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Diverse Voices: A Lot to Learn From Children’s Programs

Sep 28, 2008  •  Post A Comment

In television, as in much of life, adults could learn a lot from kids. Turn on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon or any cable network that targets kids any hour of the day or night, and you’ll see more diversity in casting than on any prime-time adult comedy or drama. Yes, there are a few exceptions (like ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” or NBC’s “Heroes”), but for the most part, adult shows reflect a one-color spectrum—white.
What do kids know that adults don’t?
“We do a multicultural kids study on a regular basis, and kids say they want a multicultural world,” says Marjorie Cohn, executive VP of development and original programming for Nickelodeon. “We want to follow where kids lead. The biggest incentive for more diversity in programming is to get better viewership. We’ve seen kids are more apt to tune in if they can see themselves and relate to the characters.”
From a business standpoint, it makes sense to cater to your customers. So why don’t adult shows recognize that more than 30% of the U.S. population is now minorities? Why are there still relatively few TV directors, writers and actors who are people of color?
Because adults are children in big people’s bodies, still coming to terms with what racism and discrimination means to them. Most people don’t know the extent of their own bias, and some probably don’t want to know.
Nearly a million people have participated in an online psychological experiment called Project Implicit, which determines subconscious attitudes toward topics such as race, age, weight and sexuality.
About 70% of people of all races who have taken the implicit association test about race have subconscious negative associations about African Americans. About one-third of African Americans who took the test hold subconscious negative associations about African Americans. When you’re a minority accepting implicit messages that say you’re not as good as white people, it becomes a double whammy.
In order to change subconscious fears, we have to consciously take action. Gary Marsh, president of entertainment for Disney Channels Worldwide, says their casting decisions are made with an eye toward diversity in every project.
“We did a movie about a family, and we needed some diversity in it,” Marsh says. “I said, ‘I’d like to cast this movie African American,’ and the producer said, ‘I didn’t write it this way.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to change a word,’ and it was done. This is not about being politically correct. It’s about being socially relevant.”
Marsh says the network doesn’t keep statistics on how many ethnic characters are portrayed in its shows, but he and Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, see diversity as being more than just a good business practice.
“What children see on TV affects how they see relationships in life,” Marsh says. “We’re changing the perception of race in America, and worldwide. Our first interracial cast on ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’ is a Latino mom and an Italian-American dad. We wanted a Latino lead, and thought, why not make it a mixed marriage. This is not driven by corporate mandate. It’s people owning the responsibility.
“It’s harder when you make these decisions. It takes away a large part of the pool when you make a decision to cast a Latino lead. The talent to choose from may not be as strong. We have to go to nontraditional places.”
Marsh says the network did a nationwide talent search for a Latino child actor four years ago and found Selena Gomez, who was then 12 years old. They developed two pilot shows around her, and “Wizards of Waverly Place” was launched.
Looking at relative unknowns, many of whom don’t have agents or professional acting experience, is part of developing new minority talent, he stresses.
“There are moments you’re outside your comfort zone,” Marsh says. “Courage is when you do something you’re afraid of, and you take a chance anyway. None of us want to fail, so everybody wants to build the coalition they’re most comfortable with. You’d be a fool to hire a minority writing team that’s not able to do the job. But you can seed it over time by hiring people who will grow, and create their own shows.”
Since indirect incentives have not moved the needle far, maybe it’s time to be more direct. Create Management by Objectives goals for executives that include diversity as a factor in their performance evaluation. Before showrunners can hire anyone, mandate that the pool of applicants they consider include minority candidates.
Start a companywide competition requiring shows to submit episodes featuring diverse storylines. Reward the best with cash, and push the rest to improve.
Baby Boomers have redefined middle age, calling 50 the new 30. Adults who once looked at retiring at 65 now see old age beginning in the late 70s.
If Hollywood grownups want to stay young, they’re going to have to deal with the multicultural world today’s kids live in and want.
Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer .

4 Comments

  1. Love all the opinions expressed here! How is everyone? Love how everyone expresses whatr they feel 🙂

  2. That’s bloody ordinary isn’t it?

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