08 May 2020

How to Launch a TV Series During a Pandemic: Interview with Georgia Arnold

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia Arnold was having strange dreams. One night, Georgia, who is executive director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, dreamt that MTV Shuga cast members from four countries were filmed talking to each other on Zoom. “And when I woke up,” she said, “I remembered the dream and I went, ‘that’s the solution.’”

Since 2009, the MTV Staying Alive Foundation has used television to promote behavioral change, particularly around safe sex practices, in over 70 countries. In 2019, a World Bank study in Nigeria showed that teens who watched an MTV Shuga show were twice as likely to be tested for HIV. When Georgia told her team about her dream, they thought she was “a little crazy”—before deciding that it represented a way that they could help during the COVID-19 crisis. Without time to spare, the team began producing a show with record speed. 

The new series, MTV Shuga Alone Together, debuted on April 20, in partnership with Every Woman Every Child and Unitaid. The 60 episodes will cover everything from misinformation to mental health. 

Producing a television series during a pandemic presents unique challenges. The episodes—filmed in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire—are fully scripted, but because the actors cannot leave their apartments and are physically distanced, they’re filming themselves on Zoom. Speed and relevance are also key. Typically, a MTV Shuga series takes 10 months to be developed, from greenlight to the first episode. In such a rapidly changing situation, this timeline didn’t make sense, and so the first episode of Alone Together aired three weeks after the greenlight. Two of the writers are in Nigeria and one in South Africa. Scripts are written just 10 days before they go online, so that the plot is reflects current events and addresses the most up to date issues people are facing. 

For Georgia, it’s important that the story arcs be about more than reminders to keep hands clean. “It is talking about the mental health issues, the threat of domestic violence, and addressing all of the myths around [COVID-19],” she said. In episode five, a character named Leila turns to her friend Bongi and says that she’s frightened. “And I thought,” Georgia adds, “it doesn’t matter who you are. I think all of us are frightened.”

After all, if the MTV Shuga shows aren’t entertaining, then it doesn’t matter how good the public health messaging may be if no one is watching.Especially during this time when people are afraid, it’s important to connect with others and “feel really relevant within while being wrapped up in something that’s really entertaining to watch as well,” Georgia said.

Visit our YouTube Channel for the full interview with Georgia Arnold