Growing up in the East Los Angeles area, Sabrina Guerrero experienced firsthand the unique pressures and challenges facing young Latinos in the region. When she was just a teenager, she encountered an entirely new obstacle: motherhood. Sabrina’s experiences made her the perfect local casting director for the Population Media Center’s television show —“East Los High" — a drama series about sexual health among Latino teens living in the area. Working on the show, Sabrina saw that it was not only educational and entertaining, but also uplifting for her community:

‘East Los High’ gave students from the local schools and community members a chance to participate in the show. When you watch it, you are actually seeing community businesses, parts of our neighborhood, and community members. This series gave back and let the community participate…East Los Angeles has an amazing identity. I believe that ‘East Los High’ helped show this while also displaying problems some teenagers face.

Population Media Center

Founded in 1998, the Population Media Center (PMC) works to improve the health and well-being of communities across the world using entertainment-education strategies.  This particular strategy draws on the Sabido Method which combines audience research with mass media to reach an entire society with messages and role models that promote positive behavior.

In each of the 27 countries it works in, PMC partners with local government groups, nongovernmental organizations, and local producers to ensure their programs are culturally relevant and written in the native language. In addition, they provide employment to local actors, writers, translators, and advisors. During the broadcast of their programs, PMC organizes feedback groups and interviews audience members in order to appropriately adjust the characters or message. Since their founding, PMC has covered such issues as female genital mutilation in Sudan, domestic violence in the Philippines, child trafficking in Burkina Faso, marriage by abduction in Ethiopia, and many other issues worldwide.

East Los High

In 2006, with help from the Argosy Foundation, PMC conducted a study on Latino youth behavior in Los Angeles County to look at the unique obstacles and constraints they encounter in regards to sexual health. They found that in 2007, Latina adolescents gave birth at more than twice the rate of white adolescents and were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with STIs, higher rates of depression, and lower rates of prenatal care.[1] According to PMC, these discrepancies stemmed from Latinas’ limited access to reproductive health care due to such factors as gender, poverty, racial and ethnic discrimination, and xenophobia.[2] After measuring high levels of media consumption and influence within the Latino community, PMC began to develop an entertainment-education strategy to disseminate accurate sexual health information and promote positive role models.

This past year, through grants from Argosy and others, PMC launched East Los High (ELH), a television series in the telenovela style aimed at Latino youth. In an effort to make sure ELH resonated with the community it was hoping to reach, the producers employed local teenagers from the East Los Angeles area to help with production or stand in as extras. They also hired young women from the community to work with professional writers on the characters’ social media profiles. In August 2013, ELH was awarded a media award by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists for being the first-ever U. S. television show to feature an all-Latino cast and crew. .  It is also the Population Media Center’s first television series to be developed in the U.S. and the first domestic television program to be developed using key principles from the Sabido Method.The 24 half-hour episodes follow cousins Jesse and Maya as they maneuver through their adolescence and complex sexual decisions. The audience witnesses the characters journey through heartbreak, obsession, love, infidelity, and pregnancy, all the while learning through their experiences.  The goal of ELH is to engage the audience while at the same time educating them about options in reproductive health, safe lifestyle choices, and self-confidence. The show delves into complex issues such as abortion and birth control while demonstrating the importance of education, healthy relationships, safe sex, and open discussions about sexuality. “The show hopefully helps to break down some taboo and challenging topics in order to address them and make them more comfortable for teens,” says Katie Mota, ELH’s Executive Producer. By presenting these subjects in an entertaining teen drama, PMC hopes to normalize such sensitive topics and encourage discussion between teens, their peers and families.

“I think we’ve seen media and stories shape our values since the beginning of time. This is just a modern way of doing storytelling and sharing our own experiences in order to teach the next generation.”

Building a Fanbase, One Click at a Time

Vitally important to the project’s success is its online presence. After each episode, viewers are directed to the show’s website where they can access ELH character blogs, social media launch pads, video diaries, mobile applications, resources from partner organizations, and get involved in discussions through Twitter and Facebook. One such transmedia element is an advice column written in the voice of the comedic character Paulie in which viewers can send in their questions about sex and relationships. A group of writers and advisors compose responses written with a teenage voice that provide valuable resources and information about birth control, pregnancy, STDs and more. When the episodes initially aired, characters’ Facebook and Twitter profiles were updated daily, incorporating topics from the show along with current events. According to Katie Elmore Mota, this was especially successful: “Making the connection between what’s happening in the show and what the bigger picture is in terms of advocacy and reproductive rights made for some pretty amazing discussions on social media.” Katie and the rest of the ELH team have been amazed at the amount of positive feedback and online discussion that the show has produced.

Determining Success

The greatest challenge Katie and the writers faced while creating the series was finding the balance between providing viewers with information about sexual health and keeping them entertained. In order for teens to actually tune in and get involved in the show’s message, Katie knew how important this balance was. “The second teens, or really anyone, feel like you’re telling them what to do, you’re going to turn them off. The challenge is dealing with these issues in a way that is meaningful, thoughtful and thorough but at the same time keeping the pace of a popular television show that keeps viewers engaged.” As of now, ELH has held the number one position as the most viewed show every day since its launch on Hulu Latino and was in the top five on all of Hulu during the first several months on air.

In order to determine the impact of ELH on its target audience, the Argosy Foundation has provided PMC with a grant to partner with a researcher at the University of Texas- El Paso. With the results of their research coming out in 2014, PMC hopes to determine how many viewers tuned in as well as measure behavior and attitude shifts within the target population. They will also be looking at web traffic to ELH’s website, service statistics from clinics, as well as a qualitative component.

East Los High is currently preparing to shoot a second season of the series. Katie and the entire team at PMC and ELH have been thrilled by the initial response to the show and are looking forward to growing the characters over the next season. PMC continues to work around the world promoting family planning and sexual health through entertainment-education strategies, with a new project in Mexico City. According to Katie, PMC’s method has withstood the test of time. “I think we’ve seen media and stories shape our values since the beginning of time. This is just a modern way of doing storytelling and sharing our own experiences in order to teach the next generation.”