MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation
Interview by Marianne Comparet & Kamran Rafiq (ISNTD) Oct 2013
Georgia Arnold is Executive Director at MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation and also develops and implements social initiatives across MTV’s broad range of channels. Originally launched in 1998 as a show following the lives of six young people infected with HIV, MTV Staying Alive has grown into a Foundation, which continues to produce ground-breaking multimedia content to drive awareness and behaviour change in HIV/AIDS prevention through its award-winning MTV Shuga drama and also funds over 550 projects worldwide. Here, Georgia Arnold speaks about the successes of the shows in terms of health outcomes, the challenges ahead and developing partnerships along the way.
We'd like to start with warm congratulations to MTV for winning this month a third WorldMediaFestival Gold Award, for the TV drama "MTV Shuga"! Set in the clubs, bars and student hangouts of Lagos, this sometimes controversial series is aimed at increasing awareness and attitudes towards HIV/AIDS and manages to touch upon a huge span of themes including responsible sexual behaviour and tolerance, maternal and child health, stigma, family planning, gender-based violence, and women empowerment. Have you found this "edutainment" approach effective in addressing public health challenges and do you feel that there is scope for the health sector in general to expand its use of modern media communication to accelerate public health goals?
Yes, we have absolutely found this approach effective. We have heard from our audiences around the world that they are bored of hearing the same messages over and over again, and often, they hear the messages without them really sinking in or leading to action. What we realised is that by using the TV brand and our platform around the world, we are able to take those messages and recreate them as entertainment; this means that our audiences watch MTV Shuga because it is entertaining but at the same time they are also identifying with the characters on screen and therefore realise that their actions could be putting them in danger. We know from myriad conversations directly with our audiences as well as from several evalua-tions we have had done that our ap-proach yields impact in terms of behaviour change and health objectives, in particular with regards to young people taking the steps to getting tested for HIV.
In terms of researching and quantifying your impact, do you have established processes in place or would you like to collaborate further in this direction?
This has been a frustration for a long time for me. Looking back, there have been a lot of evaluations done on MTV Shuga and each has been different – run by different people who looked for different things. If I could go back in time, I wish we could have known that MTV Shuga was going to be so successful because I would have asked to do some long-term evaluation on this and by now we would have a really incredible story to tell! As it is we have a good story to tell. I am not a scientist and sometimes when we talk about evaluation I often feel like we are talking different languages. I do think there is a middle ground in terms of the evaluation - you can spend an enormous amount of money on scientific evaluation and you can spend small amounts of money that sometimes will get you to the same point even if it is slightly less rigorous and for me it’s important to find that middle ground especially when resources are tight.
Could you remind us of when the MTV Staying Alive Foundation was established and what are the main challenges it is currently seeking to tackle?
MTV Staying Alive was launched in 1998 as a brand and at the time it was a TV show about six young people affected and infected with HIV. We realised we could reach millions of young people with our content to improve their health choices and by funding kids on the ground we could also have an impact directly within their wider community. Following its evolution into the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, started in 2005, we have been growing steadily both in terms of material produced as well as projects funded: on the contents side, everything we have created right from the start is produced with created rights cleared and cost free which means that it can be screened at no cost worldwide; on the grants side, the foundation has already given nearly 6 million dollars to about 550 projects globally.
Challenges however continue to pave the way: in the mid-90s, HIV was seen as a huge challenge which raised an incredible level of financial and political support. More recently, sadly there is a notion circulating that due to medical advances HIV is now much less of a threat, perhaps people almost think that it is cured and a pill will make it go away. Yet it’s still the biggest killer of adolescents in Africa and the second biggest killer of adolescents worldwide. Global funding has decreased in the last few years and it’s slipped down the global development agenda so there’s far less resources for people to go on treatment and even less for prevention. We need to keep up the advocacy!
The link between male and female genital schistosomiasis and in-creased exposure to HIV/AIDS infection, especially in young women, has been hugely under-reported but growing scientific evidence is linking the two - is there scope to increase awareness and education about such neglected tropical diseases alongside HIV/AIDS prevention messages and would MTV Staying Alive Foundation consider this?
There is definitely an open door to it. The easiest would be online: our website offers lots of opportunities to do that easily. Incorporating it into something like MTV Shuga is harder because we have to produce a show for the lowest common denominator so that it remains highly relevant to our audience. That said, we are open to gearing towards complex storylines as long as we don’t lose the strength of simple clear messages. We did shape our plot line to include two messages very successfully: circa 2009, we were asked to mention male circumcision having positive impact on male HIV infection –the three lead characters discussing this in fact became a cult scene! Although wasn’t one of our main messages, we successfully raised the issue and awareness. We are now also working PrEP into the story line (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis).
What have been some of your best successes? What were the strategies involved in reaching your goal?
Young people getting tested is a good measure of success compared to, for example, condom use which can be difficult to assess but it can be a real challenge to encourage individuals to go for a test if they feel their community might find out. Our main success lies in the impact that MTV Shuga has had in seeing large increases in young people getting tested for HIV. This shows that we are reaching audiences, raising awareness and changing attitudes. In addition, in Nigeria we have been working with the Elton John AIDS Foundation to train 140 peer educators; over 4 months, they got 48,000 young people test for HIV which was a huge success in creating an informal environment where young people can get tested by their peers.
What, in your view, are the main partnerships which the creative industries or more specifically mass media organisations need to develop in order to deliver some of the international goals set, for example, in the Sustainable Development Goals? Are there specific goals or partnerships which the MTV Staying Alive Foundation is currently seeking to work on?
For us everything we do is created through partnerships. Although we feel that we are the experts in terms of our audience and our incredible platform, we are heavily towards partnerships where we are not the experts! Firstly, we work with partners so that we are clear on the issues we need to tackle in order to get the messages right and on getting them across. For example, PEPFAR have partnered on every series of MTV Shuga, giving us funding which is crucial, as well as expertise which is equally important. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has also funded our projects directly, but in addition has helped to ensure that we have independent valuations done and has separately covered the costs of evaluations on the project. In addition, it is crucial for us to work with local governments and we have partnered with the Kenyan, Nigerian and soon South African governments. We want to have a good understanding of what the government’s strategies and policies are in terms of HIV & SRH and how we can best work with them on that, so that we have the most impact on the ground where we are broadcasting and supporting the right local and national NGOs, Freephone helplines etc…
MTV Staying Alive Foundation
17-29 Hawley Crescent, London
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Public Health Nutrition