Interview With HH&S Director Buffington Part of Documentary “Poor Consuelo Conquers the World”

HH&S Director Sandra de Castro Buffington talked about the power of storytelling to change lives during an interview that’s included in the film Poor Consuelo Conquers the World, a documentary about entertainment that connects with audiences—in the form of soap operas, telenovelas and radionovelas—with the goal of bringing about global social change.

“If it’s a really well-told story, the viewer so identifies with the characters that they come to see them as family and friends,” Buffington said in an on-camera interview. “When this happens [viewers] are transported into the story. It’s no longer fiction.”

In this state of “transportation,” studies have shown that audience members can experience much higher gains in knowledge, along with shifts in attitude  and subsequent changes in behavior.

Buffington said that many serial dramas and telenovelas follow a formula, but “when we look at Hollywood—Hollywood doesn’t use a formula.”

“The viewer has to enter the story and develop an opinion or figure things out,” Buffington said. Hollywood, Health & Society, she pointed out, “is one of the few programs that evaluates the impact of TV health storylines on viewers. We look at it from many angles. We look at the changes in knowledge, attitudes and behavior that come about after people have been exposed to TV health storylines.”

Buffington gave the example of a three-week story arc about HIV-AIDS that aired on the long-running daytime soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful. The show had advertised an AIDS call-in number set up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. TV monitoring done by HH&S, Buffington said, showed a sharp spike in the number of calls made when the character Tony revealed to his girlfriend, Kristen, that he was HIV-positive.

The 90-minute Consuelo Conquers the World, directed by Peter Friedman, is scheduled to have its world premiere Nov. 16 at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

Promotional material for the documentary makes special mention of Hollywood, Health & Society, a program of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, as being among a handful of key “global organizations involved in creating social change through entertainment media.” HH&S serves as a bridge between experts and Hollywood on scripts dealing with major health topics and climate change, helping to inspire and inform writers and ensure the accuracy of their storylines.

Entertainment has long been used to provide viewers, many of them poor, with information to improve their daily lives on issues such as family planning, domestic violence, HIV, alcoholism and literacy. The idea started in the 1960s, after Mexican film director Miguel Sabido was taken by audience reaction to a storyline in a Peruvian TV telenovela in which a character worked her way out of poverty using a sewing machine. After it aired, Peruvian stores suddenly found themselves selling thousands of sewing machines. Sabido went on to create popular telenovelas designed both to entertain and address social issues, building on the findings of psychologist Albert Bandura that demonstrated fictional media characters can act as role models and influence viewer behavior.

“Stories of Change” on the website says Poor Consuelo Conquers the World “looks at both historical and contemporary examples of [entertainment education] from a global perspective, ranging from Bolivia to Mexico, India to South Africa, and Afghanistan to the U.S.”