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.