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In Afghanistan, diplomacy meets the TV crime drama

To the long list of public diplomacy efforts the U.S. State Department has launched in Afghanistan, add the TV show "Eagle Four," a "24"-style cop thriller that has proven, in early analyses, to be the most popular of several TV programs financed by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

In addition to "Eagle Four," which NPR described in December as filled with "pulse racing music" and "quick cuts from scene to scene," the embassy has funded a youth-oriented soap opera set at a Kandahar university and a reality show-style documentary about army life, according to David Ensor, the embassy's recently departed communications director who's now the director of Voice of America.

The shows are all meant to serve some public policy function, Ensor told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Friday. "Eagle Four," for example, is aimed at raising public respect for Afghan police officers, who are widely regarded as corrupt, while the youth-oriented soap opera focuses heavily on female students who would have been banned from attending university during Taliban rule.

The 10-part reality series "Birth of an Army," which is airing now, is aimed at raising recruitment and also at "making Afghans proud of their army and giving them confidence that it's ready for 2014," when most American troops are scheduled to withdraw, Ensor said.

While the shows have proved generally popular among the war torn nation's TV watchers, it's far from clear whether they've had any tangible policy effect, such as raising army enlistments or improving respect for public officials.

The embassy recently hired a consulting firm to gauge the programs' effectiveness, Ensor said, including through lengthy surveys of audience attitudes over time.

About half of Afghans watch television regularly, according to a 2010 report commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The USIP conference at which Ensor spoke, titled Media in Conflict: The Evaluation Imperative, was largely devoted to a deep analysis of how, when and whether the effectiveness of international development and conflict prevention media projects could be gauged.

Ensor also described a project aimed at increasing the use of text messaging to create social networks in Afghanistan, which the embassy spurred with a contract to develop cheaper bulk-rate messaging plans.

The service, called Paywast, allows cheap mass texting to a pre-set network so, say, a fruit vendor can text the wholesale price he's willing to pay for melons out to farmers each day before they decide whether it's worth harvesting their crop and driving to town.

The embassy paid for the contract by agreeing to buy the first 80 million messages, he said. Ensor's total budget for media projects at the embassy, he said, was about $183 million over 18 months.

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