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 Poster for East Los High

Webnovela helps young Latinos make smart choices

By PATRICIA DONOVAN

Published July 24, 2014

Helen Wang
“The important thing is that the audience didn’t just passively watch the drama. Many of them went on to experience the rest of its transmedia content.”
Hua (Helen) Wang, assistant professor
Department of Communication

“East Los High,” the trailblazing, addictive and hugely popular Hulu original series, uses a range of digital media platforms to involve its audience in the lives, scandals and emotional traumas of Latino students attending a fictional high school in East Los Angeles, California, and communication experts say it works on both the entertainment and educational levels.

The first season was streamed online in summer 2013; the second season premiered on July 9. Only a few days later, Hulu announced its renewal of the show for a third season. As one critic said, “Latin heat — East LA never looked so good.”

It is the first-ever English language series with an all-Latino cast to address issues in Latino communities in the Unites States. Characters are complex and realistic, and through the program they learn to make smart lifestyle and health choices, especially in the area of sexual and reproductive health.

Hua (Helen) Wang, UB assistant professor of communication, and Arvind Singhal, professor of communication at the University of Texas, El Paso, were engaged by the producers to evaluate the impact of this phenomenal program, and Wang says it is the opinion of the research team that “East Los” certainly did what it set out to do.

In addition to excellent writing, acting and production values, Wang says, the series has benefited from the fact that it deals with real life conundrums, involves a talented Latino creative team and has been involved from the outset with community groups that deal with the problems experienced by the show’s characters.

“The outcome indicates that the program sets the gold standard for narrative complexity, creativity and the ability to engage the Latino creative community in creating a show about issues that matter to Latino youth,” Singhal says.

The conclusions drawn by Singhal and Wang are grounded in evidence derived from tracking and analyzing data on visitors to the show’s website and information developed from viewer surveys, an experiment in storytelling format, extensive social media content and network analysis, and interviews with fans.

Wang says they found that people from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia visited the show’s website, with high proportions of visitors located in states with the highest Hispanic and Latino populations. Visitors from an additional 163 countries also reached the site.

“So we know the show, although based on a local story, addresses a national public health challenge and reached audiences all around the world,” she says.

“The important thing is that the audience didn’t just passively watch the drama,” she says. “Many of them went on to experience the rest of its transmedia content, which is found on characters’ vlogs, extended scenes and websites of partner organizations advocating for safe sex and pregnancy prevention, a very important outcome.”

She agrees with Singhal that their analysis has proven the value of “East Los High” not only to its broadcaster, which is what ensured a second and third season — but also to other scholars looking to assess the effects of transmedia and the concept of entertainment-education.

Wang says she was familiar with Singhal’s previous work and was excited to work with him on “East Los High.”

“I feel connected to the series on many levels, both personally and professionally,” she says.

“Growing up in China, I have always had a strong sense of social responsibility,” Wang says, “so when I chose the intersection of new technologies, social networks, health promotion and social change as my research focus, I was very happy and proud because all the hard work brings meaning and impact to the real world.

“Sexual and reproductive health is critical for young women and men. So much adversity can be completely prevented or properly addressed when teens have adequate information and the impetus to use it,” she says.

“The program has presented us with unprecedented opportunities for some cutting-edge research,” Wang adds, “and I am grateful and honored to be part of this collaborative journey.”