The diversity decade

No bigger factors are likely to impact the next 10 years of children’s television than inclusivity and social awareness-and producers agree the time for a shake-up begins now.
February 13, 2017

The issue of diversity in entertainment is a complicated one. Traditionally, children’s media has been on the vanguard of bringing important social issues to the forefront. That’s what it does best. But most agree, there’s more to be done.

A survey of the kids production community reveals an industry-wide sense that it’s time to make substantial and meaningful changes to increase the range of voices and experiences both on-screen and behind the scenes. The movement can be seen in different ways and with varying degrees of success among established prodcos and independent newcomers.

While each producer has his or her own approach to addressing the issue, one thing is for certain: the confluence of demographics and globe-shrinking technologies suggest that the next generation’s most successful and important creators will be those who cultivate the most wide-ranging and inclusive stories.

The Doc is in
The surprise success of Disney’s Doc McStuffins is a lesson in how cultural diversity can go mainstream. The brainchild of Chris Nee, the series not only features an African-American girl as its main character, but is also the creation of someone who grew up with the seemingly impossible dream of becoming a female showrunner in a field traditionally dominated by men.

“As a kid, I used to sit and watch the credits to see if there were women running shows and writing them,” says Nee. “There really was a moment when I almost didn’t come to L.A. because I was told there were so few women doing this.”

Thankfully, Nee persevered. “I created the character for my son, who had asthma,” she says. “But I made the character an African-American girl. It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t resonate with him. Truthfully, I’m proud of that choice—it was a bold one to make.”

Nee then pitched the idea to Disney and was overwhelmed by the media giant’s enthusiasm. “Disney came right back and said they were looking for diverse voices,” she says. “It was a decision that was made very quickly. Disney was a driving force behind it.” The series debuted in March 2012, and has since been heralded for its groundbreaking message. It has also proved that ancillary revenue streams, which play such a crucial role in kids entertainment, are not negatively affected by a main character’s skin color.

Doc had the ratings, but it could also support a toy line,” Nee says. “I think it was important since that money is such a driver in this industry. I feel like it opened a lot of doors.”

For Disney’s part, Adam Bonnett, EVP of original programming at Disney Channels Worldwide, says the company’s success grew organically from its leadership philosophy. “Our priority has not changed over the years,” he says. “It’s always been a part of how we do business. It is part of our culture and that starts from the leadership of Disney CEO Bob Iger and [president and chief creative officer for Disney Channels Worldwide] Gary Marsh.”

The success has now given Nee the opportunity to address the other side of the diversity coin—how to best break down barriers and bring more voices to the crucial behind-the-scenes roles that shape what is seen on global screens.

Fittingly, her next series deals with the topic of inclusion and acceptance head on. Currently in development, Vampirina is an animated series that tells the story of a family of vampires that emigrates from Transylvania to Pennsylvania. “It’s the next evolution in talking about diversity,” Nee says. “It is acknowledging that we are not all the same, and that is a strength, not a weakness. Frankly, it’s a huge topic in the US right now.”

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Doc McStuffins’ creator Chris Nee says it never occurred to her that African-American Doc would not resonate universally with preschoolers, and Disney readily agreed

Superficial progress?
In the years since Doc McStuffins went global, many might think kids entertainment has been on an upward trajectory, acting as an example for other facets of the entertainment industry on how to tell new types of stories from different voices. The reality, however, is more nuanced.

Noted kids media expert Dr. Maya Goetz, MD of Prix Jeunesse International, is critical of the progress made in the area of diversity. She has spent her decades-long career studying this issue and has authored or co-authored more than 200 studies that detail the state of inclusion throughout the entertainment industry. Her outlook on the last decade of children’s entertainment output reveals that some markers of progress are only superficial changes that, in fact, only cloak its diversity in long-held stereotypes.

“To a certain extent, we have seen a change,” she says. “There are indeed more and more programs that feature different shades of skin color, but if you take a closer look, you see there is not really diversity there.”

Goetz says that in some cases the call for diversity has been answered with either a meaningless tweak of the color palette—or worse. “There are some shows where, sure, they have a black character. But that character is the athletic one,” she says. “The Asian character might be there, where he or she wasn’t even visible a few years ago. But now they are the clever one. The Irish one is the cheeky one, and it goes on and on. It has to be much more than that.”

While Goetz applauds bigger prodcos for showing initiative in hiring more talent from different places, she says the numbers still paint a picture of a relatively small talent pool being utilized. “One year I looked at the MIPCOM catalog and determined that 84% of directors were male,” she says. “To the extent that we could, we also looked at the ethnicity of the talent at MIPCOM, and to be honest, the vast majority was white, highly educated and male.”

