Should we make the poor watch more TV? Opportunities of soap operas to fight poverty

Bildergebnis für simplemente maria 1969 telenovelaSimplemente Maria. Peruvian telenovela starting in 1969.


Everyone in Germany knows Lindenstraße. It was the first German soap opera and started in 1985. Female emancipation, homosexuality, disability or assisted dying were just some of the issues addressed during the last 30 years of broadcasting with the aim of starting a rethinking process in society. Even topics considered to be taboo, can be brought up in the framework of a fictional universe and can in an indirect way lead to an attitudinal changing.

What works for us, also works for humans all around the globe. Those aspects listed above are probably first world problems, but the psychologic principle behind is the same. There are lots of studies showing that social behaviour can be influenced by TV shows. One of today’s leading researchers is the Italian Eliana La Ferrara, who for example explored the influence of novelas (Brazilian soap operas) on the fertility rate in Brazil.

But most of the early TV productions in developing countries and elsewhere were only on commercial purpose, such that they were not first and foremost created with a certain manipulative intention behind. Positive effects, like a declining fertility rate in our example from Brazil, were therefore just an unintended by-product. But that’s how research got interested and policy interventions tried to use this new knowledge in order to guide poor populations in a direction beneficial to development. What followed were so-called edutainment shows, a combination of entertainment and (tailored) education. (La Ferrara, 2016, p. 3 & 17)

Why is TV a good channel to reach the poor?
First of all, the most important reason is illiteracy which is probably widespread among the poor and which is why especially TV and radio can offer an easy access to information. Secondly, the circulation of other media like newspapers might not be high enough to reach every part of a country, such that broadcasts are much more practical. Furthermore, TV is available 24 hours a day. In conclusion, a great number of people can be reached at low cost. Nevertheless there are still poor, rural households without electricity or the possibilities to afford a television set (Panos London, 2017, p. 22). Topography can also impede any TV signals. But in general we can observe a great increase in TV ownership even in poor countries, why this offers vast opportunities for educational policy interventions as complement to conventional education (La Ferrara, 2016, p.1 f.).

What do we want to achieve?
The most relevant function of the media of course is to provide information and keep the relation to the world outside. Transfer of knowledge is the first important step in order to influence behaviour. Even if the facts are not completely new, a repetition might be sometimes good in order to internalize it or nurture the quest for more detailed information. (La Ferrara, 2016, p. 10)

But even though we actually know what is best for us, this does not mean that it automatically turns into beneficial behaviour. Just think of all the smokers being aware of their detrimental addiction and not changing anything.
So what can be an even more important effect of especially soap operas is a change in preferences. This can work quite well if characters are created as such that the poor can easily identify with them and take them as role models. This offers low costs of social learning: By watching a character taking right or wrong decisions, the individual doesn’t have to make the experience itself, but can just draw its own conclusions. (La Ferrara, 2016, p. 17)

What can be struggles?
Nonetheless, such interventions can also be ineffective or can even backfire if not well carried out. Turkish soaps for instance often enhanced unrealistic desires by showing personalities having a rather wealthy lifestyle, which made the poor either indebt themselves for imitation or aggravated hopelessness and dissatisfaction with their own life. (Ozgun, Yurdakul, Atik, 2017, p. 16)

Apart from that, TV shows can easily be abused for ideological or commercial reasons of governments or private actors. Quite often politicians are involved in the media in developing countries (Panos London, 2017, p. 29) and could probably use them for propaganda or to ensure quiescence among the poor population. This is why – whoever has the decisive power at that point – bears a great responsibility.
Therefore Semlali (2013) suggests a teaming up of (international) aid organisations having the knowledge about what issues to attack, with the entertainment industry, which knows how to apply them to the audience. Lastly, also a complementary infrastructure must be supplied by the government. Imagine parents who are finally convinced of the importance of school education, but teacher absenteeism and similar problems impede final achievements.



La Ferrara, E. (2016). ‘Mass media and social change: Can we use television to fight poverty?’, Journal of the European Economic Association, Volume 14, Issue 4, 1 August 2016, Pages 791–827.

Ozgun, A.; Yurdakul, D.; Atik, D. (2017). ‘How Do Soap Operas Affect the Poor? Experiences of Turkish Women’, Markets, Globalization & Development Review: Vol. 2 (No. 2), Article No. 2. DOI: 10.23860/MGDR-2017-02-02-02.

Barnes, J., Wood, A. (2017). Making poverty the story. Time to involve the media in poverty reduction. London: Panos London.

Semlali, A. (2013). Fighting poverty in the Arab world: with Soap Operas? Retrieved from: (04.07.2018)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s