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How Children's Shows Lead the Way in Diversity on TV

More than half of kids series on major networks and streamers are inclusive, a fact that execs say attracts similar talent behind the scenes and can "create loyalty for life" among viewers.


Nickelodeon's 'The Casagrandes'

When Doc McStuffins premiered in 2012 on Disney Channel, its title character was the first Black girl to be front and center in a preschool animated series.

Eight years later, more than half of the current scripted shows on Disney, Nickelodeon and their respective "junior" preschool channels — both live action and animated — feature people of color or members of the LGBTQ community as main characters. Netflix, which has made a major push into kids and family programming the past few years, isn’t too far behind. PBS has been heralding diversity in children’s programming since Sesame Street debuted in 1969 and now has the first kids show with an Alaska Native as its lead in Molly of Denali, an animated series that premiered in summer 2019. And the 14-year-old protagonist of Disney’s new animated series The Owl House is the network’s first bisexual lead character.

At a time when the TV industry at large is grappling with its weak history of inclusivity in front of and behind the camera — amid nationwide calls for racial and social justice and the continued advocacy of groups like Color of Change and the Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity — it might take some lessons from shows aimed at the youngest viewers.

The 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA showed that while minority groups had made gains, they were still underrepresented as leads on mainstream shows compared to their percentage of the population. Meanwhile, of 56 current scripted series for kids across Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Netflix, 30 of them — about 54 percent — have lead characters from traditionally underrepresented populations. (The numbers exclude shows like Nick’s SpongeBob SquarePants and Disney’s Duck Tales that are primarily populated with non-human characters.)

"We are in the first window of media consumption for kids, and that is an incredible responsibility and an incredible opportunity," Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Along with Nick and some of the other streaming services now, I feel like, to some degree, we’ve helped change the sociology of a generation of kids by consistently showcasing a spectrum that looks different, certainly, from the TV that I grew up on."

The idea of diversity in children’s TV isn’t new; Sesame Street has been an inclusive show from its beginnings more than a half century ago, and shows like Nickelodeon's Taina and The Brothers Garcia and Disney’s The Proud Family and That’s So Raven revolved around Latino and Black characters during the early 2000s. But, until recently, it hasn’t been the norm. Now, people working in kids programming say they see an effort by studios and outlets to not only show inclusive characters onscreen but also diversify the creative ranks.

"I think as you have more younger creatives, there tends to be more of an openness to show who they are,” says Elizabeth Ito, an animation veteran and writer on Adventure Time who’s now working on a show called City of Ghosts for Netflix. "Gradually, there has been a little bit more acceptance and more awareness of all sorts of things that I think everybody was really clumsy about before as far as diversity and representation, not even just talking about race."

Ramsey Naito, who heads Nickelodeon Animation, says that in addition to looking for stories that come from a wide range of creators, she’s also hoping to diversify those guiding the ViacomCBS network.

"I knew that I had to build a team, which meant we had to reorganize leadership and hire with a focus on diverse leadership," she says. "And I think over the past year and a half, you'd be able to see many announcements that we made [regarding] leadership and promotion that illustrate how diverse our leadership is, which is fantastic. Because what that does is it attracts diverse stories, diverse talents, to come to Nick and see themselves in our leadership and tell stories that they know we relate to."

Anna Berthold, a motion picture literary agent at UTA who works extensively in the animation space, says talk from studios, networks and streamers about wanting diverse creators is “not just lip service.”

"It’s what they’re asking for — ‘We want to hear more from Black creators, LGBTQ creators, Asian, Latinx,' " she says. "Not all of it is hitting screens right now because of the long lead time for animation, but it’s going to be. It’s clearly a priority."

That’s not to say, however, that the kids TV business is doing everything right. Doc McStuffins creator Chris Nee tells THR that while onscreen inclusivity is rising — that show also was the first of its kind to feature a family led by LGBTQ parents — there’s still work to be done in hiring and staffing behind the camera.

