MIPJunior: Diversity, Music Driving Kids' Programming

American Girl doll - H 2016
John Ewing/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

"Animation has been a traditionally white male place," said Disney XD's Marc Buhaj on the industry's need to diversify.

With MIPCOM launching its inaugural diversity panel this week, the topic was also widely discussed at MIPJunior, the weekend conference devoted to youth programming that precedes the TV confab.

During one of the main trend panels, Amazon head of children's programming Tara Sorenson noted the platform is currently working on a special about race relations, as well as promoting its American Girl programming. 

Thinking about diversity is a must, added BBC Productions creative director of scripted animation Sara Muller: “You’re not only leaving out a huge portion of the world’s people, [but] the storytelling only comes from a very narrow range of experiences." That means you’re losing out on potential audience, she said.

The search for diversity should also reach behind the camera, with Disney XD senior vp Marc Buhaj and Sorenson adding that their companies have been proactive in that bringing in new voices.

“You have to work really hard to bring people into that clique with you in the industry, because each medium has its own folks that have been doing the same thing for a very long time,” said Buhaj, noting that animation is a “traditionally white male place.”

Sorenson said that Amazon has taken risks hiring female directors with little experience in an effort to expand their talent pool. She also cited an upcoming episode of the American Girl series where everyone on the creative side from the director to the hair and makeup artists were from diverse backgrounds. “Our shows can be a little bit more risky in that approach, and it’s a big opportunity for us,” she said.

The upcoming Welly Wishers from Mattel Creations, the toy company’s new in-house studio, also boasts a multicultural cast. “Kids are essentially color-blind,” said Mattel chief content officer Catherine Balsam-Schwaber in her keynote speech, citing internal research. They also are collaborating on the American Girl series with Amazon.

Mattel also struck a three-year deal with Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation to promote empowerment and acceptance among young people.

That will result in the release of a special Zomby Gaga doll and music video with its Monster High property to premiere Oct. 26. “We had to think about how to connect girls to the Monster High story and we knew that music was a driving factor for many of them,” said Balsam-Schwaber

Music plays a large part in several new teen shows being promoted this week, including such dramas as Germany’s Dance Academy, France’s Paris Opera Ballet and Mexico’s Love, Divina.  

Those can result in several merchandising streams, as well as profitable live shows, said Televisa executive director of consumer products Maca Rotter.

Love, Divina also gave a starring spot to YouTube sensation Harold Azuara, who not only brings his millions of followers to the show but also the elusive “authenticity” broadcasters are grasping for because viewers already feel like they know him.

Rotter also noted that enhanced social media content, including short videos for Snapchat or YouTube shot "behind the scenes" while the cast is on set, can also be resold to different territories for additional revenue streams.

Brands are increasingly integrating this type of content in their creative process. Cartoon Network is relaunching its popular Ben 10 property and started “from Day 1” with a producer dedicated to creating and planning social media content. “This was the perfect show to do a multiplatform launch with and really create specific content,” said development vp Tramm Wigzell. It enhances fan and creator engagement as they get “almost immediate feedback” from viewers. “It’s a great way for the creators and the audience that consume it to come together to create a phenomenon,” he added.

Kids are the driving force behind these trickle-up kinds of changes because they are both consumers and creators, said Balsam-Schwaber, noting that one-third of kids between 3-12 are regularly creating their own content.

“We have to treat them as participants and not as viewers,” she said. “Inspiring wonder makes today’s kids form lasting connections with brands and their products. And these are the kinds of relationships they carry with them to the future and for any brand to thrive in a content intensive world, they are going to need these kinds of relationships to drive viewership or product sales or both.

“We are changing the mindset of how the business runs,” Balsam-Schwaber said of Mattel’s new focus on being a content creator. “What we used to see as part of marketing is becoming the foundation of the business.”