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“TV as Birth Control”? Some researchers found some astounding numbers


How to defuse the population bomb: Provide people with a steady diet of soap operas and reality TV shows that depict modern, urban lifestyles. New research makes a compelling case that when TV ownership rises, fertility falls.


Conservation, University of Washington


… numbers do not lie


Over a short period, women in India have cut the number of children they have by half. That does not mean that India still does not have a tremendous population problem. It is just that the fertility rate in one of the world’s most populous countries is now 2.5, which is just slightly above the replacement level long term.


Why has this occurred?


Stanford researcher Martin Lewis decided to determine why the population rate in India is falling, and what he discovered was fascinating,


Taking time off from bemusing his students, Lewis decided to investigate. Being a geographer, he tackled the question with maps. He noted that, within the overall rapid decline in Indian fertility, there continued to be great regional variations.

So he mapped fertility in each Indian state and examined those patterns against the patterns for some of the demographers’ favored drivers of lowered fertility. When he compared his maps, he found that variations in female education fit pretty well. So did economic wealth and the Human Development Index, which measures education, health, and income. The extent of urbanization looked like a pretty good match, too.


But he also found that TV ownership tallied well with fertility across India. Not perfectly, he concluded, but as well as or better than the more standard indicators. A TV in the living room, in other words, might have the power to transform behavior in the bedroom.

Fred Pearce, “TV as birth control,” Conservation, University of Washington, September 2, 2013

Earlier research noted the same thing


Two other researchers had found the same thing in earlier research. Robert Jensen of UCLA and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago had found such similarities earlier,

The pair noted that the new diet of game shows, soap operas, and reality shows instantly became the villagers’ main source of information about the outside world—especially about India’s emerging urban ways of life.


At the top of the ratings was Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (meaning “Because a mother-in-law was once also a daughter-in-law”). Based on life in the megacity of Mumbai, it was Asia’s most watched TV show between 2000 and 2008 and was an eye-opener for millions of rural Indian women. They saw their urban sisters working outside the home, running businesses, controlling money, and—crucially—achieving these things by having fewer children. Here was TV showing women a world of possibilities beyond bearing and raising children—a world in which small families are the key to a better life.


Soap operas give viewers time to develop strong emotional bonds with the characters, many of whom live as they do and experience the life traumas that they do. The impact of the new TV programming in rural India has been profound—and very positive, say Jensen and Oster.


Fred Pearce, Conservation, University of Washington, September 2, 2013

Soap operas in Mexico caused a similar situation


This is not the first time that researchers had found such a result from simply watching television,

There is a history to using soap operas to cut fertility. It goes back to Mexico in the late 1970s, a time when the average Mexican woman had five or six babies and Mexico City was becoming the world’s largest megacity. Miguel Sabido, then vice president of Televisa, the national TV network, developed a soap-opera format in which viewers were encouraged to relate to a character on the cusp of doing right or wrong—a “transitional character” whose ethical and practical dilemmas drove the plotlines.


His prime soap, or telenovela, Acompáñame (“Accompany Me”) focused on the travails of a poor woman in a large family living in a run-down shack in a crime-ridden neighborhood. She wanted to break out and, after many travails and setbacks, did so by choosing contraception and limiting her family size. It was a morality tale, and nobody could mistake the message. The lessons were reinforced with an epilogue at the end of each episode, giving advice about family planning services.


Some accused Sabido of crude social engineering. But according to research by the country’s National Family Planning Program, half a million women enrolled at family planning clinics while the soap was on, and contraceptive sales rose 23 percent in a year. A rash of similar soap operas with names such as Vamos Juntos (“We Go Together”) and Nosotros las Mujeres (“We the Women”) ran in Mexico throughout the 1980s. They were credited, at least anecdotally, with helping slash Mexican fertility rates. Thomas Donnelly, USAID’s local man at the time, concluded that they “have made the single most powerful contribution to the Mexican population success story.”


Fred Pearce, Conservation, University of Washington, September 2, 2013


I had never heard of this previously and thought that it was interesting.

It certainly is.

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