Hire old, hire young, hire diverse

As the decade comes to a close, Kidscreen looks ahead with a few experts to hear their predictions for what's going to happen to talent in the kids entertainment industry.
December 16, 2019

The kids entertainment industry has recently seen the launch of new streaming services, big platforms locking down talent and kids shows becoming more high profile than ever. While it seems like a time of upheaval, as we look to the next decade, that generally means there’s an opportunity for much-needed fresh voices to bring diverse storytelling to the forefront.

The numbers from the Landscape of Children’s Television in the US & Canada reveal that males dominate in director, writer and creator roles in the kids TV industry, while women fared better in the production side. And diversity is an ongoing goal at many studios that a number of diversity and inclusion writer’s programs have popped up, including the recent launch of Universal Animation Writers Program, which aims to identify and develop diverse new talent for its partners, including DreamWorks Animation; and Cartoon Network kicked off a pilot mentorship program for autistic students.

In addition to looking for talent in mentorship and diversity programs, the hiring process itself can produce fresh faces, says Ava Seave, principal from media consulting firm Quantum Media. She says the challenge is to shift away from the habit of hiring people you already know. She recalls working for one company that excelled at hiring. The trick: interviewing 10 people for every position. “You’re forced to not just ask your pals. [They] were introduced to all sorts of people that you wouldn’t expect.”

Reach3 Insights’ Melva Benoit agrees the challenge remains that producers often want to work with their friends, who are often not diverse, but is optimistic by the number of diversity and inclusion writer’s programs.

While people have long known the audience may be more diverse than the staff behind the shows, the sheer volume of new streaming players—with their global reach and seemingly bottomless pockets available to commission shows that reach diverse audience once considered too niche—is causing a shift behind the scenes as well, Benoit says. “There’s also more thought being given to the kinds of content being made. We know that we like to see ourselves in story and …if you don’t include diversity, you put yourself at a disadvantage.”

An untapped resource, for Benoit, is Asian talent, because there’s so much content across OTT platforms that caters to that group that hasn’t crossed broadcaster and major platform’s radar. “Asian-Americans are incredibly diverse. They’re not homogeneous, and so the types of stories that can be told require that more people that have those experiences are given an opportunity. There still needs to be work in making those stories more authentic.”

Meanwhile, Seave brings up the subject of age discrimination. “Older people are just not considered,” she says. “If they have a big long resume, they are eliminated.”

On the opposite end of the age divide, a smart move would be to get talented content creators into the industry even sooner, says Kerry Ball, Meridian Artists’ literary agent and head of development, where she represents a number of youth and animation writers who have worked extensively internationally.

Ball suggests that outreach for screenwriting as a viable career opportunity could start happening at the high school level. “Young writers could be given opportunities in training programs targeted for them, so they could start practicing the craft earlier than post-secondary,” says Ball.

Geographically, there are always new areas to explore for talent, and while Benoit can’t definitively say a specific region where fresh voices are coming from, she says, “it’s incumbent upon you as an executive to seek and consume a lot to find it, and it’s not as easy as it once was, because there’s not one place to go.”

Meanwhile, many well-known creators are getting locked down in, increasingly common, overall deals. Netflix’s recent exclusive content output deals have included Chris Nee and Darla Anderson, and while it has created security for some, it’s disrupting the industry as a whole.

“A sense of security helps,” says Seave. That’s not to say the overall deals process is democratic in any way, she adds. “Locking in talent is only at the very top levels. Most everybody else in the business are contract workers. It’s a dual mode business where in order to afford this lock in talent thing, they pay everybody else not a lot of money and no security.”

Ball weighs in that it should continue, “as long as the deals are fair, the creators are being fairly compensated, and they’re allowed the freedom to create the shows that speak to them creatively, but also to the marketplace.”

In other predictions, Ball believes the type of content getting made will shape future demands, pointing to the continued uptick in live-action youth programming, especially for the younger demos like preschool. “I think they will always be looking for talented screenwriters who are able to tap into themes and topics that are relevant to youth today.  I would expect they continue to look to various online platforms for personalities who stand out and are creating unique content.”

For Seave, she’d like to see creative people hiring data scientists. “To actually integrate researchers and data scientists, having some context as to what you’re looking at will help us understand what’s going on.”

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