Broadcasters take aim at Africa's four-letter fiend

Here is a “good news” story about the fight against HIV/Aids: it’s about African broadcasters aligning their power to make a difference.

The African Broadcast Media Partnership (ABMP)—representing media houses broadcasting across 35 countries around the continent—has chalked up several successes since its inception three years ago.

The participants all report increases in the airtime devoted to HIV/Aids as a result of their involvement in the partnership. And they’ve also now agreed to a new project to capitalise on young people’s anticipated interest in the Soccer World Cup.

Called “f4”, short for “Football for an HIV-free generation”, scores of African stations will soon start flighting television spots which link soccer excitement to knowing your HIV status.

In Johannesburg this week, a meeting of the ABMP unveiled an example to be broadcast on December 1, World Aids Day.

The jaunty scene tracks a soccer ball being kicked from teenage boys, bouncing on to girls, and then adult workers and professionals—ending up with an excited crowd following it rolling into a centre for HIV testing.

The aim of the ABMP is to mainstream HIV/Aids messages into the core business practice of each of the 57 member broadcasters.

That’s a challenge given the denialism, passivity and bureaucracy afflicting many African broadcasters. There’s also the aversion of many listeners and viewers to the topic—a hurdle similar to newspapers where front page HIV/Aids coverage leads to reduced sales.

Another challenge for ABMP members is how to avoid undermining safe-sex themes with other content being broadcast that normalises careless sex or promotes male sexual dominance.

The main challenge, however, is to ensure that there is at least substantial dedicated, even if necessarily subtle, programming around HIV/Aids.

For ABMP, this entails its members living up to their joint commitment to devote 5% or an hour’s worth of daily programming to the subject, every day.

Supporting this is free ABMP content for the members to use. So far, this has been in the form of TV spots on the theme of “It begins with YOU”, a reality-show series called Imagine Afrika, and a radio drama series, in either English, French, Portuguese or Arabic.

Producing common content for the entire continent is not an easy thing. Take, for instance, messages promoting condom use among the youth. These don’t go down well in Islamic Africa where any form pre-marital sex is a strong taboo, so other kinds of messaging have to be emphasised.

Funding for this kind of content is another challenge. Resources are coming from the United States-based Kaiser Family Foundation and other donors. To date ABMP companies have failed miserably to secure commercial sponsorship or advertising to ensure sustainability with each broadcaster helping to share production and airtime costs.

ABMP’s 2008 annual report says the coalition supports a principle of “own resources first”. It explains this as “not falling back on the complaint that there is no money, but doing what we can with what we have got by leveraging existing budgets and resources creatively”.

In turn, this means that besides drawing on the funded ABMP content, each broadcaster is also supposed to integrate the coalition’s key messages into its existing programming mix.

Despite difficulties, this desired result of increased HIV/Aids content from both sources seems to be working.

A study in August of 18 broadcasters within ABMP reveals that, although there is not hard evidence, nine estimate that they are now meeting or exceeding the target of 5% airtime.

A separate study using self-completed scorecards by member companies shows that nine in ten broadcasters claim an increase in daily airtime dedicated to HIV/Aids programming since forming the ABMP. That figure is up from just seven in ten reporting increased coverage in 2006.

Drama, news and public-service announcements are the most common formats for HIV/Aids messaging, while games and sitcoms have the least resonance.

But there is also still a way to go in some areas. Only four in ten broadcasters say they have written guidelines for their messaging on HIV/Aids (although this figure is an increase on the previous year).

There is also a problem in that four of ten companies still do not have workplace policies for staff and HIV/Aids.

ABMP needs to make progress in these areas. It could raise its effectiveness by promoting extra-broadcast partnerships among its members, and by encouraging a more interactive approach to communication (such as by exploiting talk shows, the web, SMS comments and other cellphone options).

But even with the many challenges, the ABMP is an encouraging sign of broadcasters taking seriously the need to jointly roll-out programming to tackle Africa’s four-letter scourge. Anyone concerned with Aids should celebrate that.

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