"It’s a self-defining issue, as it often is," says Nee, who now has a multiyear overall deal at Netflix. "By not portraying diverse voices, we don’t present ourselves as an open door for someone to imagine themselves in this career and working in this end of the business. So you stop people [from] heading toward becoming animators or writers for animation. We have to change all of that to make [it] clear that diverse talent is a priority."

Nee notes that she tries to further that cause through mentorship — not under a studio or network program but by actually hiring people from underrepresented groups to work on her shows. "For me, that’s hiring people at a coordinator level but actively working to promote them," she says. "That’s been a great way for me to develop a lot of homegrown talent within my own organization, and people are now showrunners and creators and EPs who started as my coordinators."

Kenny Ortega has presided over two of Disney Channel’s biggest original movie franchises, directing 2006’s High School Musical, its sequels and the three Descendants films. All had diverse casts, and his latest project, the Netflix series Julie and the Phantoms (based on a Nickelodeon Brazil series), stars 16-year-old Puerto Rican newcomer Madison Reyes. He notes that unlike his early days in the business, when he’d have to fight to hire nonwhite dancers for projects he choreographed, inclusive casting is becoming the norm.

“I remember having to say, 'Look, if we’re going to work together, you need to know I come with ideas, and if I’m not going to be able to bring those ideas into the work, then you’re maybe looking at the wrong person,'" he says. "And suddenly I’m walking in the room and people are telling me that. 'We’re a diverse-thinking company and we want to find balance in the way that we look at our casting.' And I’m like, 'Really? This is fantastic.' I don't have to engage in that conversation up front."

PBS Kids head of content Linda Simensky recalls showing her own children the series she worked on in the 1990s when she was at Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. "They were laughing at them — not with them but at them,” she says. "I asked, 'What’s wrong,' and they said, 'They’re so white.' To them, that just seemed kind of ridiculous."

Executives in kids programming say that developing and making inclusive shows is just good business — and that includes Simensky, who doesn’t face the commercial or sub- scriber-retention imperatives that for-profit outlets do.

"You still want viewers, and I feel like capturing the world as it is makes perfect sense," she says. "Kids should see themselves somewhere on our air."

Disney’s Marsh says programming for diverse audiences by this point is simply "Brand 101."

"To the extent that I can find content or images that look like [viewers’] homes, their clothing, their recreational activities, their family structures, they will connect more deeply with the content and with the brand," he says.

"And, again, being in the first media window for many of these people, if I can establish that connection in their minds for what Disney represents to them — that 'Disney gets me,' 'Disney hears me' — I create loyalty for life."

That talk has all happened before, of course, without resulting in systemic change. Nee hopes the current moment turns out to be a true tipping point.

"I hope this is the year this becomes an ingrained part of how people think — that you have to think differently and think outside of your own point of view and the scope of seeing things you grew up with, and it’s better for all of us,” she says. "I hope that sticks."


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From TBI Vision:

TBI Weekly: Delivering diversity in children’s programming

TBI deputy editor Mark Layton takes a deep dive to explore how the global TV industry is working to improve inclusivity and representation in children’s programming, and asks what needs to happen both in front of and behind the camera in order to bring about real change.

Every child deserves to see themselves reflected in the programmes that they watch, but while strides are being made to improve inclusivity and representation on screen, children’s television is still often poorly served.

Programmes with a female or BAME protagonist or featuring leading characters that are part of the LGBT+ community, disabled or from a lower socio-economic background remain, generally, the exception to the rule. And this is also an issue mirrored behind the camera.

Obviously, some territories perform far better than others in this regard when approaching the subject from an international perspective. But the invigorated global support for the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months, coupled with the drastic increase in children’s TV viewership during lockdown, has brought some of these issues into sharp focus in many territories and changes are taking place as a result.

“It seems to me that the high level of activity and the acceleration of heartfelt change that we’ve witnessed in the last few months is an indication that the TV industry as a whole could and should have done more sooner,” observes Cheryl Taylor, head of content for children’s programming at the BBC.

