'Be Sensitive...There's Going to be Drama!'

A common theme throughout the OKRE Summit was that storylines are driven primarily by the characters, not the issues depicted. In Mexico, the Fundación Televisa is working with the creators of the incredibly-popular telenovelas to place social issues at the heart of the writing process - and by doing so, draws a huge audience.

Alejandro Villanueva Argüelles, Director of Education at Fundación Televisa, spoke about this approach.

“The media in all its forms is the most underutilised asset today to have a strong social impact. For every pound, dollar, euro, or peso… for every 1,000 that companies, donors, or foundations put into social change, probably 0.1% of that goes into producing mass media content for social change. We all know how influential media is in how we dress, what we talk about over dinner and what we think is right and wrong in our society – yet we are not using it.”

Fundación Televisa, part of the Televisa Group, has been working with telenovelas to create social impact since the late 1970s and ‘80s. Televisa’s latest campaign was focused on Early Childhood Week.

“What we are experimenting with now,” Alejandro stated, “is what if you have a soap opera or scripted show that you can watch in the afternoon and then in the morning entertainment show the next day, you talk about the storylines on that show? What if you have an expert on the topic there and what if, during the actual show, you can have a Facebook or Instagram live so that people can go there during the breaks to continue the conversation about the emotional side that you see in scripted shows. What if we connect all of this with PSAs and ad campaigns during the duration of the show’s storyline?”

This, he says, is the approach they chose for Early Childhood Week. The key message for Televisa’s campaign was to encourage parents to better understand the relevance of these early years and to show them how they can use everyday situations – without having to do anything outside of their ultra-busy schedules – to create some meaningful memories with their children. This collaboration between media platforms and mediums has proved quite powerful and has reached an estimated twenty million people in Mexico.

Considering why this approach was successful, beyond the wider use of PSAs, social media, advertising and engaging the audience through morning entertainment programmes, Alejandro also commented on their approach to partnering with writers:

“We work with writers from the very beginning on a certain topic and with experts so that the writers they can create but based on the right approach scientifically and technically speaking [sic]. They then put in all the drama and entertainment ingredients to make it more attractive and successful for the audience.”

How then do content makers balance social impact messages and demands with the writing and entertainment?

He believes that one of the main challenges is that producers, programmers, and content developers often believe that having intentional social impact through a piece of content is not going to be entertaining:

“[If] it’s not going to be sex, drugs, violence, killing or funny jokes that may not be politically correct, but everybody laughs with… they kind of prefer to stay away from that. What we have learned is that we identify an issue, and we bring it from the very beginning to the writers. We make sure that the writers that are going to be involved in it are going to be passionate about the writing. About being able to influence millions of people.”

He is quick to acknowledge that despite all of this, balance is needed. Telenovelas are not documentaries and they do not want to be preaching to people. But characters cannot be perfect human beings that make all the right decisions, because no one is like that. These transitional characters are the ones that the audience connects with.

“We work with the writers and our advisors to find the right mix. And we also tell our advisors to be sensitive that there is going to be drama. That a character may die during the episode, that some people may do bad some bad things.”

It is then a delicate balance but one that he is not shying away from:

“When you have a committed group of writers, producers, and advisors that are sensitive that this is about showing the real world, about how you can model behaviour that – in the course of the story – leans to one side, then I think you have a powerful mix.”

Concluding with an emphatic call to creators at the OKRE Summit and others listening, Alejandro says:
“I really hope that we all can push for much, much more content that is intentionally developed for social impact, especially on the scripted side. We have so much more to do.”