Atomic’s Chief Creative Officer Matthew Berkowitz and CEO Jennifer Twiner McCarron talk about the ever-growing importance of EDI in creating content for kids.
Diversity and inclusion have become broadcaster and platform must-haves; Mansha Daswani hears from content production and distribution execs on how they are responding.
All kids deserve to see themselves reflected on-screen—it’s not rocket science. But execution? That is a whole other story. The industry is still playing catch-up as it looks to (quickly) diversify writers’ rooms, attract new talent and find intelligent, creative ways to deliver inclusion without taking a paint-by-numbers, quota-based approach to true representation.
“We are hearing from all major broadcasters that diversity and inclusion are key requirements,” says Genevieve Dexter, founder and CEO of Serious Kids. “I say major not because smaller platforms do not also share these policies, but because the majors are able to influence editorial choices. More recently, this requirement has been extended, not only on-screen but also in production talent as part of the commissioners’ brief. However, the interpretation has become more sophisticated, focusing on diversifying voices and cultural experience rather than reflecting purely racial and physical ability profiles.”
“Creating worlds in which children and families can authentically see themselves is what continues to drive viewership and keep our brands top of mind,” observes Fred Soulie, the senior VP and general manager of Mattel Television.
“It becomes key for most of our clients one way or another—it has to be there,” agrees Raphaëlle Mathieu, executive VP at Cyber Group Studios.
For Hanna Mouchez, the founder and CEO of MIAM ! animation, “Animation is one of the best [tools] we could use for transmitting a diversity and inclusion message. Schools are very important; maybe you listen to a teacher. But you also listen to a character. Heroes have this power.”
Matthew Berkowitz, the chief creative officer at Atomic Cartoons and president and chief creative officer of Thunderbird Entertainment, highlights the creative possibilities being ushered in by the industry’s embrace of diversity. “Everyone is very excited about the many different viewpoints being incorporated into shows through behind- and on-camera talent. And having these different creative perspectives is about strengthening the storytelling. Collectively, we’re all breaking down those walls that existed in the past, and it’s so great to see.”
When speaking to executives about inclusion, a recurring theme is that the approach needs to be all-encompassing, not narrowly focused on one definition of diversity.
“It can be girl empowerment like in Droners or Digital Girl, where girls are the heroes,” says Mathieu at Cyber Group Studios. “It can be visible minorities. Diversity can be as simple as being different, and that can take many aspects. We believe it’s the global awareness of society that becomes central. In Droners, the eco-friendly issue is central.”
Serious Kids’ Dexter adds, “Diversity and inclusion are starting to be woven into shows as part of their DNA rather than editorial decisions about how many different skin colors to feature on-screen. More diversity behind the camera automatically leads to more diversity, not only in terms of the characters but also the themes, environments, color palette, comedic tone and music. Diversity and inclusion cannot be the USP of a program, but achieving a balance in a natural way can.”
MIAM !’s Mouchez agrees that behind-the-camera diversity is key to getting your on-screen product to deliver on your inclusion goals. The studio and distribution outfit has emphasized strong female leads, which broadcasters and platforms have shown a keen interest in.
“That’s a good start, but it’s not enough,” Mouchez explains. “Even if you have women on-screen, it doesn’t mean that the writing is aligned with what you want to say. For instance, you could have girls starring as heroes, yet the writing, episodes and adventures transmit old-fashioned patterns and stereotypes. The best way to avoid that is to welcome girls behind the screen as authors, scriptwriters, directors and producers.”
At Thunderbird and Atomic Cartoons, Jennifer Twiner McCarron, CEO, points to the PBS KIDS and CBC Kids commission Molly of Denali as an excellent example of how embracing diversity behind the scenes resulted in authentic on-screen representation.
“The series was developed with the Indigenous community of Denali,” Twiner McCarron explains. “And along with helping to inform how the next generation will think about Indigenous people, it also prioritizes the Indigenous community of Denali’s role in shaping its representation. More than 60 Indigenous mentorships took place during the creation and production of season one, and as we are now working on season two, many of these talented individuals are now working full-time in the industry.”
Authenticity is another recurring theme in conversations about diversity in television. “Kids have a very acute sense of what is real and what is fake, and they can react badly to diverse characters or situations that are not believable or appear one-dimensional,” states Dexter at Serious Kids. “Once authenticity is achieved at the foundation, then success will come from the quality of the writing and design without interruption from new diversity concerns that should have been intrinsic in the concept.”
“Don’t try to add diversity and inclusion as a layer,” Berkowitz adds. “It’s a matter of thinking about every part of the creative and related themes as organic pieces of the whole.”
And authenticity will only come when your behind-the-scenes team can accurately reflect the diverse messages you want to be conveyed on-screen.
“Before the pandemic, there was a need to have your talent all gathered under one roof—and that has changed,” Twiner McCarron adds. “We’ve proven that we can work very effectively off-site, so we are now able to recruit from further afield with an eye toward EDI [equity, diversity and inclusion].”
“As we search for talent, we’re digging deep and looking all over the world,” Berkowitz adds. “We’re putting more emphasis on mentorship and developing our in-house talent. We’re also looking for our next generation of animators through our focus on schools.”
Mattel Television has also prioritized diversifying its talent pool, Soulie explains. “We strive to work with experts in the stories we are telling in order to ensure cultural accuracy and sensitivity.”
And the approach to authentic storytelling extends across the Mattel Television slate, Soulie notes, citing properties such as the rebooted Masters of the Universe franchise, Barbie-related content like the upcoming Barbie: It Takes Two for Netflix and the third-party show Deepa & Anoop. Even the perennial favorite Thomas & Friends has been updated to meet the needs of today. Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go has an expanded cast that includes Kana from Japan and Nia from Kenya.
Serious Kids has been working to diversify its catalog, Dexter reports, in recent years taking on Tik Tak, The New Legends of Monkey, Bo & To’s Family and Tulipop, “all of which have very diverse casts and crews. Our returning series Operation Ouch! from Maverick Television for CBBC, now in its 11th season, has always been diverse in terms of the doctors and patients featured but has recently welcomed Dr. Ronx Ikharia as one of the presenters, who is a trans, non-binary A&E doctor.”
At MIAM !, Mouchez says that Goat Girl is an excellent example of how the boutique studio approaches delivering diversity on-screen. A co-production with Daily Madness Productions, an Irish studio led by Lindsey Adams, the series “is about being comfortable in your own skin, being happy being you and embracing your differences and even your quirks,” Mouchez says. “The show is produced by an all-female team to remain coherent with the series’ storytelling and social ambitions.”
The MIAM ! lineup also includes Brazen, adapted from a comic book by Pénélope Bagieu, featuring 3-minute episodes about little-known women who changed history. While the show has done well for MIAM !, Mouchez stresses that it was important for the company to highlight diverse shows aimed at younger demos. “Around 6 or 7 is when you integrate: Are you equal to boys, or are you different? We thought our catalog was missing those shows that address younger targets.”
Enter “A Girl’s Coming of Age Journey: Four Tales of Feminine Early Bravery,” a collection of four half-hour specials focused on young girl characters.
Cyber Group is similarly making sure that the full breadth of its slate touches on themes of diversity and inclusion, from the girl-empowerment and eco-friendly aspects of Droners to the mixed families in 50/50 Heroes and The McFire Family to the diverse talent behind the upcoming adaptation of the Press Start! novels for Peacock. “Diversity or awareness are present in every single series we’re doing,” Mathieu says.