The world is struggling to juggle multiple massive crises right now. Foremost among them are managing and subduing COVID-19 and repairing systemic inequity and injustice. Almost every issue affecting children and youth—education, health, security, human rights—is intertwined with these missions.
The children’s media industry has unprecedented creative challenges ahead. We must figure out how to represent real-world problems in our content, brand development, advertising, licensing and merchandising.
A new report from NBCUniversal Advertising Sales found that a significant majority (69%) of US adults (6,130) surveyed want brands to reference critical issues in their marketing. An even larger percentage (81%) prefer to buy from companies they see as “helpful” with social causes.
The NBCUniversal study was conducted with adults, but we know that tail-end Gen Zs and leading-edge Gen Alphas see themselves as activists. They look for purpose, not puffery. Dubit’s most recent Trends study, conducted weeks into the pandemic lockdown, found young people want age-appropriate, serious news and information from media. They’re not yet able to vote, but they do engage with problems around them as much as they’re able to.
How can we support kids’ social consciousness while juggling the multiple other demands and facets of our industries? We need to empower diverse storytellers to create timely content around health, gender, race and economic equality. We need distribution platforms where these themes make sense. How do we help young people discover and engage with these forward-looking story worlds or game worlds? Oh, and what are the sustainable and ethical financial models?
The right to take content risks must be earned. Kids’ buy-in and parental approval result from openness and incremental change. Many northern European and Nordic telecasters air challenging stories of race, class, immigration, discrimination and other “taboo” themes; they’ve proven their trust with decades of documentaries and news for young people.
Public broadcasters, in particular, need bravery in walking their mission tightrope between speaking to underserved audiences and achieving broad popular support. CBBC in the UK issued a simple, pitch-perfect statement when criticized for airing a same-sex kiss in teen series The Next Step: “CBBC regularly portrays heterosexual young people dating, falling in love and kissing, and it is an important way of showing children what respectful, kind and loving relationships look like.”
Critiques are often adults projecting their own anxieties or biases. Young audiences, in comparison, are unfazed. If we don’t reflect young people’s real world, they’ll lose faith and go to one of the many platforms that aren’t developed or curated as thoughtfully.
Here are five short reflections on ways to be true to our work and inspiring to our audience:
1. Measure success across bodies of work. A “one of each” strategy in every show is obvious to children and doesn’t achieve true diversity and inclusion. You can seek others’ insight into lived experiences, but don’t try to wedge in the spectrum of characters or situations just to tick boxes. Instead, seek to place your story on a platform packed with enough diversity that every child can find role models.
2. Authenticity is paramount. Not every story or game, genre or format lends itself to weaving in big issues. If you break with show canon to drive home a point, you end up with a “very special episode.” These are seldom fan favorites because they feel forced.
Years ago, when Takalani Sesame in South Africa introduced Kami, an HIV+ character, I was approached by Fox News to appear on air. They made it clear that I was to say Kami should also be on Sesame Street in the US, so I could be attacked for teaching children about HIV. Instead, I noted that the disease was an urgent issue for South African children, but not for kids in the US, and that I knew Sesame Workshop would respond appropriately if it did become salient. Needless to say, I wasn’t booked.
Young people have a stronger bullshit detector. They know which stories and genres belong on which platforms or channels. They sense pandering and condescension innately.
3. Think long term. Someday, COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted. In Dubit’s qualitative research, kids and parents don’t want scenes with masks and distancing to be airing after measures are eased. Early in lockdown, many of us reacted when people in already-produced TV and film content engaged in unsafe practices. Now we’re more able to separate art and life, and want escapism in comedy and drama. Consider how your timely game or story will play after the moment passes.
4. Look for the “keeper” elements that emerge from troubled times. Even once the gloves (and masks) are off, there will be pandemic-compelled behaviors that we’ll keep—new family rituals, self-guided learning. These can be incorporated into storytelling in ways that are reflective without reviving anxieties. This summer’s intense civil rights clashes will quiet over time, but in their wake, we need honest and open discussion if we’re to progress against bias and inequality. Looking for a good example of this playing out in real time? Lockdown (pictured) from Sinking Ship Entertainment reflects life in quarantine, but it weaves in timeless issues like racism, family stresses and relationships.
5. The kids media development model needs flexibility. This point is complementary, not contradictory, with thinking long term. It’s hard to respond to world events when it can take years to get new content developed, produced and distributed. if you want to be “in the moment,” choose a medium, genre and platform designed for agility.
An app or game, once launched, can be continually updated. TV and video content are fixed on completion, but accommodate varied life cycles: a YouTuber wakes up with an idea and has a video on the platform by noon; longevity isn’t so important because she’ll have another out tomorrow. A major live-action or animated series may take years and so is expected to have a longer life. We need a new, agile model designed for urgency and relevance, almost as fast as a YouTuber, but with a little more reflection, development and shelf life.
Of course, kids turn to their tablets, phones and TV sets for fun, relaxation and escape. More and more, though, they want more. They dig into Google, YouTube, websites and social media to explore things that intrigue them or trouble them, things they want to change. How will we, as creators of the content they seek, honor their curiosity, concern and commitment?
David Kleeman is SVP of global trends at Dubit. Dubit’s research and strategy arms work hand-in-hand with its digital studio to help companies and organizations understand their users and build age-appropriate, safe games and experiences that kids love and parents respect.