Children’s programming has come a long way since the Saturday morning cartoon lineup of the 1980s.
Ethnic and socio-economic diversity, if it was represented, was done by way of metaphor using stuffed animals (ABC’s “The Care Bears”), little blue mushroom-dwelling creatures (“The Smurfs”) and fruit-scented dolls in striped tights and smocked dresses (the syndicated series “Strawberry Shortcake”). There was also “Jem & the Holograms,” a popular animated series about a girl rock band, featuring a dark-skinned guitarist. The majority of kids TV programming, however, was dominated by racial homogeneity.
By contrast, today’s slate of kids shows features an exemplary round-up of true-to-life characters that reflect the ethnic diversity of today’s world, presenting preschoolers with positive smallscreen role models that mirror their own multicultural families.
And the programs are scoring big, with both pint-sized viewers and their parents. Disney Junior’s newbie series “Doc McStuffins,” about a 6-year-old African-American girl with aspirations in the medical field — she pretends to be a doctor, just like her mom, by patching up toys and dolls — is the top-rated cable show for kids 2-5.
“When a child sees a character that looks like him or her on TV, it can really have a positive influence and affect that child’s self esteem and sense of possibility for the future,” proffers Nancy Kanter, senior VP of original programming and g.m. at Disney Junior Worldwide. “Doc is a really aspirational character and sends a powerful message to all children.”
Within two weeks of “Doc’s” March premiere, Kanter was fielding scores of thank-you notes from female doctors in African-American communities throughout the country.
“These women wrote and told us how incredibly important and meaningful it was for them to see a little black girl on television, and what that would mean to little girls,” Kanter says. “The hope, they told us, is that Doc can inspire young African-American girls to pursue their dreams of going to medical school, whereas before they might not have believed that such a career was possible.”
PBS has long been a trailblazer of diversity in kids programming, with classic children’s shows such as “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” (and its new revamped version) continually stoking the flame of possibility for tykes from minority backgrounds.
“There’s no replacement for seeing yourself represented on TV,” says “Sesame” exec producer Carol-Lynn Parente. “The show was designed to be a model of a real-life inner city community, where Muppets and monsters and eight-foot birds all lived together in harmony.”
The long-running Emmy Award-winning series, which features a Spanish-speaking feathery blue Muppet from Mexico named Rosita, plus a human cast of white, African-American and Hispanic characters, is looking for an additional member of the Latino community.
“There is so much diversity within the Latino community, from communities to Chile to Venezuela to the Dominican Republic,” Parente says. “There is diversity within the diversity, and we are happy to add to the mix.”
“Sesame” also features a prominent storyline in which Gina, the neighborhood veterinarian (played by Alison Bartlett O’Reilly), adopts a baby boy from Guatemala.
“It’s important to us that we represent the changing family dynamic in America,” Parente says. “When you represent the adoption community — in this case Marco, the baby boy — you are keeping their culture alive.”
The network also maintains its commitment to children from racially diverse families with such newer shows s “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” an animated continuation to “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” that features Indian, Hispanic and biracial characters. There’s also “Sid the Science Kid,” where Sid is an inquisitive youngster whose mom is African-American, dad is Jewish and best friend is Chinese-American.
“We really want children to see themselves and their families on TV. The logic being that if you can see, you can be it,” says Lesli Rotenberg, senior VP of children’s media at PBS. “It’s important that our shows represent a wide range of ethnic, cultural and racial backgrounds so that every child in American can find themselves.”
From “Little Bill” (the star is a 5-year-old African-American boy) to “Dora the Explorer” (Dora is a bilingual Latina adventurer) and its newest show, “Bubble Guppies” (the Guppies come in a multitude of skin colors), Nickelodeon has been a leader in the industry of not just promoting diverse casts in its preschool programming, but positioning diverse characters as the hero.
“It is vital that preschool content reflects the diversity of today’s world,” says Teri Weiss, exec VP of production and development at Nickelodeon Preschool. “It validates their own importance in the world, and reinforces that we are all heroes in our own communities.”
Nick’s mission, Weiss says, is not only to promote lead characters that are people of color, but also to model that all of our lives are richer and more interesting when we have diverse friends and family. Diversity is to be celebrated, not feared or dismissed.
“Every (Nick Junior) series takes tremendous care to build bridges between people and communities, through music, dance, food, art and, of course, language,” Weiss says. “We model that people can have equally valid points of view, without having the same point of view. If kids can feel good about what they think and feel, and understand that equality does not mean ‘sameness,’ we have a bright future ahead of us.”