On any given episode of East Los High, the highly addictive teen soap on Hulu that just got a fourth season, you'll see love triangles and heartbreak, mean girls and bad boys, and some seriously skillful dancing. Think a Latino Degrassi meets Gossip Girl meets Glee.
Clocking in at 20 minutes an episode with lots of online extras, the show is calibrated to get fans in their tweens, teens and 20s to inhale and then tweet things like "Finished all 3 seasons of #EastLosHigh in a week and now I have no reason to live anymore," and, "OMFG! I want season four right now!!!!!!!"
But it turns out the show, which is nearing its fourth season and follows a group of mostly Latino high schoolers in East Los Angeles, serves up more than cat fights and cute outfits — it's also a science experiment, conducted by a team of social scientists and health workers in cahoots with screenwriters and studio executives.
For the past three years, these unlikely collaborators have been folding information about sex and sexual health into the show's frothy plot lines. Their mission: to make a hit show that also helps young Latinas make healthy life choices.
It's an audacious undertaking, says Suruchi Sood, a public health researcher at Drexel University. "It's rare for academics and Hollywood types to team up like this," Sood says. She wasn't involved in developing or studying East Los High, but she did tune in, along with her teenage son. "It gave me the opportunity to ask about some of the things going on at his high school," she says. "It's just so much fun to watch! And if it gives you important messages, all the better."
In the East Los High writers' room, co-creator Kathleen Bedoya says the idea is to get into the minds of real teenagers, and convincingly depict them making healthy choices in difficult situations. But there's a cardinal rule: "We really didn't want to be preachy or moralistic." For that to work, the educational stuff has to blend seamlessly into the storyline.
Take this storyline from Season 1: popular girl Ceci — a fierce dancer who will "beat skonkas" — gets pregnant (her shiftless boyfriend Abe doesn't like to "bag it"). To make things worse, Ceci's parents live in Mexico, and the aunt she's been staying with kicks her out.
Ceci's not sure she's ready to be a parent, but she also doesn't want to have an abortion or give the baby up for adoption (at least not "to some white lady who probably can't even dance"). But while Abe offers to let her crash at his place, he's not the type to change diapers. Plus, Ceci is convinced Abe's mom is some sort of bruja who's trying to poison her.
So, she moves into a local women's center. "Abe makes me so mad," she tells the other moms. "He cheats, he's never around, he wouldn't even take me to prom and he wouldn't buy the baby a car seat."
"Aren't you sick of waiting for him?" asks another teen mom. When Ceci insists it's "not fair," a social worker chimes in. "So what are you going to do about it? Leave your baby at the hospital because Abe didn't buy you a car seat?"
That's when Ceci starts rethinking her situation. We see her ignore Abe the next time he comes calling at the shelter. Later, she's smiling to herself as she purchases a car seat with money she's saved up from her shelter allowance and a new job as a janitor.
"She realizes, 'You know what? I can do this,' " Bedoya says. "A lot of pregnant teens end up in similar situations — either their parents aren't around, or they get kicked out. We took this as an opportunity to show that there are government resources and nongovernmental agencies that can help."
Not every lesson is so heavy. When Tiffany confides to Fili that she's feeling uncomfortable down there — "It's like I'm peeing jalapenos!" — Fili recommends she get tested for STIs. Tiffany's exasperated response: "I don't have an STI, I drive a Lexus!" So Fili has to patiently explain: "No, mensa, an STI is a sexually transmitted infection."
It's a hilarious scene. But does it work? Can a spoonful of sugar — or, in this case, a heaping of delectable drama — really help life lessons stick?
Maybe. Researchers at Buffalo State and the University of Texas, El Paso have been studying the show's effect on teens, and early results are promising. If further research confirms that ELH's lessons really do change how its young fans approach tough life decisions, that success will have everything to do with the unusual way this show was conceived in the first place.
Not Your Mother's Afterschool Special
The experiment started a few years ago when Katie Elmore Mota, the show's executive producer, was thinking about the lack of diversity on TV. "I come from an incredibly mixed family," she says. "One of my brothers is Honduran, another is Trinidadian, and I have a sister that's Dominican." But families like hers were never featured on TV. "So we would make our own little films every summer."
