Since the drama began, across the course of nearly 6 years, we have spoken to more than 10,000 people in Myanmar to understand their media habits, access to information, views on fake news and misinformation, and how this relates to ethnic and religious tension. Through a combination of surveys, focus groups, and in-depth interviews, we have systematically understood our audiences and used these insights to help shape the different strategies the project has used to develop and refine the drama.
Audience Research Helped Shape the Premise of the Drama
Research Method. At the start of the drama in 2014, we conducted an in-depth qualitative study which included 24 paired interviews with a mix of male and female adults in Myanmar from a range of different religions and ethnicities. We also did 13 key informant interviews with media experts, members of Civil society organisations (CSOs), and international experts on peacebuilding. This initial formative research aimed to understand how key target audiences felt about people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Research Insights. We learned that people’s main struggles and concerns were around money and the future of their family—regardless of their ethnic or religious background. Poverty and unemployment were the key issues people were worried about. Secondly, when we dug down to try and understand what people thought about those from other ethnic and religious groups and their interaction, we found that people often lived ‘side by side but not together’. Most people had few and often very limited interactions with people from different backgrounds, and interaction usually occurred outside the home, or at places like local tea, snack or beer bars, during work, and, for young people, at school. Sometimes people talked about having casual friendships with people from different religious or ethnic backgrounds, but it was not the norm. Thirdly, it was very clear that there was a perceived hierarchy of religions—especially among the Bamar Buddhist majority. They felt that Hinduism was most similar to Buddhism. People from the Christian faith were less close to them. They had the least in common with Muslims, and they did not feel that Rohingya Muslims were even part of the country. Large-scale nationally representative media survey data confirmed that in order to reach the key target audience of rural Bamar Buddhist populations, radio would be the most effective platform.
Research Uptake. This research helped the production team shape the very premise of the drama itself. For example, the production team began to craft a radio drama which centered around a family struggling with the same key issues the audience told us about in our research—money, their livelihoods, and the future of their families. The decision to set it in a tea shop also came from the audience telling us what type of locations they would interact with people from different backgrounds. The tea shop in the drama is set in a community on the outskirts of the capital, Yangon—a place where a diverse range of characters would realistically come and mingle, interact, and chat. Tea shops in Myanmar have a reputation for welcoming people from all backgrounds and walks of life. They provide a space for people to share a cup of tea, some food, and exchange ideas, opinions, problems, hopes, and aspirations, so the drama aimed to leverage this.
Finally, the research helped production make decisions about character selection. The research used case studies of research participants’ experiences as someone from a particular ethnic or religious group; the production team drew on these real-life examples to shape the drama’s characters and their experiences. The aim of the drama was to reach and engage the Bamar Buddhist majority; therefore, characters in the drama were carefully chosen—with a Bamar Buddhist couple as central characters who were the tea shop owners. The research had found that there were different levels of acceptability toward people from different religious faiths, so this had to be considered in how much to feature characters from these different faiths.
For example, to challenge misinformation around Christian beliefs, James, the young tea shop waiter, has been a central character across the series, and the audience has followed him growing up over the years. The plots have featured him in baptism ceremonies, going to bible camps and participating in Christmas hymn singing. In contrast, the introduction and featuring of characters from the Muslim faith have been more gradual. The research highlighted the negative attitudes around different religions and ethnicities held by the target audience. Therefore, owing to audience sensitivity and fear of Muslims, Muslim characters were introduced in early episodes as secondary characters in the neighborhood. They gradually became more central to storylines as the audience became fonder of them (see Fig. 10.2).
Characters and Plot Development Responded to How Audiences Were Reacting to the Drama
Research Method. At the outset, qualitative research with target audiences helped the production team shape the drama. The production team appreciated having these audience insights but wanted them regularly in order to continuously understand how audiences were reacting to the show to inform the future direction of the series. As a result, audience panels were set up to ensure that the production team could draw on feedback from listeners to inform the program. Listeners from regions where media data indicated high program listenership were selected to participate in short telephone and face-to-face interviews (depending on circumstances) every 2 to 3 weeks. Questions focused on recall, engagement, and new learning from the program.
Using a research panel (albeit small) has been integral to helping the creative team understand how content is engaging audiences and to help them make creative decisions. For example, the panel studies allow for a highly adaptive and responsive research and creative process as it provides timely and relevant feedback for production teams, and the research team could update the questionnaire set depending on production needs at that time.
