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."
No matter their real-life situations and the stresses of urban life and shifting morals, said the creatives, local TV audiences still craved "escape," and that escape took the form of harking back to old-time, old-fashioned family values and personal behaviours where people still adhered to a stringently monitored social code.
Well, as I told you before, the discussion took place many years ago. I have reason to believe that things have changed quite a bit since, especially because GMA-7 now has a primetime drama called "My Husband's Lover." Two of the more prominent (and impossibly good-looking) male talents of the network star as, respectively, a newly minted groom and his boyfriend from back when they were in college. I haven't watched a full episode of this drama, but friends tell me the scenes of the two male lovers are "tastefully done," lit dimly, with the characters behaving so discreetly they can put Boots Anson-Roa to shame.
Why, no less than Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, has been sufficiently moved as to mention the billboards touting the show-although he does contrast the followers of "My Husband's Lover" to adherents of "Be Careful with my Heart," a daytime drama on rival ABS-CBN that is so unspeakably squeaky clean it has earned commendations for its family values. This, even if one of the characters is portrayed by Aiza Seguerra, who set off a minifirestorm years back by "coming out" on her sexuality.
So I don't know. Have the vigilant social police of the TV dramas' focus groups lost their grip or slackened their controls? Or have TV writers and producers, ever on the search for novel twists and shocking turns, decided to say to hell with the culture Nazis and proceeded to tread on delicate social and cultural (even moral) ground?
Or maybe, and this is a faint hope, the TV audience has moved on from its obsession with social acceptability and now dares explore social issues that challenge our previously ironclad verities?
These are valid questions that go way beyond TV ratings or the creative process behind TV dramas.
For one, pop culture is often a harbinger of culture change. Weeks before the US Supreme Court struck down antigay marriage laws, Time magazine ran an article tracking the speedy and dizzying change in American public opinion regarding gay marriage, mentioning gay-themed TV shows or at least shows with prominent gay characters.
Will the lovers in "My Husband's Lover" (and the show's ratings) lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage in this country? Will the flourishing careers of Aiza Seguerra and Charice Pempengco encourage more closet gays to step out and about?