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Intersexions Engages and Informs Audiences – and Influence Critical Life Decisions

The smash-hit SABC1 drama series Intersexions gave millions of South Africans critical messages around HIV/AIDS - and Facebook gave them the forum to discuss and further contemplate the messages.<--break->

Intersexions is an innovative series of 26 separate but interlinked episodes that show how our lives intersect and criss-cross with others' in ways we don't even know about. As soon as we become sexually active, we are immediately locked into a human sexual network in which we are sleeping with hundreds even thousands of complete strangers - our lovers' lovers.

The series was extensively supported through weekly discussions on 10 SABC radio stations, public relations to promote the show, a blog featuring weekly updates on the show, and social networking through Facebook and Twitter.

In what is believed to be the first-ever study to analyse the use of social media to advance HIV/AIDS awareness, conducted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Centre for Communication, Media and Society (CCMS), several key preliminary findings were made about the show's Facebook presence:

*Social media extends the dialogue of the series, thus diffusing ideas; the series provides the messages, and Facebook is the platform that allows for dialogue and introspection

*Social media allows audiences to break the silence and discuss traditionally taboo subjects - such as rape or men who have sex with men - more openly

*Social media adds value in the provision of additional information and the creation of more holistic and integrated HIV messages connecting to other health issues, social problems and the like

* Social media facilitates mutual understanding, implying that through discussion audiences are able to come to a deeper appreciation of the issues being addressed

*People's perceived risk to HIV infection increased, stimulating behavioural outcomes - such as a positive response to HIV testing

These findings were recently made public at the 5th Entertainment Education Conference, held in India between 17 and 20 November 2011, which brought together communication experts from across the world to examine the use of entertainment education in support of health-related programmes.

The Intersexions Facebook page garnered over 23 000 fans, of whom 69% were women. The study divided fans into active and passive group; the active group, consisting of around 3 000 people, commented or became involved in discussions during the 26-week broadcast, and the rest were silent observers.

Similarly, the series' Twitter account was very active, particularly during and immediately after episodes were broadcast. Intersexions garnered over 2 300 Twitter followers, who on average tweeted in excess of 2 500 times per episode.

Lusanda Mahlasela of Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa, the health communications NGO that conceptualised and drove Intersexions, presented a paper as part of a panel on Intersexions to the Entertainment Education Conference.

"There is no doubt that, while Intersexions on its own is one of the most innovative drama series ever produced in South Africa, social media took the show into a unique realm in this country. While the series provided audiences with new information and bolstered existing knowledge in an entertaining and engrossing way, social media allowed them to relate to the content in a very personal and interactive way.

"So, for example, health and relationship messaging on the Facebook page is moderated by our resident sexologist, Dr Elna McIntosh, who provided expert insights into audience questions about their own particular circumstances," says Mahlasela.

A second survey, by the Centre for AIDS Development, Research and Evaluation (CADRE), involving a post-broadcast, qualitative audience evaluation conducted in six provinces between April and June 2011, revealed several telling insights into the impacts that Intersexions has had on viewers:

*They felt Intersexions reflected true-to-life situations - to the extent that respondents termed it a "reality show"

*The series' mix of cultures, languages and settings reflected South Africa's wide diversity, and also underlined the idea that HIV does not discriminate based on race and class

*Audiences identified strongly with specific characters and storylines, bringing health messages home to them

*That Intersexions promoted discussions within families and groups of friends, in the workplace and between partners about HIV, often where such discussions were previously taboo

*Respondents reported taking conscious decisions to change or modify their behaviour directly as a result of having watched Intersexions, particularly when it came to undergoing HIV testing and counselling, and consistent condom usage

*Audiences became more aware of the dangers presented by alcohol use and multiple sexual partnerships

*The series sanctioned and legitimised HIV counselling and testing. One respondent to the CADRE survey said that episode 21, in which the HIV-positive character Ntombi is secretly taking antiretroviral medication and throws away the medicine given to her by a traditional healer, had directly influenced her to take her first-ever HIV test - and that going onto ARVs had changed her life for the better

*People better understood the human sexual network, in which all sexually-active people are linked

Harriet Gavshon of Curious Pictures, the executive producer of Intersexions, who also presented a paper at the conference, says Intersexions had been intended to get audiences thinking.

"The basic premise of the series was encapsulated in the question: do you know your lover's lovers? Immediately we enter into the human sexual network, we are linked to everyone else in it - and the structure of Intersexions exactly mirrored that interconnection.

"But while we used the classic device of getting the audience to identify with the characters and the dilemmas they face, we then interrupted that identification through our storylines and denied them the emotional catharsis they would otherwise have experienced. This led them rather into a space of introspection and thoughtfulness," says Gavshon.

"In short, we engaged with the audience's brains as well as hearts, which paid off handsomely - and set the scene for the lively and interactive audience participation on social platforms such as Facebook."