The UK pubcaster has a variety of inclusive content, with shows such as the pre-school animation Hey Duggee and the long-running magazine series Blue Peter being among the popular stand-outs. Its CBeebies channel also recently launched JoJo & Gran Gran, the first British-made children’s animation focused on a black family. While the series has been widely praised, a fair question is why it took so long for this landmark moment to reach screens.

“We know there is more we should be doing to stimulate stories based on a greater variety of experiences,” acknowledges Taylor, adding that animations with black protagonists have previously been “in short supply”.

“There is a sense that the animation industry still has some way to go in terms of representation in several key production areas – and this has impacted on the type of stories that are developed,” she says.

Where the BBC has seen improvements, Taylor expains that these have initially been led by a more representative approach to casting, as well as providing “focused support for new writers, directors and producers.”

She elaborates: “I’ve been impressed by the delicate development process on shows like Pablo [a hybrid live-action/animated series on CBeebies that follows a young boy with autism], wherein the employment of autistic contributors across several production disciplines ensured the important ‘seeing the world in different ways’ message of the show was conveyed from lived experience.

“More recently, we have commissioned a raft of 10-minute monologues and seven-minute mini My Life documentaries as opportunities for new writers, directors and producers from under-represented groups to get their first role on a broadcast piece.”

Taylor also highlights series like children’s drama Apple Tree House, where the production team was able to provide training opportunities for directors from under-represented backgrounds – enabling the show to mirror the onscreen diversity.

Akindele Akinsiku, co-creator, director and writer on Apple Tree House, says that it was important to the team that the stories and characters featured in the series were relatable.

“Unfortunately, people assume if the characters are multi-ethnic, then the show and the urban setting might be alien to them. If we can relate to a talking pig or an anthropomorphic yellow sponge, then I think a bunch of kids that live on a council estate shouldn’t be that difficult to empathise with,” remarks Akinsiku.

“So Apple Tree House couldn’t just be a show about ‘diversity’. We wanted to create a positive show about everyday children who just happen to live in a rich and magical inner-city estate, one that didn’t involve the usual media inner-city tropes of poverty and crime that unfortunately are still commonplace.”

He continues: “To be honest, this is not rocket science. It’s paying attention to your environment and your entire audience, especially if you live in a big city. It’s never a bad thing if your audience is reflected in your show’s makeup.”

European lag
David Michel is founder and president of Paris-based production studio Cottonwood Media, as well as co-founder of French production and distribution firm Federation Entertainment and MD of its children’s division Federation Kids and Family. He suggests it has taken European networks longer to catch up to issues that the US industry has been tackling for many years already.

“When I produced Totally Spies!, back in the day, we had Disney Family and then Cartoon Network on board and having a character from a different ethnicity was very important to them. From our perspective as Europeans, at that time, it wasn’t as much on the radar, which I am sad to say, especially as we are all finally thinking in different ways now.”

He adds that, even today, he doesn’t get “enough diverse stories about characters of multi-ethnicity in Europe” brought to him as a producer and says that “you really have to make a clear and conscious effort about that.”

Michel says that while he has never received any pushback around the ethnicity of cast when selling shows abroad, he has faced resistance for including LGBT+ characters. Cottonwood Media produces the live-action teen dramedy Find Me In Paris for Hulu in the US. When creating the show, the team made a conscious effort to craft characters from diverse backgrounds, social groups and sexual orientations. “One of the various storylines features the relationship between two boys who are together and very happy, and we are vocal about this, but in certain countries we could not sell the show because of this,” says Michel.

“At one point we were presented with the choice of basically either taming down these stories, including with dubbing the show, or losing a sale – and we chose the latter. We didn’t want to compromise on that,” he reveals.

Shabnam Rezaei is co-founder and president of Canadian animation studio Big Bad Boo, whose series The Bravest Knight launched on Hulu last year. Based upon the book The Bravest Knight Who Ever Lived by Daniel Errico, the show follows a 10-year- old black girl and wannabe knight, whose adopted white father tells her about his own past adventures before he settled down with the prince of his dreams.