Furthermore, given the sensitive nature of some of the issues the drama aimed to tackle and a constantly changing socio-political landscape around these issues (e.g. the Rohingya crisis igniting in August 2017, continued ongoing armed clashes between ethnic groups, and increasing levels of fake news and misinformation fueling ethnic and religious tension), it became very important to keep abreast of how audiences were engaging with Tea
Research Insights. The audience panels helped us to understand how audiences were reacting to and engaging with the drama. Research conducted early in the series found that audiences did not always recognize different characters’ ethnic or religious backgrounds—despite the clues and signifiers given in the show. This was a problem because if people were unable to recognize the different backgrounds of the characters, then it would be difficult for them to begin to reflect on and discuss that difference. Audiences began to warm to characters having friendships or romantic relationships with people from different ethnic or religious backgrounds, but it was evident from the ongoing research that deep-rooted beliefs and discriminatory beliefs were still present.
Different races are not the problem, but it is a problem for different religions [in response to an inter-ethnic marriage in the show].—Female, Listener, Hinthada
Audiences engaged with storylines or characters which dealt with everyday issues that they also experienced, such as arguments with partners, money worries, and concerns for their children. For example, older audience members said they were most interested in the characters U Chit Maung and Daw Kin Thit, the couple that owns the tea shop. They dealt with the challenges of married life, keeping peace within their family, and managing their business. Female listeners regularly mentioned that they identified with Daw Khin Thit and her daily workload, while male listeners related to U Chit Maung’s perspective as head of the household.
I like Daw Khin Thit most in the drama because she works for her family and I’m also doing the same for my family. I am identical with Daw Khin Thit. By listening to the Tea Cup Diaries
, I learn from Daw Khin Thit how to guide my children.—Female listener, Myaing
Every two weeks the research team gave us feedback. When we first started having the feedback from the audience panel, we didn’t hear what we expected. We learned more about our audiences’ engagement with the program and how they sometimes missed the themes we thought they understood. We saw that we needed to repeat key points we’d mentioned in the start of the series—for example that lending with interest is not used by Muslims—a number of times. We then started to see that audiences were talking about this more.—Maung Maung Swe, Managing Editor of Tea Cup
The research found that at the start of the series, audiences were not always recognizing subtle markers of characters’ ethnic or religious backgrounds. For example, there was a lack of recognition that a Muslim father and son were of the Muslim faith; signifiers which were used at the start of the series such as the son not coming to band practice on a Friday or declining to eat pork were not cutting through. These findings gave confidence to the production team to be bolder and more explicit, for example having the characters talk more openly about Muslim traditions and practices—around managing money or weddings. These characters also became less secondary and more central to storylines. For example, they created more storylines which showed tension between these characters and other members of the community. One storyline featured a local plumber U Hla Mint (of Muslim faith) who was defended by his friend, tea shop owner U Chit Maung (of Buddhist faith), when the community elders did not want him to come and fix the plumbing in the local community center.
The research also helped the production team to understand how far they could press different inter-ethnic and inter-religious relationships. For example, a romantic relationship between Sam (a Karen Christian man) and Htet Htet (a Bamar Buddhist woman) was developed which the audience warmed to. A friendship between Inn Gine (Buddhist woman) and Naing Gyi (Muslim man) did not develop into a romantic relationship as it was clear from the audience panel this would not yet be acceptable.
The Tea Cup Diaries
is unique in its timely reflection of real-life events woven into the drama’s plotlines, and the impact of COVID-19 is no exception. The production team was quick to adapt to the upheaval—from setting up home recording studios (see Fig. 10.3), to introducing new storylines reflecting how different characters are dealing with the pandemic. Recent storylines have included the economic impact on the Tea Shop (and the commencement of a food delivery service!), the implications of lockdown, characters discussing rumors and fake news they have seen about the virus, and implementing physical distancing measures with those around them. Feedback from the audience found that they were surprised the show continued to air, but very much appreciated the fact that it did. They reflected on the fake news and misinformation characters were finding (which they were also experiencing) and the reality of how relationships were being affected (such as young people in relationships not being able to see one another). They also reported learning specific health information from the show, such as the 6 feet physical distancing measure, effective handwashing, and avoiding large gatherings. With the audience panel research approach already set up, we shifted to a focus on telephone-based interviewing to ensure that continuous feedback between the audience and production was maintained, despite the significant changes in working practices for both the production and research teams.
We should respect and follow [COVID-19 advice], as it is happening all over the world. We should not be neglectful and forget. [The show] is presenting according to what is practically happening outside—it is more complete and meaningful as they warn us with storylines and drama.—Male listener, Bago