, I’ve brought this concept to my bosses in the public service domain. They were very impressed, but questioned whether these results, tried and tested mostly in developing countries, could actually be extrapolated to the developed world and if so, how. Could you weigh in on that?

Oof! Another good question. Can it work here? Yes, but actually it might be a little harder. The MTV brand is very strong everywhere around the world but I think in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, it has a real cool factor at the moment and I think that’s great for us to latch on to. In the UK and the US, there is so much competition for content and I think there is less competition from really high-quality content that is made locally in some of these developing countries. So, in the UK, I can watch the 5 terrestrial channels and I can watch Netflix and Amazon. However, in developing countries, I may not have access to all of that. For example, Nollywood and Bollywood, have a very different quality because they are knocking it out like that (snaps fingers). Their production schedules are crazy! They are like producing 30 episodes in 3 weeks and we’re like no, we can’t work like that. We have quality timelines in order to produce really strong storylines. So, ‘I don’t know’ is the answer to that question. In America, they are really harassing me for it which is amazing, but then funding tends to be focusing on developing countries and I have to get everything funded.

I have one last question for you: I’m sure that I’m not the only one at LSHTM who’s interested in edutainment. As public health practitioners, how can we be a part of similar shows. Do you think there is possibility for some sort of collaboration between LSHTM and MTV Shuga?

Well, interesting! Last year, I came to the school to deliver a talk similar to what I’ll be doing now. At the back of that, there was an MSc student who contacted us and said, “I’m really interested in getting involved. Can I write my masters thesis on the way that you do your formative research and your focus groups?” She has just finished that and it’s fascinating what she’s written! I’ve sent it out to all of my team for them to read because actually what Venetia has done is really crystallise my thinking. So, I sort of knew how we worked, but she really helped to formalise a structure around it and I love it! We can now take this and give this to production companies so they can really understand the work that we’re doing. She thought of the idea herself, which is brilliant.

We are currently working with LSHTM on a big funding proposal. Hopefully that will come off and that will mean that we are partnering with you guys [LSHTM] and so I should think there’s lots of opportunities for people to get involved in that side of the project.

Thank you very much for your time, Georgia. It was certainly enlightening and what you do is so important. We look forward to what MTV Shuga has in store for all of us in its upcoming seasons.

[1] 90-90-90 is an ambitious treatment target set up by UNAIDS to help end the AIDS epidemic. By 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status. By 2020, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy. By 2020, 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.

Image Copyright: MTV Staying Alive Foundation

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