Get real

Buyers and sellers of TV shows are currently at MIPCOM in Cannes negotiating their way through deals that will shape the global TV audience's viewing world. It seems like a good time to raise a preemptive ponder as to the effect...
October 1, 1999

Buyers and sellers of TV shows are currently at MIPCOM in Cannes negotiating their way through deals that will shape the global TV audience’s viewing world. It seems like a good time to raise a preemptive ponder as to the effect of teen series on kids (you know they’ll want to watch them).

Given the current climate of sensitivity to violence on screen, everyone’s going to be giving it the hairy eyeball-and rightly so. However, there are other content questions to ask. When the NAACP pointed out the lack of visible minorities in the fall U.S. network lineups, it thrust the issue into the spotlight. It’s sad that in 1999 the NAACP needs to form an initiative to monitor entertainment’s multicultural track record, however, NAACP stats show that 62% of African-Americans feel TV does not represent them accurately; 63% for Latinos.

And beyond making sure there is fair racial representation, teen producers should also be concerned about generally depicting a more realistic world (hey, not everyone is rich and skinny and beautiful), and be aware of any kind of casting likely to give kids feelings of inadequacy.

FYI: A mom I know wouldn’t let her kids watch Power Rangers, back when there was all the furor over kids emulating the kicking. Assuming it was due to the violence, I asked why other shows in which superheroes whupped bad-guy ass passed muster. She replied that it wasn’t the fighting-she thought saving the world from evil wasn’t the worst premise for kids to be exposed to-it was the fact that the least attractive cast members (pimply, overweight) were cast as bumbling, sneaky fools.

While some teen shows are cast realistically, more are not. In life, there is a range of shapes and colors in classrooms, which are rarely reflected on screen. Also, due in part to 20-somethings playing teens, many are just too buxom, reinforcing the Barbie/fashion mag unrealistic body image pressure (which is a concern, given the incidence of teens wanting breast enhancement or suffering from anorexia).

Children’s shows have long been in the vanguard of inclusion, with Sesame Street being the poster show for respect of every race, creed and color that exists (and several-such as the blue and green cast members-that don’t). Animated kid shows are also generally doing a good job on this front. However, there is still room for improvment, as a Children Now* study found that Latino and Asian children felt under-represented.

As it’s still in its infancy, on-line streaming entertainment can avoid joining the traditional media crowd in reinforcing the sort of noninclusive and/or body image messages that have led to general angst among youth who don’t see anyone like them on screen.

Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s new Comparative Media Studies Program, relayed the nugget that the Internet is more scary to parents than guns, in his keynote at the Breakthrough to Kids and Teens conference portion of the Golden Marbles event in New York last month. Weird, but not without its own strange logic, given that the Net holds immense potential to reach kids and teens in an uncontrollable environment. In Jenkins’ post-Littleton assessment of the role of media in youth violence (he rejects causal links on the grounds that by age five, kids can distinguish between fiction and reality) he gave pointers on what needs to be done to create a positive media environment for youth. These include:

* supportive digital communities for youth * adult knowledge and respect for youth culture * creative response from media producers to reduce violence-not because it’s going to be imitated-but because it’s banal

While his remarks were focused on violence, the ‘creative response’ call to producers can be applied to all potentially negative messages. Writers should broach the issues that are complex, edgy and hard-that’s the way the world is. Producers in all media need to tap into a more realistic depiction and understanding of youth, or get left behind as their audience connects elsewhere.


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