Rezaei’s experience of heading to market with a series fronted by a female character of colour and a same-sex relationship at the heart of the show echoes Michel’s. “It was really important to us to not just feature but also celebrate a two-dad household on our show, while also empowering young women – especially young women of colour,” says Rezaei. “We took the show out to MIPCOM first and received mixed reactions from international audiences, who may not be as ready to reflect reality.

“When we finally greenlit the show with our US partner Hulu, we realised how lucky we were to work with such an incredibly progressive and inclusive team. They were very committed to telling an authentic story about a modern family, which ultimately connects with audiences.”

American awareness
If the US TV industry is indeed leading the way in matters of inclusivity and representation, then kids’ powerhouse Nickelodeon is often seen to be sitting at the front of the class.

The channel has worked to ensure there has been a firm ethos of authenticity woven into its seams since the word go. “We simply said let’s authentically reflect the world in which kids live in at all times, from day one until today,” says Nina Hahn, SVP of international production & development at Nick.

This mission statement has led to the creation of many shows celebrated internationally for their inclusivity, from the multi-cultural makeup of Hey Arnold! to Dora The Explorer bringing one of the first Latinx cartoon characters to screens, and all done decades before any current push for diversity.

Nickelodeon’s current output also includes The Casagrandes, which features a character who has Down Syndrome, while the series Paw Patrol recently introduced a pup with a physical disability. But that doesn’t mean the company is resting on its laurels. Its parent, ViacomCBS, made a clear commitment to strengthening its commitment to inclusivity in its UK operations earlier this year, with its “no diversity, no commission” policy for suppliers.

“This is something that has driven the entire fabric of what it means to be a piece of content on Nickelodeon’s air, a piece of content made by a producer with Nickelodeon and also to even work at the company,” says Hahn. “If you’re trying to sell a show to Nickelodeon you should have done your homework to come with a concept that is authentic to kids and reflects the world in which kids live.

“It’s an instinct for Nick, it’s a natural part of our DNA. If you come to us without that, it’s not a conversation.”

The Jim Henson Company is also known for its history of promoting diversity. As its president of TV, Halle Stanford, puts it: “I always hear Kermit in the background saying: ‘It’s not easy being green.’”

The company has produced shows like Fraggle Rock, which she points out “was created to promote world peace and showcase interconnectedness” (and is being brought back as an Apple TV+ Original) and Sid The Science Kid, which Stanford says was “the first show where we really dug in and showcased kids from different racial, religious and economic backgrounds”. She adds: “I’m super proud that Sid was the first bi- racial pre-schooler on TV.”

The company is, of course, best-known for its work in animation and puppetry (or, rather, Muppetry), which is why Stanford says that the next step for Henson is to develop more live-action programming. “We need to make a shift towards showing real children up on the screen, even more. I’ve actually committed our slate to showcase more real children in terms of race, community and neurodiversity.”

Among the projects in the pipeline, Stanford reveals, is a show “focusing solely on the Latinx community and then another one specifically aimed at the neurodiversity community.” Stanford says the company has started to realise that “we don’t have to necessarily always go broad; we can always speak to a specific community.”

Streaming focus
The rise of streaming services has opened up the catalogue for children to view not just homegrown talent showcasing diversity, but also content produced by cultures different to their own.

“Streamers have played a big part as they have made a conscious effort in pushing diversity with great results,” says Michel, while Rezaei suggests that “digital platforms and newer media rebels” are the ones “allowing space for new stories to come out.”

Anish Mehta, CEO of Indian animation studio Cosmos-Maya, however, highlights how shows from some territories notably travel further than others. “We strive for our content to feature in the international market and enjoy the same acceptance and popularity as international storylines do in our home market,” he says, noting the disparity, but also the positives.

