Girls gaining in the kids programming playground

Last year, a number of animated shows debuted with girls in lead roles, such as Calamity Jane on Kids' WB! and Disney's Pepper Ann on the ABC block Disney's One Saturday Morning. These shows demonstrated both the promise and the risk...
August 1, 1998

Last year, a number of animated shows debuted with girls in lead roles, such as Calamity Jane on Kids’ WB! and Disney’s Pepper Ann on the ABC block Disney’s One Saturday Morning. These shows demonstrated both the promise and the risk of programming to girls: the former was discontinued after receiving lukewarm ratings, but continues to have a life overseas, while the latter quickly became the second-highest-rated show in a winning kids block.

Although few of last year’s introductions in the girls category matched Pepper Ann’s success, the programming environment this year is more girl-friendly in two key ways: the willingness of broadcasters to take on shows with girls in lead roles, and an emphasis on strong female characters across the board. While broadcasters still bow to the conventional wisdom that any program launched strictly as a girls show will bomb, last year’s successes in the category paved the way for the girl-friendly environment unfolding this fall.


honest portrayals

Why the boom in girls programming? Many attribute the rise to more accessible female characters. ‘I think it’s because girls are being portrayed as fully realized characters,’ says Thomas Lynch, the executive producer whose company, Lynch Entertainment, has created two prime-time series on Nickelodeon that emphasize girl characters and concerns. The Secret World of Alex Mack stars Larisa Oleynik as 16-year-old Alex, and The Journey of Allen Strange features Erin Dean as the teen girl sidekick of the alien boy lead character.

‘Girls are being portrayed as interesting, dynamic and complex-multi-faceted,’ says Lynch. ‘They’re also action-oriented, not just sitting in their rooms talking about boy characters. This has only come about in the last five or six years.’

‘We portray girls in honest, straightforward ways,’ agrees Rich Ross, senior VP of programming and production at Disney Channel. An example of this is the channel’s reality show Bug Juice, which was intentionally girl-focused. ‘Bug Juice is the story of 12 girls operating within the broader story of boys and girls at camp,’ says Ross. Since its launch earlier this year, the show has won critical acclaim, as well as a strong viewership.

A viable target market

Many programmers acknowledge that this year’s Titanic, a film that set historic precedents at the box office, was attended and re-attended by record numbers of preteen and teenage girls, who demonstrably influenced the movie’s grosses. (According to a recent Time magazine article, girls accounted for 30 to 40% of Titanic’s US$580 million U.S. box-office receipts.) The enormous revenues produced from this girl audience finally drove home the demographic’s economic clout to the marketing community at large. In total, girls age 12 to 19 spent US$60 billion last year, according to Teenage Research Unlimited.

‘Girls are a very attractive [target] demo,’ argues Maureen Smith, manager of Fox Kids Network and Fox Family Worldwide. ‘They have just as much influence [as boys] on toy purchases. There are so many products out there for girls: clothing, [packaged] food, fast food-and both boys and girls are the consumers.’

Dawn of the `girls block’

In detailing plans for Fox Family Channel’s fall schedule, Smith cautiously admits that its Saturday morning block openly targets girls. ‘There’s an opportunity to reach older girls on Saturday morning,’ says Smith of Fox Family Channel’s lineup, citing girls shows like The Adventures of Shirley Holmes, the tale of Sherlock Holmes’ mystery-solving great-grand-niece; and Enigma, which features a high school girl who moonlights as a crime-fighting superhero.

‘Later in the day, we’re not so obviously [targeting] girls, but we know how much girls love lip-synch types of shows and music, so The Big Stage should also appeal to them.’

Girls in the lead

The increasing perception of girls as equal to boys as a target audience has opened the door to shows that feature female characters in the lead. Nickelodeon’s new Klasky-Csupo animated series The Wild Thornberrys is one example, says Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon’s executive VP and general manager. In the show, a filmmaking family’s daughter, Eliza Thornberry, has the secret power to speak with animals.

‘In live action, people have been putting girls in lead roles for a long time, but this is just starting to happen in animation.’ Zarghami attributes this change to the rise of women decision-makers in the industry. She notes that at the time of Nicktoons’ inception in 1991, ‘most of the [executives] were women. The television industry overall has recently become a much more aggressive playing field for women.’

Cartoon Network’s The Powerpuff Girls, a Warner Bros. Television Animation property to air this November during prime time, is an audacious departure from the traditionally non-action shows girls star in. The series, targeting ages six to 11, follows the adventures of three five-year-old girls who transform into superheroes to fight crime. It will be produced by the same animation team behind the channel’s biggest hit, Dexter’s Laboratory.

‘We have a number of programs that star girls in the lead roles, including our movies,’ says Disney Channel’s Ross. Girls shows on Disney Channel include Madeline, produced by DIC Entertainment, and The Little Mermaid and Katie and Orbie, which are both highly rated among girls age two to 11, who comprise more than 57% of the audience for both shows. Ross points out that ‘easily half’ of Disney Channel’s original movies feature women and girls in lead roles.

