Around the world, governments and development agencies are turning to “edutainment” programs to convey health education messages to high-risk populations via entertaining TV shows. These shows can change viewers’ perceptions and inspire them to think in new ways about what is possible. MTV Shuga is one such show, now in its 10th series, filmed in Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria, and soon to be seen in Côte d’Ivoire and India; and airing on more than 150 broadcast stations across sub-Saharan Africa.

MTV Shuga addresses the problems of HIV transmission and gender-based violence by fusing health messaging with engaging storylines. To test the show’s impact, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation independently commissioned the World Bank’s Development Impact Evaluation (DIME) team to conduct a randomized controlled trial. Professor Abhijit Banerjee, a recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Economics, co-authored the study. This research took place across 80 communities in Nigeria, where youth aged 18 to 25 were invited to a series of screening events. Some were exposed to eight episodes of MTV Shuga; others viewed a “placebo” series with no educational messages. Both groups filled out a baseline survey, with a follow-up eight months later.

The study’s results suggest that edutainment can improve HIV knowledge and attitudes toward HIV positive people substantially, as well as promote safer sexual behaviors. Eight months after the screenings, those who saw MTV Shuga were half as likely as those who did not see the show to report concurrent partners. They were also nearly twice as likely to get tested for HIV. Women exposed to MTV Shuga were 55% less likely to test positive for chlamydia. The positive effects even expanded into viewers’ social circles. Participants’ friends were more knowledgeable about HIV transmission, suggesting that those who watched MTV Shuga conveyed its messages to others.

MTV Shuga is also successful in changing behaviors and attitudes related to gender-based violence. Eight months after being exposed to the show, MTV Shuga viewers were a third less likely to report sexual violence. Physical violence reported by female viewers declined by more than half, and male viewers were 21 percent less likely to justify forced sex or wife beating.

Not only do these results show that MTV Shuga can educate and positively change deep-seated beliefs and behaviors, a cost-benefit analysis by the World Bank DIME team revealed that for every $1 invested, the program reaps $150 in health and social benefits. Given that mass media can reach large segments of the population at low marginal costs, shows like MTV Shuga have the potential to be more influential and less expensive than traditional behavior change campaigns – and even small “dosages” of high-quality edutainment can prove effective.