Updated on December 10, 2021
The Center for Scholars and Storytellers, a US/Canadian research group backed by UCLA, Toronto’s Ryerson University, and others, has released a study of children’s TV programming in the US and Canada. The study looks at how kids’ TV portrays diversity in terms of race, gender, economic background, physical disabilities, and more. The full study is available as a PDF here.
The researchers looked at programming that aired as of the fall of 2017. American networks included Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Disney Jr., Sprout/Universal Kids, and PBS Kids. Canadian networks included CBC Kids, TVO Kids, Family, Family Jr., Teletoon, Treehouse, and YTV.
My thoughts on some of the study’s points are below.
Men dominate behind the scenes
80% of US-made shows and 82% of Canadian-made ones are directed by men only. Unsurprisingly, male creators dominate children’s TV, similar to other media areas. Specifically:
- Men exclusively create 71% of US shows and 62% of Canadian shows.
- 53% of US-made show episodes are written by men only, while it’s 63% for Canadian shows.
- Mixed-gender writing staffs work on 25% of US shows and 14% of Canadian shows.
- Women exclusively write 18% of US shows and 22% of Canadian shows.
It’s unknown if the study includes any non-binary individuals.
Women fare somewhat better as producers. 64% of US shows and 57% of Canadian ones have a mixed-gender production team.
The study makes the obvious recommendation: hire more women.
Non-White characters are more likely to also be women
The study states 65% of human characters in US shows and 74% in Canadian shows are Caucasian. (Non-Hispanic Whites make up 60.7% of the US population per the US Census). Meanwhile, non-White characters are twice as likely to be female than male (46% versus 25% respectively for US shows).
The researchers feel that producers should strive to include more non-White characters, given population trends in North America. Additionally, to quote the study:
The fact that female characters are more likely to be portrayed as persons of color suggests that some shows might be trying to “check two boxes” with one casting. This creates a misguided situation where a character is suddenly the primary voice not only for her gender but for her race as well. In turn, without room to explore various facets of both females and people of color, writers are more likely to turn to inaccurate stereotypes. Therefore, just as there should be an on-screen gender balance, racially diverse characters should also be balanced across genders.
The study advocates kids’ TV shows include more non-White male characters.
Few characters in kids’ shows are adults
In US and Canadian shows, 80% of human characters are kids (defined as infancy through teen years).
I wrote about this in a post a few years ago. Basically, kids’ TV producers feel kids won’t identify with adults. The few adult-starring shows I could find consisted mostly of older characters (Looney Tunes, Mickey Mouse) or superheroes. The latter’s not surprising, given the most famous DC and Marvel superheroes.
The study advocates depicting more age diversity among characters in kids’ TV shows. That is, show more adults, including elderly ones. I’d add that ideally they also shouldn’t just be nagging killjoys or bumbling idiots, per some kids’ shows’ depictions of adults (especially parents).
Virtually no human characters with physical disabilities
This is easily the worst performing area for kids’ TV diversity in the report. Virtually no human characters have any visible physical disabilities (1% for US shows, none for Canadian shows). Characters with serious chronic diseases were also absent.
The study advocates improvements in this area, given real-life demographics.
Few characters who aren’t middle class
Nearly all characters were found to be middle class; only 2% of characters had a “lower class” designation. Definitions include characters who: visibly live in a “difficult neighborhood”; live in a very small home/apartment; or are experiencing obvious poverty.
The researchers feel kids’ TV should include more characters who aren’t middle class. The group cited real life statistics: 20% of American children live below the poverty line.
Admittedly, the first poor character I could think of is Chester on “The Fairly OddParents,” who isn’t the most flattering depiction. (Granted, the show’s portrayal of adults isn’t flattering, either.)