Delivering Diversity in Kids’ TV

In the current global climate, kids’ content producers and distributors are determined to deliver more diverse and inclusive content for young viewers all around the world.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which aims to dismantle the structures that enable unchecked police brutality against Black people through nonviolent civil disobedience, gathered new support in the wake of unarmed Minneapolis, Minnesota, resident George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in May. The tragedy, in conjunction with scores of others in a similar vein, led millions of Americans to take to the streets calling for justice. Around the world, millions more followed suit, the protests’ asks adapting for each country’s particular set of problems pertaining to race and ethnicity, creed and sexuality and gender. While many wrongs must be righted through politics and policy, media has a role to play in changing hearts and opening minds by putting forth diverse stories with diverse characters. For kids, the value of watching shows about kids and families that don’t look like them—or watching a show that’s finally about kids and families that look like them—can’t be overstated. And in the current climate, kids’ content producers and distributors—many of which have already heeded the call for more diverse content—are determined to deliver.

Safi Productions, a London-based company that sits within Safi Ideas, which makes ethically-minded content across film, animation and interactive media, has a core mission “to create a more ethical purpose to filmmaking,” according to Wa’qaar A Mirza, writer and global CEO of Safi Productions. “We want all of our content to feature mindful messaging and to demonstrate an understanding and celebration toward diversity, with an honest portrayal of history, peace and goodwill.” He adds, “Safi Productions’ key focus is on creating harmony and mindfulness across all cultures. The purpose is to improve understanding of people and humanity, with a focus on young people, because that’s where education begins.”

In keeping with the company mission, Safi has in its catalog Zayn & Zayna’s Little Farm, an animated English-language preschool series. Each episode’s adventure follows siblings Zayn and Zayna on their British family farm, and introduces kids to the concepts of mindfulness, sustainability and diversity, incorporating Arabic while it portrays both cultural diversity and diversity in abilities. The company is also in preproduction on a yet-to-be-titled travel show for 14- to 18-year-olds. It focuses “on countries that many people view in a negative light,” says Mirza. “Our aim is to explore each country’s culture, the people and history, and to shine a light on the diverse cultural differences.”

Among the titles on CAKE’s slate that offer their young viewers a more inclusive look at the world around them is Pablo, a preschool show for CBeebies that centers on a little boy who is on the autism spectrum. “The wonderful thing about the series is that it never mentions autism; it is just about a boy who sees things differently,” says Tom van Waveren, CAKE’s CEO and creative director. “Pablo shows people on the spectrum on television, and by doing so, effectively makes them part of the world as it is seen on screen. That’s a big part of diversity—to make sure that the world we see on screen reflects the real world. In the real world, there are a lot of people on the spectrum, but unfortunately, there are not that many people on the spectrum on the screen.”

Mama K’s Team 4, a superhero series that CAKE is currently producing for Netflix, follows four teenage girls living in the neo-futuristic African city of Lusaka, Zambia, who save the world in each episode. “The show is really a very entertaining action-comedy that happens to be set in Lusaka,” says van Waveren. “Here again, the simple fact of having an entirely African cast is hugely significant when it comes to seeing yourself on screen. Consequently, that makes it an important contribution to improving diversity to the storytelling available to children of all ages and around the world.”

Amid the global uprisings and consequent actions and initiatives, programs with a diverse angle have only increased in popularity. “The whole industry is interested in diverse stories and diverse characters that reflect children’s worlds; their friends, their interests, what they see around them,” says Bernadette O’Mahony, head of development and production at the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF). “Projects that entertain and reflect the diverse makeup of society, as well as model positive relationships, behavior and kindness and inclusion are really important right now.” Traveling well for ACTF is the comedy series Hardball, which centers on a group of kids from different backgrounds and has a lead character with cerebral palsy. “Buyers love the diversity and how it’s just naturally a part of this group of friends—it’s not commented on in the show, it just is normal to kids and accepted—both on-screen and by the audience.”

O’Mahony adds that there is also a marked interest in “LGBTQI+ stories for a young audience when done well, and I think we’ll see more characters and actors included in comedy or drama series going forward.” (Safi Productions’ forthcoming travel program, which is aimed at teenagers and young adults, will be featuring LGBTQI+ characters.)

Superights is also witnessing the appetite for stories that center on those that are more often than not on the margins—and that these shows have truly global legs. “Our experience proves that diverse characters travel easily, and that the demand for diversity is significant,” says Nathalie Pinguet, deputy managing director for sales and acquisitions at Superights. “There is a real desire to broadcast open-minded programs, especially from public free TV around the world.”

Superights’ catalog contains several series that feature diverse characters and stories, including Story Time!, a collection of tales for preschoolers that takes its viewers on a journey to a new country in each episode. There’s also Moko the Young Explorer, about the titular African boy whose biggest goal is to explore the entire world; Koumi’s Animated Picture Book, about a 5-year-old mixed-race girl who travels the globe to meet the animals in her picture book; and Zibilla, which centers on a zebra in a world of horses struggling to find acceptance. “This lovely special about adoption celebrates differences and tackles the issue of children who feel different finding their place in the world,” says Pinguet.

Key to effectively and authentically making diverse shows is having a cast and crew behind them that is representative of the diversity portrayed. “If you don’t have diverse cast and crew on your shows, how can you hope to effectively capture and communicate the experiences of those different races and cultures?” asks Jon Ollwerther, executive VP of global brand and business development at Genius Brands International, which counts among its tentpole brands Rainbow Rangers and Llama Llama. “There is truth and authenticity in these stories, which really resonates with kids, and we would be missing that if our cast and crew were not diverse.”

Rainbow Rangers follows seven superhero girls that are each represented by a different color of the rainbow and have a different skin color, incorporating themes like empowerment, individuality, leadership, inclusivity, diversity and environmental care. “Llama Llama is a slightly different take on diversity than Rainbow Rangers, and each character is a different member of the animal kingdom,” says Ollwerther. “In season two, we also introduced Audrey the Antelope, who is limb different, and the outpouring of support from the limb different community has been exceptional.”

For CAKE’s van Waveren, nothing is more important than getting the diversity right behind the scenes. “It’s not just picking a subject that highlights diversity and has that embedded,” he says, adding, “The stories of Pablocame from either people on the spectrum themselves or from people who have children on the spectrum or work with people on the spectrum. All the voices were done by children on the spectrum and this results in wonderfully unique stories, authentic and diverse, but most of all, with a unique and fresh voice.” As for the Africa-set, female-centered Mama K’s Team 4, “all the scripts are being written by African female writers. The lead animation studio, who also developed the concept, are Triggerfish Animation based in Cape Town. And most of the key creative talent comes from Africa. There is no other way in which we could tell stories about children in Africa from an authentic perspective.”

A common sentiment for those delivering diverse kids’ content to platforms and broadcasters is that the content needs to organically show different faces and perspectives without making these differences the focus of the show. As the world is made up of many different people with many different stories, it really shouldn’t be all that hard to do. “We live in a world with people of different abilities and disabilities, of different genders and geographical and cultural backgrounds,” says van Waveren. “The beauty of storytelling is embracing the richness of our world on both sides of the screen while resisting the urge to make the content about that.”

Referring to shows on ACTF’s slate such as First Day, Little J & Big Cuz and The Inbestigators, O’Mahony concurs, explaining, “What sets them apart is that they are just great storytelling; authentic stories that ring true to an audience and have a lot of heart and warmth. Diversity comes naturally to these projects; it’s not heavy handed or preaching, it’s just reflecting real life and the makeup of society.”