Goetz contends progress is being made in certain categories like gender and ethnicity, but other areas such as body types and class are barely even part of the conversation. “Diversity isn’t just in skin color,” she says. “If you look at a lot of mainstream productions, you see one thing. There is one type of body and one type of face. They all look the same—they are upper class and white, with stereotypically beautiful looks. Real diversity means that these programs need to recognize that not all kids grow up slim and upper-middle class. There are a lot of people that still don’t see themselves reflected on screens.”

Far from being discouraged, Goetz says now is the perfect time to engage in this type of discussion. She believes the advent of social media, along with the emergence of powerful new players in the kids market, will give the industry the necessary shake-up that will open the door to more diverse players.

“I think it’s a great time for change because of different platforms,” she says. “You can see it—children are searching for something else. They are looking for content that mirrors their lives and that is what they are finding on social media.” And Goetz says the market is responding. “Through other new players like Amazon and Netflix, I think we are going to see more content that runs counter to the mainstream,” she adds.

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Sinking Ship Entertainment believes kids will favor shows, like Annedroids, that truly reflect their diverse realities

New players
Goetz’s view that both small indie players, and larger new ones, will have a positive impact seems warranted. For example, Amazon, a relatively new force in the children’s production community, has won rave reviews for its portrayal of progressive stories in its American Girl series.

“Amazon prides itself on being innovative,” says Tara Sorensen, head of kids programming at Amazon Studios. “We are a technology company, and we really gravitate towards bigger and broader ideas that will stand out from the clutter.”

Co-produced with Mattel, the company’s live-action movie An American Girl Story—Melody 1963: Love Has to Win was released last fall to both critical and commercial success. The movie has been recognized by the NAACP and was a finalist for the prestigious Humanitas Prize. Delving deep into American civil rights history, the special is the first of three American Girl productions that Sorensen says are designed to “engage kids in a conversation that is just so important in the US right now.”

Behind the scenes as well, Sorensen believes Amazon is doing its best to make sure the stories being told are coming from a real place. “We are taking chances on first-time directors,” she says. “That is a risk, but we felt we needed to be able to do that to create an authentic story—and we are so happy with how it has worked out.”

Listen to the market
Like Sorensen, Doc McStuffins creator Nee has the rare responsibility of putting resources where her heart is. That means she is instrumental in hiring crews and casts that better reflect the ever-evolving demographic makeup of the US. “We are at a tipping point right now,” Nee says. “We have to take it upon ourselves, as people in this industry, and say, ‘We have to do better.’”

Even if the will is there, the question remains: How can producers break with tradition and effectively succeed in finding more diverse voices?

Not surprisingly, most prodcos favor an approach that lets viewers dictate how changes will be made. “I think the market is going to force it,” says Kya Johnson, CEO of RainbowMe, a year-old VOD platform that curates culturally diverse content. Recently, RainbowMe began creating its own originals with the Nigerian series Bino and Fino.

Johnson says her business is based on the assumption that audiences are demanding series that better reflect the reality in which they live. “If you look at the US, the under-12 population is changing really quickly,” she says. “You can see now that parents are looking for series that are more diverse. It is why we launched our business. We saw a void and wanted to fill it.”

J.J. Johnson, partner at Toronto, Canada-based prodco Sinking Ship Entertainment, also hopes producers will be able to solve these issues without creating restrictive regulations. “I think it will change very quickly once all production companies realize the business imperative of doing it,” he says. “It’s clear that audiences favor shows that better reflect their own realities.” Johnson also points to the rise of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and how these platforms have opened up the floodgates for kids who now demand to see different types of content on screen.

It’s a point that Nathalie Habib, GM and executive producer at Dubai-based Blink Studios, echoes. “There are all sorts of backgrounds that can now come together because of so many social media platforms,” she says. “On a gaming platform, for instance, you can plug in and connect with people from across the globe. I think that has really opened up the world for a lot of people.”

Habib argues that change will come from this “organic place,” and it will have more resonance because it is not being pushed by producers artificially.

Disney’s Bonnett says the aforementioned strides made by the House of Mouse were not the result of external regulations, but rather internal culture. “We don’t have quotas, and I don’t really think that is how change happens,” he says. “My advice for any company is that the change should come from the top executives. They are the ones who have to make it a priority, and that is how it gets into the DNA of a company.”

