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Well-crafted entertainment can change the world

Skoll World Forum - Tue, 11 Mar 2014 17:50 GMT
Author: John Marks
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Shooting “The Team” in the DRC (Congo)
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This piece was written in advance of the 2014 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. View the entire advance series and subscribe here to watch the live-stream April 9-11 from Oxford, England.

For more than 20 years, we at Search for Common Ground have produced innovative TV and radio programs designed to prevent violence and transform conflict. The goal of our media division, Common Ground Productions (CGP), is to use creative storytelling techniques to influence attitudes and behaviors.  Our basic premise is that well-crafted, entertaining programming can have a profound impact on how people think about themselves, their neighbors, and their society. Our work reaches tens of millions of people on the intellectual, visual, aural, and emotional levels.

In short, we use the tools of popular culture to reach mass audiences with values of mutual respect, non-violence, and cooperation.  As far as we know, no other organization is doing work of this sort on a comparable scale.

Rather than produce one program at a time, as most film-makers do, we make multi-episode series.  Indeed, we are convinced that repetition – as long as it is engaging and evolving – is a key element in bringing about positive change.

Since 2008, we have produced or co-produced 296 half-hour episodes of dramatic TV in 15 different countries.  In addition, we have made 68 episodes of reality TV, one feature-length, dramatic film, and several thousand hours of radio programs.  And we do all this with a full-time staff of only two people, who work in partnership with local media production entities and with Search for Common Ground field offices around the world.

Our media productions are rooted in the local cultural context.  Indigenous writers, directors, and technicians make our shows – and adapt traditional storytelling traditions to produce programming in a common ground framework.  So, Sierra Leoneans write and direct our daily radio soap opera, of which more than 3,500 episodes have aired and which promotes national reconciliation.  And Kenyans, Ivoirians, Moroccans, Palestinians, Nepalese, Congolese, and people from a dozen other countries produce local versions of “The Team,” our signature TV and radio drama series about soccer players from different ethnic and religious groups who overcome their differences and play together.

We call this “soap opera for social change.”  Click here to a trailer of “The Team”.

In addition, we use other formats, and we are currently in pre-production in Amman of a new Arabic-language series, called “Madame President.”  It will have 15 episodes and will be broadcast by satellite TV across the Middle East.  It will be set in a fictional Arab country and will resemble the US series, “The West Wing” – except that the President will be a woman who will eschew saving face and will choose not to exact revenge.  She will resolve problems fairly, be willing to compromise, avoid violence, and generally act in a manner that directly contrasts with the path followed by most male leaders.

In addition to dramatic TV, we also produce other kinds of programming, including:

  • Reality Shows.  In the Palestinian Territories, Rwanda, and the DRC, we have produced reality TV series, which emphasise teamwork and counter the assumption that reality TV must be a zero-sum game.  The Palestinian series, in partnership with the Ma’an Network, is about electing a young person as the next Palestinian President.  It follows the American Idol model with judges and SMS voting.  The Rwandan series focuses on empowering business entrepreneurs, and the DRC series looks at social entrepreneurs.
  • PSAs.  In the DRC, we work with a well-known rapper, Celeo Scram, to produce video and audio public service announcements showing that “real men” do not commit violence against women.  These are part of a multi-pronged campaign that also includes dramatic and reality TV shows, radio programs, mobile cinema showings, and retraining whole regiments of the Congolese army and police.
  • Feature Film.  In 2013, we made our first feature film, called “Under the Same Sun.”  Set in the future, it is the fictional story of two businessmen – an Israeli and a Palestinian – who set out to make money and who wind up making peace.  The producer is Amir Harel, an Academy Award-nominated producer, and the director is Sameh Zoabi, a leading Palestinian film-maker.

John Marks is founder and president of Search for Common Ground

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