PHILIPPINES - Many years back, friends who were connected with an NGO devising "communication strategies" on family planning invited me to take part in a dialogue with writers, directors and producers of local soap operas for the top two broadcast stations.
The session, meant to convince the creative teams to include more messages on reproductive health, was such an eye-opener I've shared bits and pieces of the conversation with friends and audiences over the years.
One of the first realizations I had was how "conservative"-at least in terms of social mores-the Filipino TV audience is, or was then.
Also, how these "conservative values" in turn were used to enforce social cohesion through the content of the dramas, then as now powerful shapers of popular culture.
As one of the writers stated: "Our people, especially young people, may be experimenting with all forms of social behaviour, but on TV, they want their romantic ideals reinforced and depicted."
To illustrate: Just before the dialogue, I was talking with someone who works as a "peer counselor" among public high school students. "I'm surprised at how casually they treat their relationships," she remarked. "More than once, I've heard stories of how a girl would meet a boy inside a jeepney, and by the time they reached their destination, they were already 'steadies.'" The "end of the affair" (or just the relationship) also came just as easily and casually, through a curt text message or a short phone call.
But in the soaps, the creatives said, the audience demanded more complexity and higher standards of behaviour. The girl had to be "pure," the boy "loyal and devoted." And hookups and breakups had to be treated with all the solemnity of an epic romance, with family members on both sides wading in with their own two centavos' worth of commentary and disapproval.
All these are communicated to the creative teams behind each drama by a "focus group" of regular viewers who are asked to text or e-mail their immediate reactions after each viewing of an episode. (Twitter and Facebook weren't still in common use then.)
The focus group members, the TV production people said, could be quite vehement in their commentary and condemnation of characterizations that breached "socially acceptable" borders. Especially, said one gay director, when a character happened to be gay.
In one drama, a political potboiler about a corrupt politician embroiled in a family feud, one of the governor's daughters (I think) was a lawyer who happened to be a lesbian. She was even shown to be having secret assignations with a girlfriend. "The comments of the focus group were very angry at this character, with some of them saying the lesbian scenes (despite the sensitive handling, for fear of TV censors) were nakakasuka (nauseating)." Which is why, said the director, "toward the end of the drama, the woman lawyer suddenly shifted her sexual orientation and ended up with a boyfriend."