Friday, December 3, 2010

RENT as entertainment-education?

Was RENT an early example of entertainment-education in the United States? I argue that RENT worked as a highly successful health entertainment-education piece because of the high-quality of the artistic content made audiences more likely to also be open to its overall educational message.

The musical opened in 1996, after a collaboration between composer Jonathan Larson and playwright Billy Aronson. The play is a reworking of Puccini’s La Boheme. Tuberculosis racks the characters of Puccini’s famous opera but Aronson brought the story into 20th century New York City with characters dealing with the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. After its opening in New York, the play went on to huge success and praise from audiences and critics alike.[1]

The play deals with several of its characters living with and dying of AIDS in a tangle of friendships and love stories. It also deals outright with gay and transgender issues that clouded the AIDS epidemic in the United States for years.

Unlike Jasoos Vijay, there was no funding from governments or non-profits.[2] It was just two friends with hopes of bringing rock opera to the MTV generation. But they wrote about their own lives, and an arts community in New York City that was ravaged by the AIDS/HIV epidemic during those years. The song “Will I” takes place at a fictional Life Support meeting—a support group for those with AIDS. In the song, the characters introduce themselves. In the early years of the Broadway run, the actors would change the names nightly to honor their own real-life friends who were living with or had died of AIDS. HIV-positive friends of Larson’s also encouraged him to include the feelings of anger and resentment that are common among those with the disease into the play. The result became the song “Life Support.”[3]

Our reading this week discusses the difficulties in producing entertainment-education in societies with heavy commercial broadcasting, countries like the United States with very little state or public broadcasting. Broadcast companies are often wary that audience will see the programming as a turn-off and the venture will not be profitable. [4]

I believe RENT is an excellent example of incredibly successful entertainment that not only humanized the face of AIDS during a time of fear and prejudice about the disease in the United States but also dealt with less culturally-accepted topics like homosexuality and transgender identity.

The play had a 12 year run on Broadway and grossed over $280 million, winning four Tony-awards, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as other awards. In addition, it had numerous tours in the US and abroad. It has been translated into twenty-three languages including: Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, English, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Estonian, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak, Greek, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Hebrew. Finally, it was made into a motion picture in 2005.

As far as I could find, there are no audience studies on the effects of RENT but one could argue that it did help to address the prejudices that existed at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in a way that is similar to the entertainment-education campaigns of today. As well, it makes a strong case that good art can shift social norms, even if only a little.

[1] Victoria Sollectio, “Raising the RENT: Reflections on Community, Sexuality and Musical Theatre |,” blog, Re/Visionist, December 2, 2009,

[2] Lauren B. Frank, Sonal Chaudhuri, Anurudra Bhanot, “Cultural and Normative Elements to Increase the Impact of Drama for Developement: The Case of Jasoos Vijay” (Annenberg School for Communication, University of California).

[3] “Rent (musical) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” Wikipedia, December 2, 2010,

[4] Avrind Singhal, Everett M. Rodgers, “A Theoretical Agenda for Entertainment-Education,” Communication Theory 12, no. 2 (May 2002): 117-135.

Afghan Star and Glocalization

One of this week’s presentations was on the localization of formatting of various TV shows. Part of this presentation discussed reality TV, with Idol as an example. The popularity of Idol was explained in terms of the appeal of music and that “everybody likes singing.” The Afghan version of this TV show, “Afghan Star” poses an interesting case study in the localization of global TV.

The show is actually not officially affiliated with Idol, but uses the same concept, in which singers compete for the title “Afghan Star” – the nation’s favorite singer. What’s particularly interesting in this case is that music was considered sacrilegious by the Mujahedeen, and then forbidden by the Taliban (1996-2001).

By the finale, 11 million (a third of the country) were watching and voting by mobile phone, which some say is the first experience with democracy for many Afghans. According to the Afghan Star documentary, “This is a highly radical idea in a country still essentially based on a male-dominated tribal elder system. For the first time young people, ethnic minorities and women have an arena in which to shine. And at last, the people are allowed to vote for who they want.”

The documentary – the UK’s official Foreign Language submission to the 2010 Academy Awards and winner of two Sundance awards (World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary and World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary) – showcases four contestants as they make their way through the competition. Here is a link to the trailer:

One of these contestants, a 21-year old woman named Setara, became particularly controversial when she removed her headscarf and danced during a performance. She went into hiding after receiving numerous death threats, also received by the show’s producers. In addition, Afghan clerics demanded the show be taken off the air for being un-Islamic.

More recent information on the TV show is difficult to find (at least in English), and the website,, appears to no longer exist. But apparently Season 5, a Superstar edition, was the most recent season to air, during the summer of 2010.

The case of “Afghan Star” illustrates that even the core concept of a show, such as music and singing, may be received differently by different cultures.

Health Communication: Singapore v. Canada

My colleagues recently presented research on SARS in relation to communication, using case studies of Singapore and Canada comparatively to demonstrate how two countries tackled this particular health issue differently, each yielding different results. What I found most interesting were the cultural implications behind how each country handled the epidemic of SARS. When the WHO put Singapore on the list for countries that should not be flown to due to an outbreak of SARS, the country was very open about their status and immediately brainstormed ways in which they could encourage good health practices and raise awareness among the population on how to prevent SARS and what to do as soon as you see signs that you may have it. Canada on the other hand tried to deny their placement on the same list by WHO and spent more time fighting against their status instead of working to inform the population and raise awareness on an epidemic that was quickly and quietly affecting them.

Immediately, I think East v. West. Why was Singapore so much more accepting and open about their status on the WHO list when Canada chose to hide this information and fight it? Culture plays a huge role in these country's responses and in turn affect the final result in each country of how many lives were saved and how devastating SARS outbreaks were.

