Posted by ambika samarthya on Mon, 2011-03-14 18:59 

When film and TV producers work on a media campaign for a social issue, be it raising HIV awareness or alleviating violence against children, their focus is on making their message get across. One of the main considerations has always been to have a final product that is well-shot, slick, and looks good. Development is about people and to get people’s attention is not always easy.

Take the BBCWST’s “Condom Condom” mass media campaign in India, aimed at reducing the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The commercials have superior animation, great acting, and detailed production design. These innovative ads have been spread around the world via viral links and Facebook; the campaign has been a huge success. I admire the artistic and creative investment behind their ads. As a broadcast producer and trainer, I spend a lot of time working on making dialogue sound realistic, achieving an edit pace with a specific rhythm, and there’s always good use of graphics and a music soundtrack.

But sometimes I wonder if high quality has any correlation with generating an audience. Do the viewers of the “Condom Condom” commercials appreciate the color correction or just love the talking parakeet?

Take “SuperStory”, for example, one of the most watched TV programs in Nigeria. The low-budget TV show breaks many basic camera rules – everyone is smack in the center of the frame and eyelines don’t always match up. Yet its comedy and tragic drama have kept viewers glued series after series. Stories resonate with the Nigerian situation: two farmers fighting over a land issue; a king deciding his heir amongst his many wives and sons. The audience is so engaged with the drama and the tension that no one would ever be bothered by the awful production design. It’s great stories, low production value.

The film industry in Nigeria is no different. Feature films are often produced for less than 50,000 US dollars and in 2 weeks. Packed with family drama, sex, and great songs, Nollywood movies have a huge audience in Africa as well as the diaspora. No one cares about the awkward camera angles, continuity errors, or cheap sets. Having worked as an Assistant Director in Bollywood, I could see first hand that the emphasis was placed on getting the right stars in the right costumes, not so much on nailing down the script. And for anyone who has seen an episode of the “Jersey Shore”, American tastes are not that different. Week after week, the same characters are on the phone, dancing at a club, or sleeping together, within the same familiar house and the same familiar dialogue. But that is exactly what people are watching it for: they love the dramatic phone calls, the trashy club scenes and the fights.

Audiences are not dumb, and they know and appreciate great production values when they see them. But, and this is the key, most people rather watch a show with low production values that has great melodrama, sex, or comedy over a show with a high production value that is too serious or somber. Inherently people globally watch television as an escape. They watch it to laugh or be amazed by the special effects, or intrigued by the family drama. That’s why soap operas and reality programming do so well with audiences.

I don’t think the solution is disregarding production techniques. It’s important to have both concept and high technical values. Shows like “The Office” immediately come to mind. The simple concept of using a docu-verite camera style to show the interactions and egos of the personalities in a suburban paper company is genius. People watch the show because the characters can be over the top and make them laugh. The BBCWST Nigeria’s production of “Wetin Dey”, a show aimed at raising HIV and AIDS awareness across a diverse population, is another example of both these principles at work. The weekly drama series brought audiences in through engaging characters they could relate to, and kept them coming back through romance and dramatic conflict. The scenes were in familiar settings like schools and motor parks. What I particularly noted was that the people working behind the show never sacrificed on great production values. It’s a beautiful program to watch, full of camera movements, saturated colors and nuanced lighting.

I recently read a New Yorker article where Tom Stoppard, speaking of the importance of comedy in his intellectually dense plays, said about laughs “I feel they’re important because, apart from anything else, I think of laughter as the sound of comprehension.” Ultimately, as we continue to develop communications for advocacy campaigns, we need to focus on making sure we have gotten the message across. Through comedy or melodrama, we may be able to have a better pulse on the audience’s reaction. Bad TV can teach us about how to generate audiences: spend time making sure the end product is funny, has characters that feel familiar and engage the viewer, and tells a dramatic story. People can forgive bad lighting, but they’ll turn off the TV if the joke is flat.