As an academic, Goetz has a vastly different perspective on the role that regulations or quotas should play to prod children’s producers towards telling more diverse stories. “Some changes will happen because of market forces, but some will not happen without a quota,” she says. “At a certain time, we will need a quota at least to be mentioned, if not strictly enforced.”

Goetz points to UK pubcaster BBC as an example of a broadcaster that has gone on record to set guidelines for diversity both on screen and behind the camera. “They have a stated goal,” she says. “Since they have written that down it really has changed what is on screen and how they hire people. I see that as a positive.”

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The concept for new Guru Studios toon Big Blue came from African-Canadian creator Gyimah Gariba

The extra mile
Since most producers reject the idea of a quota, the onus is on the companies themselves to go beyond regular avenues to find writers, directors, actors and producers to bring new stories life. In that respect, Bonnett says Disney has launched a number of formal internal programs designed to boost diversity.

“We have the ABC Writing and Developing Fellowship, as well as the Disney Channel Storytellers Program,” he says. “We are currently working on developing a female directing program to give more opportunity to those voices.”

Bonnett says recent big-screen successes like Moana and Rogue One, as well as TV hits Elena of Avalor and live-actioner K.C. Undercover, show there is marketable strength in female-forward content. “It has been a really big success for us,” he says. “Last year, 67% of K.C. Undercover eps were directed by a female director or an African American. To us, that is a very positive statistic.”

Bonnett is particularly proud of K.C. Undercover episode “The Legend of Bad, Bad Cleo Brown,” directed by newcomer Zynga Stewart. “She really had the chops and the passion to come on board and direct,” he says of the ep that was also written by a predominately African-American team. “To me, that is a great example of the commitment we have as a company. And how it has filtered down from the top levels of leadership.”

The equation may be different for smaller prodcos, but the results are similar. Sinking Ship’s Johnson says making the extra effort on inclusivity is now built into his slate. “We made our own rule,” he says. “Half of our characters will be girls. We didn’t necessarily take the easiest route. We had to dig a bit deeper.”

For example, when casting his latest show, Johnson approached local drama schools and other organizations outside of the entrenched talent agent system to make sure more diversity was shown on screen. He points to the example of casting an actress with a disability for the latest Odd Squad series.

“It is a key character, and we sought out the organizations that could help us to fill it,” he says. “She is amazing. I am so excited now to watch how her career will unfold.”

For Toronto, Canada-based Guru Studios, the cultivation of more diverse voices is the result of a strict adherence to finding new, interesting stories that will resonate with an evolving audience.

“There is never a wrong time to represent diversity on screen,” says Guru Studios president Frank Falcone. “I think it is important for all parts of society to see themselves.”

Currently in production, Big Blue is a 22-minute animated series that was pitched to Guru by a young African-Canadian creator named Gyimah Gariba. “I feel like the way I live my life is just naturally filled with people from all sorts of different backgrounds,” Falcone says. “That is how I am most comfortable, and I think it gives a richness to storytelling.”

Falcone says that when his company initially took the series to market, it let the work speak for itself. “The only reason to support Big Blue is because it’s a great show,” he says. “It’s great first and foremost, and the market has been incredibly receptive to that.”

Habib, whose Dubai studio is located in one of the most diverse cities in the world, is also a firm believer that meeting the demands of the market is the best route towards showcasing more diversity on screen. And her company’s latest toon, Karim and Noor, is an example of a production that grew out of such demands.

“It is about reaching out and taking that leap of faith,” she says about her experience in putting together the series. “We went to work with artists from different cultures to create something totally new.”

The series features an Arab boy and a traditional lantern, which also happens to be a robot. The extra effort included enlisting an artist from Argentina to design the robot lantern sidekick. “I was worried that if I gave it to an artist from the Arab world they would already have a preconceived notion of what a lantern might be,” she says. “But the same Argentinian artist came back with a boy that looked a little too stereotypically Latino. So we had to develop Karim with Arab artists.”

Habib says the added attention paid to creating genuine cultural representations and going the extra mile (in her case, quite literally) to find the right artists will better serve the global market. “We brought together different elements and created something totally new,” she says. “If you create something that is reflective of only one nationality nowadays, you are going to kill your investment—that is the new reality.”

 

That “Aha!” moment

A common thread among producers is the one “Aha!” moment that altered their way of thinking about diversity. Although many producers have long had the best intentions to create series that reflect their progressive ideals, they were, in practice, perpetuating the same cycles. For some, the moment came from an industry event, a particularly insightful talk, or even just an off-hand comment. What ties them all together is the fact that realization spurred action and consequential change.