In many Asian countries such as Singapore, Confucious ideas of the community being more important than the individual no doubt played a part in the underlying approach that health initiatives are put in place to protect the society as a whole. It was up to each person to do their part for the larger good. Also as a more open society, it was much more affective for Singapore to face SARS head on, recognize that yes, there is a problem, and immediately begin to handle it.

In comparison, the West is usually perceived as always thinking that they are right -more selfish even. These concepts seem to appear in the way Canada handled SARS. It's almost as if you can imagine Canada saying "We're a developed nation, we don't have a SARS problem! We can't be put on the same list as Singapore!" In turn they ignore the real problem and are focusing on image. When it comes to health, the Western world also seems to be a little more private, diseases are not necessarily a matter to publicize. So all of these themes worked together to in the end, hold Canada back from addressing the SARS problem and preventing infection which cost them millions of dollars in the end.

It is cultural aspects such as these that are important not only for health communication, but for understanding the reactions of different countries to many different obstacles or challenges that can face modern societies today. Understanding these differences can also help foreign policy makers or diplomats to be effective when working with foreign audiences.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Public Diplomacy or Propaganda?

When does public diplomacy become propaganda? There’s a fine line and the audience can’t always tell you what their definition is but they can tell you when it’s propaganda. In a close reading of Joseph Nye’s “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” he often references propaganda and cites cases where public diplomacy has slipped into the realms of propaganda. But he never defines propaganda nor fully outlines the circumstances under which public diplomacy becomes propaganda. I seek to give three signs to look for, and for practitioners of the art of public diplomacy, to be cautious of.

The first answer is when actions and words don’t match. Nye explains that no matter how good the packaging and the sell, when a government says one thing and actually does an entirely different thing, the sell becomes only propaganda. He writes, “Actions speak louder than words, and public diplomacy that appears to be mere window dressing for hard power projection is unlikely to succeed.” He goes on to write, “A communication strategy cannot work if it cuts against the grain of policy.” To give a modern example, this is why Guantanamo Bay and the actions at Abu Ghraib have been so devastating to the mission of American public diplomacy. The hard sell was the spread of democracy and freedom while the action was to take away the basic human rights of those who were not American citizens.

Answer number two is when public diplomacy only allows for one point of view or one stance only. Nye describes it as a two-way street. Diplomats must talk as well as listen. Public diplomacy that leaves room for ‘our view only’ will fall flat and will become merely a propaganda tool. James Glassman describes this phenomenon in his Public Diplomacy 2.0 speech as a lecture rather than a conversation.

The final answer and perhaps the most important, is when public diplomacy lacks credibility. Whenever a situation is sensationalized or the facts are stretched makes foreign audiences less receptive to the message. Nye writes, “Skeptics who treat the term public diplomacy as a mere euphemism for propaganda miss the point. Simple propaganda often lacks credibility and thus is counterproductive as public diplomacy.” (101)

The audiences of today’s public diplomacy have a flood of information from which to choose to listen. They can tune in and tune out at will. Now more than ever it is important that successful public diplomacy will be seen as a means of creating long and lasting relationships between countries rather than merely propaganda.


Joseph S. Nye, Jr. 2008. Public Diplomacy and Soft Power. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616: 94-109.

James Glassman, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Speech Dec. 01, 2008 to The New America Fondation. "Public Diplomacy 2.0"

Citizen Diplomacy

Joseph Nye (2008) identifies three dimensions of public diplomacy: daily communications, strategic communication, and “the development of lasting relationships with key individuals over many years.” This third dimension is facilitated through scholarships, exchanges, training, seminars, conferences, and media (102).

Nye argues that “effective public diplomacy is a two-way street that involves listening as well as talking […] that is why exchanges are often more effective than mere broadcasting” (103). Additionally, “face-to-face communications remain the most effective, but they can be supplemented and reinforced by the Internet.” The Internet provides a virtual space for people to remain connected as well as build new networks (104).

It is important to realize that though exchange is funded by universities, non-profits, and companies, many programs rely heavily on the support of the U.S. government (105). Nye also mentions how publics are often skeptical of governments, thus it is often more effective for governments to work with private actors. He adds that NGOs “can be useful channels of communication,” as they sometimes enjoy a higher level of trust (105). Indirect public diplomacy can also take place through American companies, which sometimes provide sensitivity and communications training to representatives sent abroad. (However, I would argue that this is not necessarily because they are “public-spirited”— cross-cultural training can increase communication effectiveness and, more importantly, can dramatically decrease the rate of premature return, making the training cost-effective.)

In terms of NGO-facilitated exchange, a good example is the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV), whose mission is “to promote excellence in citizen diplomacy.” Celebrating its 50th anniversary next year, NCIV is the private-sector partner of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). IVLP is a “professional exchange program that seeks to build mutual understanding between the U.S. and other nations through carefully designed short-term visits to the U.S. for current and emerging foreign leaders. These visits reflect the International Visitors’ professional interests and support the foreign policy goals of the United States.”

Citizen exchange promotes U.S. foreign policy goals because it contributes to Nye’s third dimension of public diplomacy: “the development of lasting relationships with key individuals over many years” (102). IVLP alumni have included several Chiefs of State or Heads of Government and Nobel prize winners.

NCIV is a national network of NGOs that host these international visitors and design programs. So while visitors may be chosen by governments, the programs are often designed by NGOs that work to incorporate the professional interests of the visitors. NCIV helps facilitate connections between international visitors and their American counterparts.

Nye, Joseph. “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” The ANNALS 2008 616: 94-109.