Mota was working at the Population Media Center, a nonprofit that helps create educational TV and radio specials around the world, when she got the idea for East Los High. She started developing pitches for a scripted narrative show, but not without her public health sensibilities. She latched on to one statistic: The national teen pregnancy rate among Latinas was twice the rate among white women. So, she reached out to her public health network and nonprofits like the Ford Foundation.
"We got a small amount of money to create a show that would serve this very underserved audience, and would address issues like sex, sexual health and relationships," says Mota.
And to make sure the show was being sensitive and nonjudgmental about sex, she asked community health workers at organizations like Planned Parenthood and the National Domestic Abuse Hotline to weigh in. She also talked to social scientists around the country who study how to talk to teens about sexual health.
As for bringing the drama, Mota reached out to writers Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya, who had worked on both telenovelas and American TV shows. She asked them to develop a juicy storyline that would draw in young viewers. Their target audience was Latinas in their late teens and early 20s, says Mota, but "the basic storylines of love and betrayal are universal."
From there, they pitched the show to various networks. "We thought Hulu would be the best fit, because that's where kids are going to watch TV," Mota says. "They want to watch whatever they want, whenever they want." Young Latinos in particular use smartphones more than other groups. "We wanted to create a show that speaks to how people are consuming media these says."
The writers decided to set and shoot the series in the predominantly Latino Boyle Heights neighborhood in East LA. "It's right next to Hollywood, but we rarely see any shows shot there," Bedoya says. Plus, public health officials in California have referred to the neighborhood as a teen pregnancy "hot spot" — rates there are several times higher than in the rest of Los Angeles.
"With teen pregnancy, it's so easy to get a character pregnant," Bedoya says. "What's not so easy is how to represent the consequences of that, and to present the whole scenario in a way that isn't black or white." Same goes for other sexual health issues, or domestic violence. The writers ran their ideas by social workers and consulted with local teens to make sure they weren't inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes. They also drew from their own experiences.
Of course, East Los High has plenty of straightforward scandal to balance out the sex-ed lessons. Fili has a threesome on Valentine's Day, and Santi is sleeping with pretty much everybody. Maya wants Jacob to move to Santa Fe with her, but he has a thing for Ceci. And on the show's website, superfans can watch short extras — including makeup tutorials, character confessionals and a series called "HI-V," in which one of the show's main characters, Vanessa, discusses what it's like to live and date with HIV. "We wanted to make this a fun show to watch," Bedoya says. "Something to binge watch and discuss with friends."
There's precedent for shows like East Los High effectively pushing social change around the world, says Arvind Singhal, who teaches health communication at the University of Texas in El Paso. In the 1970s, Mexican TV executive Miguel Sabido, the father of educational soaps, created the telenovela Ven Conmigo ("Come with Me") about a teacher who goes to the countryside to teach adult literacy classes but gets sucked into a love triangle. It drew a huge audience, Singhal notes in his book Entertainment-Education and Social Change, and new enrollments in adult literacy programs all over the country increased nine times over after the show's debut. After one episode mentioned a national distribution center that provided free literacy booklets, 25,000 people showed up the next day to get a copy.
Sabido mainly worked on telenovelas in Mexico, but his work inspired soap operas and radio dramas around the world. After the radio series Twende na Wakati, or "Let's Go with the Times," began airing in parts of Tanzania, condom use in those areas spiked. And a Nepalese sitcom called Ashal Logne, or "Good Husband," helped educate the public about maternal health.
"The U.S. has really lagged behind in this area," adds Drexel's Sood. Shows like Degrassi and My So Called Life touched on sexual health and sexuality, but not with specific public health goals in mind. Plus, like most American TV shows, these shows spoke to a largely white, upper-middle-class audience. East Los High is a rare, new beast on American TV, says Sood: equal parts public health intervention and soap, and designed for an audience that TV networks have traditionally ignored.
