Diversity Gets Animated

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Audience demands and demographic reality have helped make kids’ animated programming on cable more culturally diverse than ever.

“We don’t live in Leave It To Beaver-land, where everyone is white,” Cartoon Network senior vice president of programming and development Bob Higgins said. Or, as Nickelodeon Television executive vice president and general manager Tom Ascheim put it, “It is important for kids to see themselves represented on screen.”

Nickelodeon should know, as two of the network’s biggest stars are Latino cousins who headline the consistently top-rated shows for viewers between 2 and 5 years old: Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go!

“It is always good when you make money by sticking to your principles,” said Ascheim.

But more recent additions to networks’ animated lineups reinforce the popularity of diverse cartoons among young audiences. Among cable’s offerings:

  • Disney Playhouse’s Handy Manny, launched last September, features a bilingual Latino handyman and “as diverse a cast as I think I am ever likely to be able to put together,” said Disney Channel senior vice president of programming Nancy Kanter. It was the highest-rated Playhouse Disney original series premiere ever among kids 2 to 5. The show was just renewed for 26 episodes.
  • The March 3 debut of Nicktoon’s El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera earned Nickelodeon its best premiere performance ever for a Saturday morning series.
  • Cartoon’s Class of 3000, created by and starring hip-hop artist André Benjamin of OutKast, just got renewed for 13 episodes. The overall number of viewers is up 3% for the same time period but up a dramatic 19% in the target demographic of boys 6 to 11.

Meanwhile, Disney continues to have success with Toon Disney show American Dragon: Jake Long. The show, featuring a Chinese-American hero, saw its audience grow from a 3.3 rating for kids 2 to 11 during its first season in 2005 to a 4.7 rating in its second season.

Adam Bonnett, Disney Channel senior vice president of original series, said, “The inspiration for American Dragon: Jake Long was Harry Potter — something that had absolutely nothing to do with Asian culture.”

But, aware of their increasingly diverse audience, programmers are making a concerted effort during the development process to include characters of different races and ethnicities.

“If there’s a way to make that character African-American, Asian or Hispanic, we will do that,” said Cartoon’s Higgins.

American Dragon is also typical of the growing number of multiracial families represented in animation. The main character’s mother is Chinese-American and his father is Caucasian. “Kids are interacting with other kids of all races and ethnicities even in their own home,” Bonnett said.

When it comes to cultural authenticity, the latest crop of cartoons don’t just pay lip service to multiculturalism. Nickelodeon’s El Tigre, for example, bears the Mexican imprint of its wife-and-husband creators Sandra Equihua and Jorge Gutierrez.

In the El Tigre pilot, the show’s lead character Manny is sent to the store to buy premium “Guacamole de Los Angeles,” but instead picks up a jar of a knockoff “Guacamole de los Anglos.” The fact that the cheap Anglo-guacamole not only makes Manny’s father and grandfather sick but turns them into zombies is intended as a “multicultural pun,” according to Gutierrez.

“If you are from a Latin culture you are going to get the Angeles and Anglos reference, and you are going to sort of get the idea that something Latin is now made by some other culture and is perhaps not as good,” he said. “We try and layer as much as we can, but none of the plot points hinge on you knowing any of this. It is more like a bonus. The goal of the series is, 'Let’s try to be as authentic as we can be, but at the same time universally appealing and understood.’”

Cartoon Network is also hoping to reach a broad audience with a series featuring the real-life son of the late Mexican wrestling icon Santo.

“Santo’s son happens to be Latin and come from Mexico City, but I think he has a certain universal appeal as a superhero,” said Mexican-born Carlo Olivares Paganoni, the show’s creator and executive producer.

In the as-yet-unnamed show, currently in production, Santo’s son will inherit his father’s mask and its attendant magical powers, joining a long lineage of Aztec warriors who battle evil.

“Santo’s character and what he stands for easily translate beyond the border,” said Higgins. “The fact that he is such a huge icon is a bonus, but we can’t rely on that and assume it will be a hit. We need to make sure the character works and we tell stories that kids like.”

Balancing cultural authenticity and mass appeal can be “kind of intimidating,” said Karen Chau, creator of Ni Hao, Kai-lan, which is scheduled to debut this fall on Nick Jr. “I feel a huge collective and social responsibility. We have a huge responsibility to the Asian-American community.”

The series, which will feature a multigenerational Chinese-American household and introduce preschoolers to Mandarin words and Chinese culture, came into being after an assistant pointed former senior Nickelodeon executive and now independent producer Mary Harrington to Chau’s online illustrations.

Harrington said her initial reaction was, “This is fantastic. I’ve hit the jackpot. Not only are these great designs, great little characters, but also we are tapping into Chinese culture and it is not manufactured.”

The Disney Channel recently promoted a special series celebrating the Chinese New Year. “Because our business in China is important to us,” Bonnett said, “it starts to seep through in what we do day in and day out.”

Cartoon, Disney and Nickelodeon all rely heavily on their international divisions for revenue and viewers, as well as licensing sales. When necessary the networks adapt their shows for different countries. “We are creating characters that will also connect with the international audience,” Bonnett said.

One area where kids networks have fallen short is in producing animated shows aimed at African-American audiences. Among the few examples are Disney’s The Proud Family and Nickelodeon’s Little Bill — both of which have ceased production — and Cartoon’s Class of 3000.

“I think [Class of 3000] is fun, but think of the scope of Cartoon Network and how can you tell me that’s the only one,” said Proud Family creator Bruce Smith, founder of animation company Jambalaya Studios.

“When I created The Proud Family I was hoping it would be a sort of a springboard,” Smith said. But at least for now, he added, “it is certainly on no one’s agenda to make an African-American show.”

But animation is on Black Entertainment Television’s 2008 programming agenda. The network will jump into the animation arena with several new projects in development, including Hannibal the Conqueror, produced by actor Vin Diesel and based on the legendary African warrior-king; and The Cipha, created in conjunction with Will Smith, a futuristic look at the government’s attempts to outlaw and silence hip-hop artists.

“We feel at BET that it’s like a Wild West in terms of showcasing black animation, the talent that’s available and the subject matter that’s yet to be explored,” network senior vice president of animation Denys Cowan said.