by Mercy Abang
Alex Okosi is the Senior Vice President & Managing Director of VIACOM Media Networks. Okosi, a Nigerian is based in Johannesburg where he heads Viacom International Media Networks’ pan-African business operations. He is responsible for managing the growth and development of VIMN’s iconic kids, youth, music, comedy and general entertainment brands on the African continent, including MTV, MTV Base, VH1 Classic, BET International, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central. Conversations with Abang Mercy caught up with Mr Okosi where he talks about MTV lifestyle based TV series – Shuga – A television series that gets young people talking about sex as well as the need to curb the spread of HIV and Aids, Create awareness.
Enjoy excerpts from the interview.
What is the initiative behind Shuga and why the name?
Shuga is an award winning sex-and-relationships drama and mass media campaign designed to combat a lack of awareness and misinformation about HIV, sexual responsibility and other public health issues among Nigerian youth. The TV series and associated multimedia campaign is produced by MTV Base and the MTV Staying Alive Foundation in collaborationwith the Nigerian Government’s National Agency for the Control of AIDs (NACA), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund). PEPFAR (The US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) has also expressed a commitment to join forces with the campaign.
The campaign consists of an 8 part TV series, a radio drama series, a vibrant web portal ( www.shuga.tv), an active social media campaign (on FB, Twitter, Instagram etc), while a Shuga comic book and radio series are planned to roll out early 2014.
The name “Shuga” operates on many levels – as a common colloquial term of endearment, or urban slang for sex itself. In our minds, it also touches on the bitter-sweet nature of the story-lines and themes in the drama.
What message is Shuga sending out to viewers across Africa?
We are trying to correct many common misconceptions about HIV and other public health issues and promote responsible behavior. More than anything we want to start people talking candidly and openly about sex and relationships to remove the taboos that still remain.
How was the idea birthed?
The initial idea for Shuga came from MTV’s charitable foundation, the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, which has been focusing on promoting safe sex and tolerance for those living with HIV and AIDS for 15 years. The initial pilot scheme took place in Kenya, Jamaica and the Ukraine in 2009 and then the African series of Shuga was green-lit for a second series in 2012, and now we debut series 3 in 2013. Staying Alive works closely with MTV Base, our African flagship channel, to activate and realize the drama on the ground and to ensure cultural relevance and flavour.
South Africa has the highest rate of people living with HIV/AIDS on the continent. Why is it that none of Shuga’s two seasons have been centered there? Why Kenya and Nigeria?
Both Kenya and Nigeria have very high incidences of new HIV infection among young people, which is why we have chosen to focus on them in the first two seasons. However, South Africa is definitely one of the countries where we would like to continue the Shuga story.
MTV Base found commercial success with the Music Videos, Are you taking a different route with the Introduction of Shuga series?
Since launch in 2005, MTV Base has broadcast a range of programming including music videos, magazine shows, documentaries, music specials, reality shows and so on. We have always included pro- social content in our programming mix, whether it is Shuga or other initiatives such as Making the Video or MTV Base Meets, so Shuga series 3 does not in itself mark a new editorial direction as a channel.
A lot of persons living with HIV, especially young people are being discriminated against in Africa. Will Shuga highlight the dangers of discriminating against persons with HIV?
We are not addressing the issue of discrimination, but we do explore issues surrounding living the HIV and why people do not disclose their status. We also have a couple of very interesting story-lines which explores the different ways that characters react when friends or lovers are revealed to be HIV positive.
December 1st marks the world Aids day and the day coincide with the launch of the series. Why chose that day to premiere the show and who do you plan to reach out to on this day?
To us, World AIDS Day is the perfect day to launch Shuga as our key storyline involves HIV and AIDS and we believe that launching on this day may mean that people are already thinking about the issues and focusing on the topic – and that therefore this may encourage them to watch the show when it premieres.
In what other ways is MTV promoting societal and family health?
Shuga is our key health oriented project in Africa at this time. However we do engage in other ‘pro-social’ programming and initiatives: recent projects have including Making the Video (a youth empowerment and skills exchange scheme), MTV Base Meets (a multimedia campaign in which MTV Baseconnects African youth face-to-face with influencers such as Michelle Obama, Desmond Tutu, Alek Wek, Richard Branson and Aliko Dangote, to name a few). Our sister channel, Nickelodeon, recently embarked on a scheme to promote financial literacy among school age children in Nigeria.
Some young people that have unprotected sex and have little or no access to TV or the Internet, How can the message of Shuga get to them?
We will be using many other platforms to get the Shuga message out including a radio drama series (launching early 2014) and a Shuga comic book. We are also looking at ways of driving community viewing of Shuga leveraging grassroots organizations, Staying Alive grantees and other organizations affiliated with our partners at NACA, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNFPA and PEPFAR. You will also be able to interact with the campaign via telephone (we are working with NACA to promote and enhance their 6222 helpline number).
Any plans we should know about for season four?
There are many topics and themes we’d still like to explore, and we are currently in the planning stages for Season 4 – we hope to be able to have something to announce very soon.