Emily LeRoux-Rutledge
Linda Nwoke
Anna Godfrey
Timothy Cooper
Publication Date
May 1, 2008

BBC World Service Trust

This paper details the work of the BBC World Service Trust (WST)'s drama for development work in Nigeria focusing on the HIV/AIDS television drama Wetin Dey. Presented at the International Communication Association Conference (held in Montreal, Canada, May 22-26 2008), the paper explores drama as a vehicle to educate and promote individual and social change. Specifically, the paper is designed to:

  • Understand how the audience engages with key characters in Wetin Dey.
  • Apply current theory in media and communications literature as a lens through which to understand audience engagement with characters.
  • Make recommendations that can be used in the production of future Wetin Dey episodes, and future BBC World Service Trust dramas.
  • Advance thinking around the use of television drama - and specifically the use of characters - to achieve development objectives.


Wetin Dey is part of a larger campaign called "STOP HIV", funded between 2005 and early 2008 by the Department for International Development (DFID) to address HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health among Nigerian youth aged 15-24 years old. The project, delivered in partnership with the Society for Family Health (SFH) in Nigeria, was a mass media intervention that included a broad array of mutually reinforcing outputs on radio, television, and film; one such output was Wetin Dey.


Previous research on Wetin Dey characters:


In evaluating the larger "Stop HIV" campaign, the Trust previously conducted knowledge, attitudes, and practices (KAP) surveys at multiple points in time. KAP data at midline showed not only that campaign awareness was extremely high (84%), but that higher awareness of the campaign was associated with higher levels of risk perception regarding HIV/AIDS. Moreover, after controlling for differences in exposure groups in terms of state, gender, age group, and level of education, significantly more respondents who were highly exposed to the campaign reported wanting to be tested for HIV/AIDS, compared to those with low/medium and no exposure, and compared to the baseline.


The midline KAP survey of Wetin Dey, specifically, was conducted 3 months after the show went on air. Logistic regression modelling showed that those audience members who recalled stigma-related messages from the drama had lower levels of stigma towards people living with HIV and AIDS compared to people who did not recall these messages. Similarly, viewers who recalled testing messages associated with a central male character were more positive about men being tested for the HIV virus.


Research findings presented in this paper


In addition to the quantitative impact research carried out to explore the impact of Stop HIV and Wetin Dey, the Trust conducted a qualitative research study to find out how the audience for Wetin Dey engaged with the characters in the drama. This work was informed by a theoretical framework for the concept of audience engagement with characters, which drew on a body of literature (e.g. Livingstone, Quing & Hofner, Horton & Wohl). The framework revolves around the following 6 components of engagement:

  1. Evaluation - liking/disliking.
  2. Recognition - perceiving a character to be like someone you know.
  3. Perceived Similarity - perceiving a character to be like yourself.
  4. Identification - putting yourself in a character's shoes, or relating to a character's circumstances.
  5. Parasocial Interaction - having a seeming face-to-face relationship with a character ("advice-giving")
  6. Emotional Involvement - having an emotional connection to a character ("sympathising").

Specifically, the Trust's Research & Learning Group (R&L) conducted 16 focus groups in 4 Nigerian states: Abuja, Enugu, Kano, and Lagos. Male and female groups were conducted separately across 2 age groups, 15-18 and 19-24, and 2 socio-economic groups. Eligible participants self-reported watching television at least 3 times a week, had watched at least 2 episodes of Wetin Dey in the last 6 weeks, and were able to recall the name of at least one Wetin Dey character. They were asked to record and submit the names of their favourite and least favourite characters from Wetin Dey before the beginning of the focus group. After a series of warm-up questions about TV viewing, they were asked about their impressions of Wetin Dey, its appeal and relevance, why they watched it, what educational benefit they derived from it (if any), and whether they had changed in any way as a result of watching it. Midway through, they were asked to do a card sorting exercise where they matched characters with very general HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health messages, stating their reasons for doing so. Finally, they were shown an episode of Wetin Dey (episode 16) and were asked to discuss it.


The focus group discussions revealed that participants consistently saw Wetin Dey as educational, entertaining, and realistic, with enjoyable characters. However, the messages derived from the programme were found to vary considerably for the different segments of the intended audience. Older females (19-24) in Abuja, for example, stressed the importance of knowing one's HIV status before entering into a relationship, while younger males (15-18) in Enugu were more focused on messages around stigma, abstinence, monogamy, and condom use. Yet across all groups, the idea of reducing stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS was found to be very prominent. The programme appears to have humanised the virus, and increased viewers' tolerance and acceptance of people living with HIV/AIDS.