“The fact that we’re currently in an era where global streaming platforms are setting up shop in India signifies a welcome shift,” says Mehta. “Shows like Mighty Little Bheem have initiated a trend where a homegrown Indian title has worked really well with big streamers such as Netflix in international territories, and this is merely the tip of the iceberg.”

Ellen Solberg, head of content at global kids’ streamer Hopster, meanwhile, says that she sees “a huge positive coming from kids seeing different cultures represented on screen.”

Solberg adds that while culture representation is definitely improving with global streaming, there are still areas for improvement. “I’d like to see more stories where girls are leaders and boys are open about their feelings, where different family structures are shown, and where kids from different backgrounds, abilities and classes are represented.”

Last year, Hopster published a report titled Is Kids TV Making Your Child Prejudiced? which examined 50 of the most popular shows aimed at UK pre- schoolers on public service broadcasting channels, streaming and VOD services. Its findings included minimal disability representation in these shows, high rates of gender stereotyping, little evidence of LGBT+ representation and only six out of the 50 examined had BAME characters in leading roles.

Solberg comments: “Our aim has always been to be inclusive, but the report did highlight to us how many of the top shows are still lacking representation. It has definitely made us more aware of harmful stereotypes and underrepresented groups. When commissioning content, we always take this into account. In 2019, we created a show called Rainbow Stories, which introduces children to LGBT+ families and different family structures. In another Hopster original, Two Minute Tales, we meet BAME characters, LGBT+ characters, characters with disabilities and characters from different classes.”

Social immobility

While there has been more overt ground gained with pushes for racial, gender and sexual inclusivity, it is apparent that social issues and disability representation can often be left behind.

Olivia Dickinson, executive producer of the Inclusivity Now strand at the 2020 Children’s Media Conference, says that while there are positive examples like the aforementioned Pablo, disability representation in children’s programming can often be tokenistic.

Dickinson gives an example of an existing character introducing a friend with a hearing aid or in a wheelchair, rather than someone with those disabilities appearing as part of the regular cast of characters.

Stanford agrees these issues are “absolutely not given the same amount of attention” and has plans for Henson to “open ourselves up” to more projects focused specifically on the disabled community.

Dickinson also notes another troubling trend. Even in positive LGBT+ stories it is “often more acceptable to have a coming out story for boys. There is that sense again that the male experience gets to lead.”

On and off camera
While efforts are clearly being made to improve inclusivity and representation, all those spoken to by TBI for this feature agree that there is much more to be done. And the answer, to quote Akinsiku, is “not rocket science”. Beyond improving on-screen representation, broadcasters and content creators need to also put in the work behind the scenes – and at every level – whether that’s adhering to an ethos, implementing an initiative or ensuring that the content they create comes from a place of real authenticity.

“Things have changed a lot. It is certainly no longer incredibly rare to see BAME characters on children’s TV,” says Akinsiku. “But there is that little question of what lies behind the camera. We need more representation at levels where it matters, especially creative and shot callers. When you have influential people on side at the highest levels, it can make a difference.”

“True change comes from changing the make-up of the industry,” agrees Rezaei. “Until we see parity in top management, in the creative departments and the decision-making roles, we won’t make a huge dent in authentic storytelling.”

If these positives changes continue, however, Rezaei believes the future is an inclusive one. “I am convinced one day we will reach a place where kids can turn on the TV and feel like they are being represented and reflected. This will allow them to know that they are OK just as they are and that they are loved. That is what this is about. We want to make kids feel that they are loved and that they matter. That is the most important part in all that we do.”

This article first appeared in TBI’s August/September 2020 issue (click here to read in full). Both Big Bad Boo’s Shabnam Rezaei and Nickelodeon’s Nina Hahn can be heard talking about the kids’ TV industry in our most recent TBI Talks (click here to watch on demand).

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More Nick: ViacomCBS Sets Merged Diversity and Inclusion Team; Reveals Leadership Team to 'Break New Ground' in Representation!

Originally published: Friday, August 21, 2020.

H/T: Kidscreen.
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