The positive power of an MTV teen drama

An MTV drama that airs throughout Africa has been so successful at spreading the word about HIV and AIDS and convincing viewers to change their own risky behavior that it has prompted spin-offs in other regions to address delicate topics relevant among young people.

MTV Shuga is like other teen dramas in some ways — it follows the ups and downs of relationships among the young people in the show. But the passionate fights between its leading actors include candid talks about HIV status and getting tested for the virus that causes AIDS.

Launched in 2009 by MTV’s Staying Alive foundation, MTV Shuga follows an ever-changing cast of young people as they handle life’s challenges, including scenarios that put them at risk of contracting HIV. Over the years, the show has been set in Johannesburg; Lagos, Nigeria; and Nairobi, Kenya.

The show has achieved positive results as a public health campaign that persuades teenage viewers to adopt safer sexual behavior, limiting the spread of disease.

In a study led by the World Bank, researchers looked into the impact that watching MTV Shuga had on risky sex and HIV testing. The study of 7,000 Nigerian young adults found that people who watched the show had healthier behaviors after six to eight months. A few months after giving study participants information about the closest HIV testing centers, researchers found that teens who had watched the show were twice as likely to get tested as those who had not seen MTV Shuga.

The World Bank’s Victor Orozco, one of the study’s principal investigators, said those numbers were unheard of in most campaigns to change HIV behavior in developing countries. “MTV knows how to reach their audience,” says Orozco.

Public health interventions often focus on education and care. But sometimes people might know about a health risk but they still don’t take steps to protect themselves. Behavior-change campaigns like MTV Shuga try to bridge that gap.

MTV Shuga uses secondary programming components to reach audiences and extend its messaging. Texting campaigns allow viewers to interact with the show on a personal level by answering poll questions about characters’ choices. Radio programming extends the narrative to regions with low television access. In addition, Staying Alive trains local community partners to use MTV Shuga programming for peer education — the component that partner PEPFAR believes is most effective.

“We have the ability to talk about quite taboo topics because our viewers see MTV as a peer,” says Georgia Arnold, executive director and founder of Staying Alive. “We treat these young people as key partners.”

Now MTV is hoping to expand its model into Egypt and India with two spin-off series exploring taboo topics relevant to their new settings, like female genital mutilation and gender-based violence. While both shows are slated to air by 2020, Arnold says her team is learning from young people in Egypt and India about the issues that will become those first seasons’ storylines.