‘I think people are less hesitant to look at girl-driven shows today, as long as you address not only issues of females, but also issues of strength and empowerment,’ he adds.

A higher profile

for girl characters

In addition to unveiling shows with girls as the prominent characters, broadcasters are making female characters an ever-stronger component of the cast.

Disney’s One Saturday Morning show Disney’s Recess was created by the Walt Disney Television Animation team who helped to create Rugrats (while at Klasky-Csupo), Joe Ansolabehere, series creator and executive producer, and fellow executive producer Paul Germain. Recess, which stars a mixed, ensemble cast, was the number one show on the Saturday morning block at press time.

While the team’s current hit is notably girl-friendly, things were not always so rosy for their female-targeted projects. ‘After Rugrats first hit, we had some shows we tried to sell people. We were looking to have a girls hit,’ says Ansolabehere. ‘Networks were not interested in the girl audience,’ adds Paul Germain. ‘There’s the conventional wisdom that girls watch boys shows, but boys hold the clicker,’ says Ansolabehere.

They ended up with a compromise in Recess, which focuses on boys and girls interacting on the playground. The show’s creators were determined to develop characters that would allow girls to break out of the mold of either sitting on the sidelines or being villains. ‘[Rugrats had] created the character of Angelica, an evil girl,’ notes Germain. ‘Many shows made girls the bad guy because then she’s strong and they can use that in the story.’ Ansolabehere says girl characters in Recess were written as protagonists, not antagonists. ‘We wanted to play against types. Gretchen is really smart and brilliant, and Spinelli is a little skinny girl who is just completely tough. Both girls are really a good example of what girls can be,’ he says.

Nickelodeon is stretching the boundaries of traditional girls material by making them a strong focus of its comedy shows. ‘All That is a show we’re really proud of, because we’ve finally mastered the sketch comedy for kids for the first time,’ notes Zarghami. ‘We have elevated girl comedians [on the show], such as 11-year-old Amanda Bynes.’

‘The girls have been a great success for us,’ she adds. ‘Kids are responding to strong personalities-not necessarily characters dealing with a girl-specific issue, but with real issues anyone would have to deal with.’

Girl-friendly action

Fox Kids’ Smith admits that the network’s new shows Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog and Young Hercules, both heavily promoted entries to the network’s fall lineup, seem, at first glance, very boy-oriented. Still, she argues that even these rugged live-action adventure series do not ignore girls.

‘We are conscious that a certain age group of girls would like to see a hunky guy like the lead character in Young Hercules, and would not say, `Oh, that’s a boys show,’ because it has tremendous female appeal, too. There are very strong female characters in the show.’

Like Fox Kids, Kids’ WB!’s fall lineup features action series that clearly target boys, including Batman Beyond and Men in Black: The Series. However, concerted efforts have been made to ensure that the debuting series Warner Bros.’ Histeria!, and the new Jim Henson Company series BRATS of the Lost Nebula will incorporate a number of very strong female characters. For example, Warner Bros.’ Histeria! features animated characters taking kids on a tour through history. The series highlights female host characters such as Miss Information and Aka Pella.

Returning series Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky, Elmyra & The Brain beefs up its girl factor this season as the Elmyra character from Tiny Toon Adventures takes Pinky and The Brain into her suburban home.

Eschewing labels

As for the danger of alienating boys with too much girl focus, David Campbell, executive producer of Disney’s Doug and a partner at Jumbo Pictures (along with Jim Jinkins, president of Jumbo Pictures), acknowledges that it is a concern. ‘You do have to come in under the radar. If boys think it’s a girls show, boys won’t watch it. Pepper Ann is successful both for boys and girls because it has overcome that perception,’ says Campbell.

Even given the three girl protagonists in The Powerpuff Girls, Hanna-Barbera’s Craig McCracken, the writer, director and producer of the series, does not label the property as a girls show. ‘I think the fact that [The Powerpuff Girls] is a superhero show is appealing to boys. The action and fighting draw the boys in, and the fact that [the lead characters] are girls draws the girl audience in,’ he says.

Girls hits hold steady

While she admits that teen girls are ‘the most important part of our audience,’ Robin Schwartz, VP of NBC’s Saturday morning programs and prime-time series, says being perceived as a girls block would be the kiss of death for NBC’s Saturday morning TNBC block. ‘We have made an effort to stay broad and haven’t solely targeted girls-landing incredibly strong teen numbers.’

TNBC’s top-rated show Hang Time presents a girl lead character who is a member of the boys basketball team. The series, starting its fourth season in the fall, provides a strong example of the kind of gender-bending characters out there. Daniella Deutscher stars as Julie Connor, a character modeled after a real-life female hockey player who made the male team. ‘The inspiration for the show was to portray a character’s success in breaking down gender barriers,’ says Schwartz.

But shows with girls in the lead do not necessarily need to tackle complex issues to become hits, notes Paula Hart, executive producer of Hartbreak Film’s Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. The series airs Friday nights on ABC and garners a huge audience of both boys and girls. ‘We try not to deal with heavy issues,’ says Hart. ‘We think people have a lot to deal with and are looking for entertainment.’

About The Author


Brand Menu