Shabnam Rezaei, co-founder and president of Vancouver/New York-based Big Bad Boo Studios, did not grow up pining to create children’s TV. In 2008, she and her husband founded a production studio to create a direct-to-DVD video celebrating the Persian New Year, particularly in response to negative representations of Iranian culture and religion in the wake of September 11, 2001.

“Iranians were being called terrorists and there were just so many misconceptions out there,” she says. The production was a success and it forged the company’s route into children’s entertainment. “At first, I had blinders on,” says Rezaei. “I saw that this was certainly not just an issue for Iranians, but really for all immigrant populations.”

Firmly entrenched in the industry and proud of her nascent company’s approach to diversity, Rezaei went to Kidscreen Summit last year and had an eye-opening moment.

“[Actress and activist] Geena Davis gave a wonderful, data-driven speech,” she says. “They surveyed all of these movies and discovered that only 17% of background characters were female.”

The number, among other facts mentioned in Davis’s keynote, simply blew her away. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m sure I did better than that with my productions,’” Rezaei says. But the truth was that her company’s projects projected the same dismal stats noted by Davis. “The fact is that I had been brainwashed,” she says. “The concept that representations on the screen should be male-dominated had been drilled into my head at an early age. I didn’t even think about it in my own productions. At that point, I knew I had to make a conscious effort to change.”

The culmination of her realization is 16 Hudson, a 39 x seven-minute animated series in co-production with Canada’s TVO Kids and SRC. Likely to bow in 2018, the series features progressive (as well as comical) storylines and an inclusive cast of main characters. It also has a diverse crew.

J.J. Johnson, partner at Toronto, Canada-based prodco Sinking Ship Entertainment, also described a similar moment of clarity that was brought on by being confronted by simple numerical facts.

“My eye-opening experience to there being some serious challenges in the industry was when I saw a research report from Prix Jeunesse on gender balance in kids TV,” he says.

Johnson’s company had enjoyed a successful run with a number of productions, and the Canadian producer felt that his series were reflective of his values of inclusivity and equality. “The study really explored the kinds of representations that girls have on TV,” he says. “How they fall into specific and stereotypical categories like ‘best friend,’ ‘girl next door’ or ‘love interest.’ I just didn’t realize that I had naturally fallen into the same rules that everyone obeys and does not question.”

As a result, Johnson started taking a closer look at not only the series themselves, but also the crews that put them together. “In every category, we had a lot of males working,” he says. “It was such an ‘Aha!’ moment. I knew from that point forward that if I was going to tell different stories, I would have to make a conscious effort to do so.”

This sense of self-accountability has been more formalized by The Jim Henson Company. While Henson productions have been lauded since its inception for promoting and embracing diversity and multi-culturalism, CEO Lisa Henson knew that her company’s reputation only told one side of the story.
“Historically, we have showed more diversity on the screen than behind it,” she admits. “The group of original puppeteers were all white men. They even did all of the female voices!”

Acting upon this realization, the company has recently taken stock and made conscious and overt changes to address the imbalance. Henson has enlisted the help of California-based Stanford Research Institute to objectively evaluate the company’s progress towards creating an environment that fosters diversity in everything it does.

“Getting a third party to look at what we are doing is a valuable and important part of how we are approaching this issue,” says Henson. “We are very invested in making changes.”

 

Opening the door

The Jim Henson Company, along with the US Corporation for Public Broadcasting, recently joined forces to address the lack of diversity behind the scenes in children’s productions with an innovative program that also drew local governmental support.

“We partnered to explore ways to bring different kinds of people to our workforce,” says CEO Lisa Henson. “We wanted to recruit those who might not even know how to get in touch with us.”

Through its own Open Door Diversity Initiative, Henson worked with Hire L.A.’s Youth, a program operated out of the city’s mayor office, to offer five entry-level positions to a diverse group of candidates.

“These are kids who don’t have a degree in communications or film studies,” says Henson. “They aren’t the same ones who come to us for internships.” The successful candidates worked on the new Henson animated series Splash and Bubbles, which debuted last fall on PBS KIDS. A number of them have moved onto other productions after the program gave them that much-needed foot in the door.

“We gave them real employment and we were certainly impressed with the output,” says Henson, who adds that the company is also involved in an outreach training program that specifically recruits minority puppeteers. “Having diverse voices in the creative process is the way our shows will land effectively with our audience.”

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at garyrusak@gmail.com

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