DENVER (AP) – The titillating twists and turns of this Spanish-language soap opera captivated Colorado Hispanics.
But instead of stories of forbidden love and revenge, its plot twists involved health issues affecting Hispanics and the services the state provides — all told with the dramatic flair for which telenovelas are famous.
Think soap opera meets after-school special.
Health officials say they got a resounding response from 2009’s Denver-area series, titled “Encrucijada: Sin Salud No Hay Nada,” or “Crossroads: Without Health, There Is Nothing.”
Three surveys provided to The Associated Press this week on its impact showed that thousands of viewers called a help line to ask about issues on the show, and most said they found the show beneficial. One night, 35,000 households tuned in, according to Nielsen ratings.
“We were overwhelmed with the response,” said project director Anne Smith. “To receive the call volume that we did, when we weren’t trying to give away pizzas. We were asking people to call about a pretty complex issue.”
The success has inspired a sequel, “Encrucijada 2,” which will begin filming in Los Angeles this fall. The Colorado Health Foundation, which owns the rights to the first season of the show, is trying to make it available in other states, said Kelly Dunkin, vice president of philanthropy at the foundation.
Hispanics are affected by diabetes, obesity and other health issues at disproportionately high rates. For example, they have higher rates of obesity than whites, African Americans, and Asians among children ages 2 to 14, according the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Hispanic adults are also three times more likely to die of diabetes than whites and two times more likely than African Americans.
Language barriers and, for many, living in a new culture, mean they’re often hard to reach about their health options, making the telenovela an appealing avenue.
“I think we have to go where the people are,” said Dr. Chris Urbina, the executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado department. “Latinos, particularly first generation Latinos, like to watch telenovelas. I think it’s part of our culture.”
Other states are using radio soap operas to educate minorities about their health.
Last month, a radio show launched in Alabama titled “Promesas y Traiciones,” or “Promises and Betrayals,” that educates Hispanics about obesity and smoking. A radio drama for African Americans called “Living Well in Camberwell” also began airing in that state.
“We can help create a narrative that can inspire people to change,” said Brenda Campos, the program director for Media Impact, one of the organizations that helped produce the shows.
In Iowa, a weekly radio series just concluded that sought to prevent unintended pregnancies.
“Practically speaking, most people would agree that entertainment is going to engage you more and you’re going to pay more attention,” said Connie Kohler, a professor of health behavior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Kohler worked on the Iowa program, titled, “La Noche Te Da Sorpresas,” or “The Night Gives You Surprises.”
The Colorado soap opera featured health workers as its protagonists. Along the way, viewers were immersed with plots they could relate to. There was the case of an expecting couple encouraged to seek prenatal care; there were characters without health insurance. A teenager learned a lesson about driving drunk after getting into a wreck that injured a boy. The boy’s family learned he qualified for Child Health Plan Plus, known as CHPP, a Colorado program for uninsured children and pregnant women who can’t afford private insurance but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid.
Most viewers surveyed said they learned “a lot” about diseases, including diabetes and cancer. Nearly all said the telenovela gave them ideas on how to improve their lives.
The 12-episode season aired on Denver’s Univision affiliate, operated by Entravision Communications Corp., based in Santa Monica, Calif., with stars that included Roberto Medina, who appeared in “21 Grams” and “Frida.”
“Encrucijada” sometimes drew comparable ratings to the Spanish-language version of “Desperate Housewives.”
A toll-free number during each episode encouraged viewers to call about topics on the show. During its run, from May to December 2009, the health hotline received more than 2,000 calls, according to figures compiled for the Colorado Health Foundation.
One third of callers requested information about the CHPP program, and about a fifth called to learn about low-cost health insurance options. Others sought help for depression, domestic violence and diabetes.
Maria Dolores Jaquez De Silva, 63, was an avid viewer who learned about a place where she could get tested regularly for diabetes. She said she made sure to spread the program’s message to her friends.
“Because that show was about advice, not about a soap opera,” she said in Spanish. “They’re such beautiful messages that the show should never end.”
Dunkin, with the Colorado Health Foundation, said the “Encrucijada” sequel will focus on healthy eating and being more active. It will continue to emphasize the availability of public health insurance programs.
“We know that telenovelas are incredibly popular. We’ve heard that men don’t watch telenovelas, but we know that they secretly do,” Dunkin said.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)