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What role kidcasters are playing to improve diversity

Children's broadcasters are seeking ways to be more inclusive, asking external partners to step up to the plate or risk losing out on future work.
October 9, 2020

In 2016, Libbie Doherty was sitting in the audience at Kidscreen Summit listening to keynote speaker Geena Davis when she realized that she, as the commissioning editor for ABC Kids Australia, had to take a hard look at her slate. When she laid out each show on air and in the pipe, she realized the lineup had fallen behind on many fronts. With Davis emphasizing female parity, Doherty first looked at ABC’s representation of girls on screen and realized the pubcaster wasn’t doing enough. She scrapped a few ideas and ended up greenlighting others, including Mustangs FC, a dramedy about an all-girl soccer team.

Following a wave of Black Lives Matter protests this summer, Doherty (who is now head of kids for ABC Australia) is once again reflecting on her lineup. And she is not alone. Many broad- casters have recognized that while their slates have improved on the gender-representation front, the content—and the teams behind it—are still pretty white.

“Be more diverse or get left behind” is the message broadcasters are sending in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests. Some have put in place new policies, quotas and contract clauses—like ViacomCBS UK, which has a new “no diversity, no commission” policy. Others, like Canadian broadcaster Corus Entertainment, are trying to build a larger pool of talent from the ground up. And ABC Australia has mandated that marginalized voices need to be in charge of their own stories.

As a signatory on a Truth and Reconciliation agreement with Australia’s Indigenous people, ABC is contractually obligated to ensure their stories have an Indigenous person in a position of authority over the story, such as a writer, director, producer or showrunner (often called “authorship”).

When the producer is new to kids TV, ABC pairs them with a seasoned production company to get the show made.

It’s an important step: More than 90% of Hollywood showrunners are white (and a vast majority of those are men), according to non- profit civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change. Making matters worse, roughly two- thirds of those white showrunners don’t employ any Black people at all. Few, if any, stats exist around the number of Indigenous series leads.

“But Indigenous content is just amazing content,” says Doherty. “In the past, people would have put it in a niche bucket.” One such show is Grace Beside Me (pictured, below), which the broadcaster ordered for ABC ME in 2018 from Magpie Pictures. This adaptation of an award-winning novel follows a 13-year-old who discovers she can see ghosts.

Author Sue McPherson is Indigenous and developed the series and wrote two episodes. Dena Curtis, also Indigenous, served as a creative producer and pitched in on development. The show also had several Indigenous writers and an Indigenous director. Doherty had hoped to fill the director’s chair with an all-Indigenous team, but many people they approached were in high demand, and as a result the role has gone largely to the non- Indigenous population. “Until we had exhausted all efforts, though, we wouldn’t have considered other people,” says Doherty.

Screen Minifeature Grace Beside Me resized

Grace Beside Me is part of ABC’s focus on diversity.

Colleen Russo Johnson, co-founder of Toronto’s Ryerson Children’s Media Lab, says while it’s great that Doherty tried, kids content commissioners need to “try harder.” And they also need to back their policies up with funds.

“It’s great to think that people would do this because they have a moral obligation, but at the end of the day this is a business, and people are going to follow the money in order to make con- tent,” says Russo Johnson.

Kids TV has been having this conversation around inclusion for some time, and while much has changed for programming and scheduling, it’s still not reflective of this generation of kids, Russo Johnson adds. Broadcasters need to set rules to promote diversity on both ends—codified into contracts. Otherwise, she worries everyone will give up when it gets tough to find talent.

“At the end of the day, almost everyone has good intentions and would love to have diversity. There’s a million reasons that hold them back from doing so,” she says, “It’s hard because there are not as many people available in those [senior] roles, which speaks to a larger problem.”

As broadcasters wake up to the need for more BIPOC talent behind the camera and in the boardroom, finding and elevating marginalized voices is a challenge. Canadian broadcaster Corus (parentco to Nelvana and Kids Can Press), for example, has committed that 50% of the cast for some of its tentpole unscripted series will be Black, Indigenous or people of color. But the com- pany has had issues finding talent with the experience required to lead a show off screen, says EVP of content Colin Bohm.

“It’s hard to get experience [on] large-scale dramas because there aren’t that many written in Canada,” he says. “We need to continue to make it a priority to give people those breaks that they need.”

When few shows are made, it becomes even harder for marginalized voices to be heard, since key roles often go to known entities or people broadcasters have previously worked with…who more often than not are white. It’s a circular issue: To hire BIPOC talent, they need experience. But to get experience, they need to be hired. And BIPOC creators face challenges in gaining this seniority from the get-go. A study published in Administrative Science Quarterly found that companies are more than twice as likely to call minority applicants for interviews if they submit “whitened” resumés (usually swapping out an ethnically specific name for a “white-sounding” one). The report found this discriminatory practice is just as common for businesses that claim to value diversity as those that don’t.