The second message that participants strongly retained was the importance of knowing your HIV status and the status of your partner, before entering into marriage or a relationship. This message was echoed particularly strongly in all of the older female groups across the sample (ages 19-24). Males in the older age group also emphasised this. Participants in these groups frequently expressed an intention to get tested before marriage and to insist on a test from their partner.


Another message that emerged from the majority of the female groups was the idea that parents should not force their children to marry; a few of the male groups also mentioned this. The majority of participants believed that people should be free to make their own choices. In addition, ideas about fidelity and monogamy were prominent in most of the female focus groups, particularly the 2 groups in Kano, and many of the male groups, particularly in Enugu and Lagos. Abstinence was an issue mentioned by all the male groups but only a few of the female groups. All male groups discussed condom use. (Although condom use came up in more than half of the female groups, it did not feature as prominently as it did among male groups). Finally, most of the male groups - and a few of the female groups - appeared to identify the message that a person can live with HIV, although they emphasised this to varying degrees.


According to the authors, "Almost all of the messages detailed above can be clearly related back to certain characters and storylines in the drama."


Although there are multiple characters in Wetin Dey, this analysis focuses on the audience's engagement with the 3 most frequently recalled female characters: Yetunde (a character from a lower socio-economic class whose mother dies of HIV/AIDS), Bilkisu (a female sex worker), and Aisha (a wealthy girl). The authors found that Yetunde and Aisha are the most liked female characters, with Yetunde being the favourite overall. The authors note that "engagement in this study has not necessarily required similarity between character and viewer in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and socio-economic group. Yetunde, for example, engages male and female audience members alike, and is particularly well liked in Enugu, which is an Igbo region, even though she is a Yoruba character. This shows...that, critically, such differences between character and viewer need not be a barrier to engagement." In addition, "this research lends support to the finding that perceived similarity and identification (two components of engagement) may be higher for liked characters than for disliked characters..."


The researchers found that the following 3 factors - perceived similarity, identification, and emotional involvement - are important to message retention: "while the audience strongly engaged with Bilkisu in some respects, such as parasocial interaction and recognition, the dislike of her character, paired with the lack of perceived similarity, identification and emotional involvement, seems to have critically affected her ability to deliver messages that were retained by the audience. It appears that the audience was much more receptive to messages from Yetunde, who was favourably perceived by the audience, and engaged them across all six engagement components, suggesting that when all the components are in place, message retention appears to be strongest."


In addition, the perceived morality of characters emerges as an important factor for the Nigerian audience's perception of and engagement with characters in the drama. The audience's inability to identify with Bilkisu, or to perceive any similarity between themselves and her, seems strongly rooted in their perception of her as an immoral character - due to her line of work....[C]ritically, in this case, the audience's moral judgement appears to affect their retention of educational messages....It is possible that Bilkisu's role as a sex worker provides a cultural cue to the audience about her morality, that prohibits certain kinds of engagement with her. Such moral cues may vary according to culture, or they may transcend cultures...It is also possible, however, that questions of character morality are more important for audience engagement in some cultures than in others..."


According to the authors, this type of finding "highlights the value of qualitative research....It is reasonable to expect that different segments of the audience might engage with characters and their associated storylines in different ways (indeed, there is even a small minority who list Yetunde as their least favourite character, and a group whose favourite character is Bilkisu). For such characters, a uniform 'effect' is unlikely, and subtle qualitative measures, such as the ones used in this study, are needed to capture evidence of impact."


In short, the research reveals that the depth of the audiences' knowledge of characters and storylines, as well as their retention of associated messages, suggests that the Trust's underlying assumption - that exposure to and engagement with individual characters influences the retention of messages within a drama - is well-founded. However, having found that "not all characters (even those of the same age and gender) are equal in terms of their potential to deliver messages, and that message retention appears strongest when the audience is engaged across all 6 of the engagement components, the Trust proposes that characters could be specifically designed and pre-tested according to the engagement criteria." Such an approach would reflect the observation that individual characters can be interpreted in different ways by different segments of the audience, and that different characters resonate with audience members for different reasons; according to the Trust, triangulating quantitative research with qualitative studies enables better understanding of the audience.


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Email from Emily LeRoux-Rutledge to The Communication Initiative on October 1 2009.