This blog was originally posted on the Huffington Post website on September 29, 2016; you can read that post here.
By Aric Noboa, president of Discovery Learning Alliance
Photo: Discovery Learning Alliance/Patrick Toselli
Philo Farnsworth believed television would help bring about world peace. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Although he was one of the most important inventors of early television, he later bemoaned its content. But perhaps, like his “image dissector,” Philo was onto something.
Recently, world leaders gathered in New York City for the 71st United Nations General Assembly. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - which lay out a path toward a more equitable and sustainable future - were at the top of the agenda.
What if we could harness the power of today’s mass media - TV (on all types of screens), movies, radio, etc. - to advance the ambitious global agenda set forth in the SDGs?
Of the 1.9 billion young people in the world today, 1.7 billion of them live in the developing world. They are the future of business, art, medicine, science, and the planet we call home. And their thoughts, attitudes and actions are being shaped moment by moment by what they’re watching on screens large and small. To Farnsworth’s concern about content...what is being created and what is being consumed?
Media has the power to shape the conversations in our minds, our families, and our communities. To be clear, I’m not just talking about awareness-raising. That’s important, but media can do more. Generally speaking, businesswomen in Tokyo know AIDS has devastated communities and stay-at-home dads in Chicago know clean water is an unmet need in much of the world. We can create and distribute media that can change the conversation, but also shift individual behavior and excite community action.
To be sure, this is already happening. There are exciting examples of media being used to make communities healthier, classrooms more dynamic and societies more just.
MTVShuga is a TV drama increasing responsible sexual behavior in several countries across Africa.
Satyamev Jayate is an Indian TV talk show that provides solutions to social issues like child sexual abuse, alcoholism and domestic violence.
Shamba Shape Up is a makeover-style reality show improving agricultural yields among small farmers in Kenya.
Two productions from Discovery Learning Alliance are making similar impacts:
Discovery + is a magazine-style talk show changing how girls, families and communities value girls’ education in east and west Africa.
And this year, we made a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action to write, produce, and distribute a scripted, feature film, The Lucky Specials, which will help audiences in southern Africa better understand and respond to tuberculosis, empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their health.
Why are these media initiatives and others proving effective? In part, it’s because media taps into our biology. First, more than half of the brain is involved in vision; we remember better with visuals. Second, we’re wired to retain more information when it connects to our emotions. It’s no surprise then that humans have been sharing ideas through stories since we began to speak. We are born to share and absorb stories. It’s literally in our DNA.
A few weeks ago at St. George’s House at Windsor Castle, Discovery Learning Alliance gathered a small group of leaders who are using media for social impact. In the course of sharing ideas and learnings, several themes emerged to advance the effectiveness of social impact media:
There has never been a better time for media to change the world, particularly with the continued proliferation of smart phones and connectivity in the developing world and continued organic growth of free-to-air and pay-TV in emerging markets.
Governments, foundations, non-profits, and the private sector collectively can accomplish more in partnership through the power of visual storytelling to make the world a better place - from dramatic films to online reality shows. With more creative content, funding, shared investment, new business models, and a breaking down of geographic and sector barriers, we can advance the impact of these multi-platform approaches.
We may not realize Philo Farnsworth’s full vision for television, but if we make the most of visual storytelling as a tool for development and social justice, we can take a giant leap toward meeting the SDGs.