For Corus Kids, there are some more changes happening in order to help build that talent from the ground up. Nelvana’s development team is actively looking for stories from Black creators, as well as to feature more Black talent, along the lines of its co-production with Sesame Workshop, Esme & Roy.

Nelvana is also working with Nagamo, an Indigenous composer collective, to create music for the second season of Toon Bops (pictured, below), its musical shorts on YouTube.

Since Corus fills much of its kids lineup with Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network pick-ups, it can’t control behind-the-scenes representation on those shows, says Bohm. But he’s willing to accept responsibility for the role Corus plays in its own greenlights.

“You can give guidance and instructions to outside producers in terms of the properties and projects you’re looking for,” says Bohm. “But it’s not until you start to really insist and be more proactive in terms of casting, writer choices and key creative decisions that you really start to make an impact.”

Kay Benbow—former controller at CBeebies and now a children’s media consultant on shows like Moon & Me and Ella and Sir Whoopsalot— agrees that broadcasters can play a big role in finding new talent, but she says they don’t always try hard enough to do so. Some barriers aren’t rocket science, either. For example, there’s a standing expectation that creatives should come and pitch broadcasters during their office hours, but Benbow points out many BIPOC writers, directors and producers have full-time jobs to support their creative endeavors. If broadcasters are serious about in- creasing representation on and off screen, then they need to make greater efforts to meet talent on the talent’s terms.

Having been a broadcaster herself, Benbow knows it’s a huge challenge to find good shows with the right voices in a short amount of time, delivered on budget. But this is actually where a broadcaster’s power lies. Commissioners hold the purse strings and are able to insist that producers take time and money to focus on promoting diversity, she says.

She also emphasizes that once you get new voices in the room, it’s not the end of the story. Execs need to make sure they’re being heard.

“It’s not just about who shouts the loudest; it’s about which companies are building in opportunities,” says Benbow. “And if a [production] company says, ‘This is what we’re going to do [to bring in diverse talent], but it’s going to take a bit longer,’ then the broadcaster needs to take a risk and back them.”

Screen Minifeature ToonBops resized

Toon Bops is working with an Indigenous composer collective.

Following this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, ViacomCBS UK was perhaps the most outspoken, saying, “No diversity, no commission.” That is to say, diversity should be included in all aspects, from “how you make it, to what your content idea is, and all of the things that go along with that process,” says Nina Hahn, SVP of production and development for ViacomCBS International Media Networks.

Hahn says the UK team wants to take this messaging even further, extending the policy into the development phase as well.

There are a lot more diversity and inclusion policies coming for VIMN, she adds, but there can’t just be one blanket policy across the entire network. Instead, the ViacomCBS team is trying to be as specific as possible in each territory. For example, in the US it’s focusing on Black Lives Matter with programming like Kids, Race and Unity: A Nick News Special. In India, Nickelodeon International partnered with its regional affiliate for the first time on The Twisted Timeline of Sammy & Raj (pictured, at top). And in Australia, the team is looking for Indigenous-fronted shows.

Hahn admits that while Nickelodeon has been focused on diversity and inclusion for some time, it could do better at promoting that same message to external production partners. “The idea is to raise your game,” says Hahn. “Each person in that [deal]—the producer and the broadcaster—takes on the role of making a better D&I representation than it’s been before.”

Keith Dawkins is no stranger to Nickelodeon’s work in the D&I space. He started at Viacom in 2000, departing in 2017 as EVP of NickToons and TeenNick. He says the entire time he was at Nickelodeon, diversity was a part of the conversation both internally and externally. But he says the kids space has a long way to go overall, especially globally.

“When you go to industry events, you don’t see a lot of visible diversity at the big companies— the producers, distributors and creators of kids content in the marketplace around the globe,” Dawkins says.

The only way to fix this issue, he adds, is for broadcasters to use a stronger guiding hand and force prodcos to bake in diversity and inclusion both on screen and off, throughout all levels of production. ViacomCBS UK’s new policy is a step in the right direction, but it’s still just a first (small) step.

There are a lot of producers who will keep the status quo as long as they can still get a greenlight—even if it means forgoing diverse characters and storylines, says Dawkins. But audiences are paying attention to what broadcasters are doing now, he points out, which means they can’t just pay lip service anymore. Instead, the people with buying power are putting press releases and financials on the line.

As this shift in perspective permeates the industry, ABC’s Doherty is excited for what the future holds. “It’s time to open it up anyways, because otherwise things get stale,” she says. “It’s beholden on broadcasters to lead. And it’s also important for production companies to self- reflect because they’re constructing the creative leadership on the projects they bring in. It’s a shared responsibility.”

About The Author
Alexandra Whyte is Kidscreen's News & Social Media Editor. Contact her at awhyte@brunico.com

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