When Science Meets Soapy Drama
Hulu doesn't release viewership numbers, but a spokesperson for Hulu says East Los High is among the site's most popular shows. And according to Hollywood Reporter, it was among the top five shows in the weeks after the latest season premiered. Its fans have been tweeting up a storm in anticipation of the fourth season, anxious to know what happens to Camila and whether Ceci ends up with Jacob. In other words, East Los High is capturing fans well beyond its target audience. Mota says about 60 percent of the audience is non-Latino.
So, it seems viewers are devouring all the delicious drama that East Los High serves up, but are they also digesting the public health messages — the spinach, if you will? That's what Singhal and Helen Wang at the University at Buffalo, are trying to figure out.
Singhal has been researching how to meld education and entertainment for most of his career. He's written what the social science community views as a definitive book on the topic. "We often think of media people as peacocks — creative, flamboyant," Singhal says. "And the researchers are sort of looked upon as turtles — slow and proddy. What was exciting about East Los High is how the peacocks and the turtles came together."
Singhal has been researching how to nudge teens in El Paso's largely Latino community toward healthy life choices since 2007. He's discovered, for instance, that "when moms talked to their teens about the importance of education and of graduating, rather than just telling them to not have sex, the teens were more likely to decide on their own to delay having sex, or do it safely," he says. He'd also found that young women who grew up with supportive, encouraging male family members tended to have higher self-esteem overall, and were better at expressing their needs in romantic relationships.
Executive producer Katie Mota approached Singhal way back when she was first developing the show for advice on how to talk to teens about sexual health. But as the show's premiere date approached, Singhal and colleague Wang got in touch with Mota with an idea: Why not treat the show like a public health intervention, and see if the educational messages had lasting power? They applied for grant funding from education nonprofits, and once the show aired, they began tracking how viewers were engaging with the show.
Wang, who specializes in using digital media to promote public health, looked at fans' conversations about the show on social media and tracked how often fans were watching the video extras. "In the surveys, fans would say things like 'East Los High changed my life!' and, 'Finally, a show about Latinos — we need more of this,' " she says.
To fully assess the show's impact, Wang and Singhal designed a small study. They enlisted 136 Latino women in the El Paso area who were between the ages of 18 and 28 and had never seen East Los High. They surveyed how much the participants know about sexual health, then split them into groups. Everyone got the same information about sexual health, but each group was presented the information in a different format. One group read a fake news story, another read a short story version of the East Los High plot, another actually watched the show, and the rest both watched the show and looked at the East Los High website.
Right after each group got through its material, the researchers surveyed everyone again — and once again after two weeks. It turned out that after the final survey, the groups that got fake news or plot synopses didn't change enough to count. The group that watched the show had learned a bit more about condom use. But those who watched the show and looked at the online extras learned the most.
"That was the ideal result," Wang says. "It suggests that this could complement more traditional, school-based sex education programs." It also told the researchers more about how platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook can keep reinforcing these messages outside the classroom.
"East Los High seems to really get the audience members hooked," Singhal adds. "People talk amongst each other, like, 'Gee, is she going to get together with this hunk of a man?' and so on." But as fans and friends reflect on the storylines, and discuss with friends on- and offline, it "leads them to start rethinking their ideas about safe sex or relationships."
Of course, this was a small, early study, says Drexel's Sood, who isn't involved with the show or this research. To fully test the show's impact, researchers would have to track — on a large, national scale — whether the show's lessons ultimately affect the decisions its viewers make in their own lives. But Wang and Singhal's early findings are promising, Sood says.
What's more, they're in line with what other studies have found: People absorb the most when they feel personally invested in a show's plot, or when they develop what researchers call parasocial relationships with the characters on screen. "They start to think, 'Maybe I can be like them,' " says Wang. " 'Maybe I can apply the things they're learning to my own life.' "
Executive producer Mota hopes East Los High will also leave an imprint on the TV industry, and put to bed the idea that a mainstream drama means "all the characters have to be rich, white teenagers." So as researchers continue to track and tweak the public health messages on East Los High, Mota will keep delivering dancing, romance and betrayal. "And if it's able to take you deeper than you thought you were going to go, then all the better."