Children’s television has “a long way to go” to reflect the diversity of its audiences, a new report has found.
The analysis of 595 kids’ shows more than 154 televised hours in Canada in 2017 found a significant shortage of characters who are racially diverse, from less affluent socioeconomic backgrounds or show signs of physical disability. It also found that off screen, men tend to dominate roles for creating, writing and directing shows.
The report, from researchers at Rutgers University, UCLA and Ryerson University, is part of an eight-country study led by the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television. It raises questions about on-screen representation in entertainment for children who are at a crucial age in developing their point of view of the world.
“Children’s media has immense power in shaping kids,” said Colleen Russo Johnson, a developmental psychologist and co-director of Ryerson University’s Children’s Media Lab who co-authored the report set to be released Wednesday.
Diversity in entertainment is important both for the children who could see themselves represented more often, and for the children whose own understanding of the scope of their peers’ experience could be improved, she said. “Kids need to see themselves on screen and other kids need to see them on screen.”
The study found that just more than one-third of characters in kids’ programs are female, which represented no change from 10 years earlier when a similar study was conducted in 2007. And almost no characters are shown with evident physical disabilities or living at anything less affluent than a comfortable middle-class standard. Only a quarter of characters were racially diverse.
The study also pointed out that in the programs analyzed, female characters were more than twice as likely as male characters to be diverse, which “suggests that some shows may be trying to ‘check two boxes’ with one casting.”
The study found that male characters were more likely to use “STEM” (science, technology, engineering or math) skills to solve problems while female characters were more likely to use magic.
Physically, female characters were more likely to be “thin or very thin” than males, the study found. While the majority of main characters analyzed were portrayed as having equal roles between male and female, male characters were twice as likely to be shown as being leaders. Males were also three times as likely to be shown as loners, which Prof. Russo Johnson said points to potentially damaging stereotypes being foisted on young male viewers, who need to be shown a diversity of male characters, such as those who draw strength from sensitivity.
Part of the issue, Prof. Russo Johnson said, is that people unconsciously create stories that speak to what they know.
Not all of this is shaped by the Canadian production industry: reflecting the overall dominance of non-Canadian (largely U.S.-based) shows on TV, the study’s analysis of shows on Canadian screens recorded 58 per cent that were foreign-produced; 21 per cent co-produced between Canadian and foreign companies; and 21 per cent that were domestic Canadian productions.
The study examined shows on television only, in order to be more comparable to the 2007 study. There is still a great deal of overlap, with shows broadcast both on TV and on streaming services. But Prof. Russo Johnson said she’d like to expand the study to look at programs produced specifically for digital services as well.
The report reflects concerns about on-screen representation that have been more actively discussed across the industry – not just in kids’ TV – in recent years. For example, the Writers Guild of Canada has created a diversity committee, which selects one script each month submitted by self-identified diverse writers, to provide script suggestions and support to move it forward and help writers sell their ideas.
Prof. Russo Johnson has seen how awareness of these issues can have an impact on the content: Her husband, Sinking Ship Entertainment co-founder J.J. Johnson, created the show Annedroids and was inspired after reading the 2007 study to change his male main character – a genius scientist – to a female. Programs can find success by telling those stories, Prof. Russo Johnson said.
“It’s good for business to reflect the [viewing] population on screen."