Changing the face of children’s television
David Steward II of Lion Forge, Shabnam Rezaei of Big Bad Boo and Wa’qaar Mirza of Safi Ideas took part in a candid discussion on the road the children’s business still has to travel to fully engage in diversity and inclusion at the TV Kids Summer Festival today.
The in-depth conversation, moderated by Children TV‘Chelsea Regan, saw the panelists discuss how they have brought diverse content to the fore in their own businesses, and shared their views on what the wider industry still needs to do to ensure that children’s content speaks to audiences of all backgrounds and abilities.
Read excerpts from the panel below and watch the entire session here.
Lion Forge has provided animated content by various characters since its inception, said Steward, founder of the studio. He cited the Oscar winner as an example Hair love, which features a black family and “socializes elements of black culture to a wider audience.”
At Safi Ideas, the philosophy is guided by the idea “that you cannot do diversity just for the sake of diversity,” said Mirza, co-founder and CEO. “There must be something more around this. We have a basket of values in addition to diversity, ”including empathy, mindfulness, protection of the planet and creativity. One of the studio’s projects is Zayn and Zayna’s little farm, about a Muslim family living on a farm in England.
Rezaei has also put diversity at the center of her outfit, Big Bad Boo Studios, which she co-founded and is president of, with the company’s flagship properties including 1001 nights. Big Bad Boo’s roster also includes 16 Hudson, on TVOKids, with four children from different backgrounds in a typical big city. “We want to tell our stories as we see them and expose children to normal everyday life and also expose children who don’t live in big cities to the types of cultures that exist in big cities. “
Asked how children’s programming can help young people cope with the critical social issues at play today, Mirza said: “Racism starts at a very young age, when children are 3 or 4 years old, in home with family members making derogatory remarks, some intentional, some unintentional. The kids pick this up. The problem we have is that there is no counter argument to say that racism, hatred, is not fair in any form. Parents find themselves without tools, children absorb what they learn. I think broadcasters, content providers, have a moral responsibility to give children and parents the counter argument. For me, it is a critical role that facilitators play, especially at preschool age, to make an argument: [that] racism is unnecessary.
Steward picked up on this theme by adding: “Being able to see other cultures, other family lifestyles, other environments outside of your own is of crucial importance. It’s not just about having a character who looks a certain way. It really is all about the authenticity that comes with it. Understand what it’s like to be someone else. It creates empathy. It’s understanding the nuances. Everyone has a sense of some common core values that we all want. Our work must be centered on these ideals, looking at a global world. “
For Rezaei, “it’s about normalizing different types of families, different situations for children. The television has tremendous power to bring this into the living room. Traditionally, we’re used to seeing cis white male heroes in most of what we watch. Television has so much power in balancing and normalizing a little white boy who watches the main character of a black girl and identifies with her on screen. For me, it’s really about balancing those things in society that have historically been out of balance, depending on how the people with the pen have had the power. Now we pass the pen to other people and ask them to write their stories; it gives us all a chance to have a voice.
Representation is essential, Steward noted, especially in the animation industry. “We kind of start out, whether it’s race, gender identity, religion, or whatever. What we’ve gone by default in the past is a white-led show, and we’re sprinkling other characters. Behind the scenes, it was white driving, white racing. They didn’t really have any authenticity points to bring in these characters. Nowadays we can tell if something comes from a place of authenticity. This has been one of our great things. It is a powerful experience to have a connection with what we are watching on the screen.
Mirza added, “Those from diverse backgrounds have incredibly rich stories to tell, be it their heritage, their faith, their culture, their food, their music. On the other side, you have kids who want to engage in all of these wonderful things. So you have people who want to know everything, they care about the world, and you have some great stories. It’s about bringing them together and delivering. This is where I think we are missing the trick at the moment. We do not show the richness of what diversity brings to people’s lives. This is where I think there is a lot of work to be done.
Asked if broadcasters and platforms are doing enough to embrace inclusive storytelling fully, UK-based Mirza said: “There’s a lot of talk in the air. We’ve seen the big names say: We have $ 100 million here, $ 50 million here. You can’t even find who to contact at home. There is nothing really concrete that you can say they are doing. There is not enough to do. Everything is very cosmetic. I’m disappointed, to be honest.
Steward said it’s a “mixed bag” in the US “There are some programs that are lip service. Some broadcasters are now choosing more diverse products. There have been a lot of role changes and role additions to various [teams]. It will be revealing how these people in these positions start to make a difference. Are they empowered? Will the paradigm change the way content is viewed or edited? What has happened a lot in the past is that you can have a diverse show, but it’s directed and filtered from a studio perspective to a white frame. They may or may not understand the cultural cues and begin to eliminate the elements that make the product unique and authentic. Having these new executives in these roles should not happen in the future if they are empowered. And all of these things are brand new. These hires took place six to eight months ago. I’m in standby mode to see how it goes.
Rezaei noted that in Canada, “there has been a lot of money diverted to the cause, and there are rules and regulations in place for DNI in terms of your team, your cast, how you build your business in backstage and in front of the camera. This is all very methodically approached in Canada. Often in productions they find that they cannot fulfill those roles, given the mandates. So what has to happen from a broadcasters point of view? it’s more commitment to training young creatives and allowing more seats at the table, which is where I think there isn’t enough going on.
Rezaei went on to note that this is a generational task and change will not happen overnight. “No, we haven’t done enough, and we probably won’t do enough for another three or four generations because it will take time. But it has to be at the forefront of our minds every time we go into producing a show. We have to look at things with this lens. If we do this, we will slowly change things. “
“We see diversity as a creative tool,” said Mirza. “We don’t accept diversity for the fun of it. The diversity of the people behind the camera brings incredible creativity. This is where our creative strength comes from. We value diversity as a tool of our success.
Steward also ensures that opportunities are provided for diverse talents at Lion Forge. “African-American participation in the animation industry is very low. We were very intentional when we came up with projects, making sure we had the authenticity factor. It’s also how you empower people and contribute their ideas, and knowing when to step back from a leadership perspective and let that voice shine. The industry itself has failed to ensure that it raises these diverse voices. We want to give these opportunities so that we can send more black directors, more Latinx directors, etc.
“The change starts in your own home,” Rezaei added. “I thought about our own teams, our own internal practices. Big Bad Boo this year launched a series of workshops for BIPOC creatives, focusing on creative writing, animation and storyboarding. “Three of these participants are now working on three of my studio development projects. If everyone paid up front and did one thing that year and made a commitment to help someone, or put in place a program to allow extra seats at the table so these young creatives could come and get some money. experience and getting a credit that they can put on their resume or something that they can show off at their next interview is very helpful. I would like to see bigger companies do more as well.
Mirza added that it is crucial to “define the value of diversity. If you don’t like it, both emotionally and commercially, this diverse content can make money, there is a demand for it, kids want it, parents want it; but broadcasters and commissioners don’t want it because they don’t want to rock the boat. Until you identify the business value and its emotional value, there is no point because you are not doing it for the right reasons.
Rezaei pointed out that many large media companies in the United States still have “predominantly white programming heads, content acquisition directors, managers at all levels. We have to grow from the inside out and make sure we give people the right skills. There should be more initiatives to build the bottom, the middle and the top. There needs to be an overhaul. “