The Children’s Challenge

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The amount and diversity of multicultural children’s programming has not kept pace with demographic changes. According to Census Bureau estimates, 39% of children 6 to 14 are African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic. But nowhere near 39% of kid’s shows feature minority characters in leading roles, and this is more than a civic concern.

“We need [kids] to be loyal to us,” says Cyma Zarghami president of Nickelodeon Television. “The African-American population and the Hispanic population have told us in research they will watch shows where they see themselves [on screen] … and the numbers tell us we have to do it as well.”

That mindset has paid off handsomely when Nickelodeon has employed it. The animated series Dora the Explorer was a runaway hit; it routinely ranks as the No. 1 kids show for the preschool crowd in the broadcast and cable universe. The recently launched spinoff, Go, Diego, Go!, featuring Dora’s older cousin, is also doing very well in the ratings. Both programs feature Latino lead characters, yet enjoy a broad-based and mass viewership.

Romeo!, a live-action show for tweens, features a predominantly African-American cast, and is among the top-five-rated children’s programs on cable. It is the No. 1 show among African-American kids.

But Romeo! currently is Nickelodeon’s only show featuring an African-American lead. According to Zarghami, the network is developing a show featuring Lil’ JJ, a teen actor who won a Black Entertainment Television comedy competition. Little Bill, an animated series produced by Bill Cosby, no longer runs on the channel.

Disney Channel has The Proud Family, a cartoon about a multigenerational African-American family, as well as the tween-oriented That’s So Raven, featuring the former child star of The Cosby Show, Raven Symone.

The prevailing sense among children’s programmers is that there is a significant, if not proportional, amount of shows targeting African-American teens, but other age segments are underserved. The Black Family Channel lists a number of programs for children and teens, but executives did not respond to requests for interviews on the subject. Looking across the entire TV landscape, though, there aren’t many viewing options for African-American kids who want to see black faces.

There are even fewer shows featuring Asian protagonists. Animated series Sagwa is set in China and is based on a children’s book by celebrated author Amy Tan. The show airs on PBS, but so far the series hasn’t been renewed.

Nickelodeon and Scholastic Media say they have programs in development featuring Asian lead characters. And ImaginAsian TV, now in 5.5 million households, has a morning block of subtitled anime shows designed for 7- to 14-year-olds.

“Media — whether it be advertising or programming — tends to lag behind the reality, in terms of representing what’s going on in society,” Villanova University associate professor of marketing Hae-Kyong Bang says.

She notes a definite increase in quantitative representation of minority groups in children’s television, but warns “change is really hard to come by and slow.”

As the single largest minority group, it is not surprising that there is more children’s programming for Latinos than African-Americans and Asians. There is a significant and growing selection of Latino-friendly shows, particularly for preschoolers. “We are seeing a shift in our audience” says Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Media, which produces the PBS series Maya and Miguel. Referring to U.S. Census data, she notes: “Twenty percent of children under the age of 5 are Hispanic. That’s a large segment of the population.”

In the case of Latino children, programmers face the additional challenge of deciding whether to reach them in English or Spanish. The kids channel Sorpresa TV has opted for Spanish because “there wasn’t a place that was absolutely created for [Latino children],” says Chris Firestone, executive vice president of operations for Sorpresa’s parent company, Fire- stone Communications. “That’s our niche, and it’s a huge niche too — 14 million Hispanics under the age of 13.”

The channel, which launched in March 2003, so far has 1 million subscribers.

Another channel taking the Spanish-language tack is Discovery Kids en Español, which launched in September. A network spokeswoman reports the channel has cable carriage deals, but does not specify with which operators, or how many subscribers they represent.

Luis Silberwasser, senior vice president and general manager Discovery U.S. Hispanic Networks, explains the language decision was a response to the network group’s market research, which determined that Hispanic parents held a desire for their children to watch Spanish-language educational programming. “What we found when we did our research [was] there were very few options for family [viewing],” he adds. “Most of the programs at night are telenovelas or soccer. There was really a void for safe, multigenerational viewing.” That’s why the channel features shows for preschoolers in the morning, tweens in the afternoon and entire families in the evening.

Families are also part of the strategy at Scholastic, only in a slightly different vein. Forte explains the company developed Maya and Miguel to meet the needs of children. “Not just what they want, but what they need. Unlike many of the other shows that are out there, this show features a family, not just kids. To present that on children’s television is something fairly new in a cartoon.”

Given the central role that many researchers believe Hispanics attach to their families, the scarcity of multigenerational Latino families in children’s programs is indeed striking.

No less so than the underwhelming interest shown by advertisers in reaching the multicultural children’s market, according to network executives.

Zarghami points to an ongoing debate within the ad community about whether or not to target multicultural kids. “A lot of advertisers believe if they go broad, they will hit everybody.” Dora may be a young Latina, but Zharghami attributes the show’s advertiser success to its broad-based audience.

“Diversity and multicultural programming is something you have to be relentlessly committed to. You have to remind yourself that you have to reflect a diverse world on the television screen,” says Zarghami. “It is easy to overlook if you don’t do the research.”