Children’s Television: And What if We Paid Closer Attention to the Content?

If the warnings are real and justified with respect to exposing children to inappropriate televised content, we tend to believe that programming that is designed for children and broadcast by professionals is perfectly adapted to children’s reality. But is that really the case?

Children’s television programming is rigorously categorized since 1997. Content is categorized by age group or according to the intensity of the violence shown on screen. However, the study titled The Landscape of Children’s Television in the US & Canada and published jointly last April by two researchers of Los Angeles’s Center for Scholars and Storytellers and Toronto’s Ryerson University provides us with further information on what children under 12 years of age really see on North American screens.

Programming that targets the youngest children and exposes tweens to risks

The study, which assessed a sample of 350 hours of fall 2017 broadcast programming on private and public channels, reveals that, at an average of 57%, preschool children represent the main audience that broadcasters are seeking to reach. However, Canada offers many more programs targeted for six- to nine-year-olds (44% versus 29% in the United States). Nine- to twelve-year-olds (or tweens) are just about forgotten when it comes to youth programming, particularly in Canada, where only 1% of all shows target that age group. Consequently, there is a very high risk that tweens turn toward inappropriate content, i.e., content that is geared toward older audiences.

The virtually non-existent offer of content targeted for nine- to twelve-year-olds is largely due to the predominance of animated content, which accounts for approximately 75% of all that is broadcast in both countries. Furthermore, on this side of the border, the difference is striking between public and private broadcasters for which animated content represents 60% and 92% respectively of all broadcasting. By setting “live action” programming aside, we are heading toward a saturated animation market in the short term while not reaching preteens with, for example, shows presenting non-fiction content—shows that they are finding on other platforms and thereby exposing themselves to the previously mentioned risks of inappropriate content.

Shows that do not reflect the reality of society

Of course, youth programming involves entering the world of the imaginary, which is especially true when it comes to animation. It is therefore not surprising to learn that more than half of all characters are not human (58% in the United States versus 53% in Canada). Research, however, shows that children develop their social skills more when the characters they watch are neither animals nor robots, monsters or mythical creatures. In that sense, creators and broadcasters should question the 12% decrease in the number of human characters observed between 2007 and 2017.

However, regardless of the nature of the characters, there is clearly a mismatch between what children see on the screen and the society in which they live. First of all, with the exception of the Disney Channel, parity is far from being attained when it comes to main characters seeing as girls and women play only 38% of all of the roles in the United States and only 35% in Canada. This is particularly true among non-human characters, for which the percentages drop to 27% and 32% respectively, whereas creators are in no way constrained with respect to casting or physical attributes.

Next, the vast majority of all characters or Caucasian (65% in the United States and 74% in Canada). Of course, that about reflects the current population ratios of both countries, but it’s a reality that does not enable broadcasters to broaden their audience bases within all of the communities. Furthermore, twice as many ethnocultural origins are assigned to female characters compared to male characters. The study’s authors arrive at the conclusion that program creators kill two birds with one stone by checking the off both of the ‘parity’ and ‘diversity’ boxes.

Finally, when it comes to identification, it is normal that most characters are closer to the target audience’s age group. No one will therefore be surprised to learn that 80% of all roles are played by youth, from birth to adolescence, rather than by adults. By contrast, whereas 20% of the North American population is disabled or chronically ill, it’s a reality that is not portrayed in any Canadian show and that is portrayed in only 1% of all American shows among those included in the study. The same observation can be made with respect to characters’ socioeconomic profiles, seeing as precariousness or poverty is showcased in only 2% of all shows, whereas a quarter of all children in North American live in poverty.

Stereotypes are hard to overcome

Although there is reason to celebrate that the characters presented in children’s programming are always positive, cooperative and promoters of teamwork, male characters are today twice as likely to be depicted as leaders. In that regard, we must, however, point out the gap between private and public channels, with public channels systematically presenting a greater number of female leaders.

Also, when the characters are called upon to solve problems, the boys are going to make use of their skills in science, technology or mathematics, whereas the girls, there again, are twice as likely to call upon magic.

Finally, even when the audience is young, the characters are sexualized: 38% of all of the characters analyzed in American programs showed signs of sexualization (suggestive clothing clearly showing muscles, long eyelashes, full lips, etc.). Not surprisingly, mainly girls are presented in a sexualized manner (in 50% of all cases compared to 29% for boys). Furthermore, most of the characters are thin or very thin—especially among girls (twice as much) and especially on commercial channels. Creators and broadcasters must remain vigilant in this regard seeing as young viewers are very easily influenced by what they see on the screen and that what they see has a real impact on their self-esteem.

Are both the problem and the solution behind the screen?

According to the researchers, the imbalances in terms of parity and diversity are maybe not due to chance. Indeed, in the analyzed sample, only 6% and 10% of all directors positions in Canada and the United States respectively were held by women. The same observation can be made with respect to scriptwriting, where women were responsible for 22% and 18% of all projects in Canada and the United States respectively. However, the trend is reversed when it comes to producer positions, seeing as most children’s shows are produced by women (57% in Canada and 64% in the United States).

The researchers conclude that a more balanced distribution behind the camera would have an impact on contents, whether in terms of scriptwriting or production. Creators of all origins should be working on these projects with the idea of representing audiences’ current realities. Indeed, it should not be assumed that a single woman or a single person of colour will adequately represent the point of view of society as a whole, especially when the target is a young and easily influenced audience.

Brigitte Monneau
Brigitte Monneau is the executive director of Femmes du cinema, de la télévision et des médias numériques, i.e., the Quebec chapter of Women in Film and Television International, since October 2017. She began her career as legal counsel for television production companies before joining Telefilm Canada where she several professional and managerial positions. She namely worked as director of coproductions and director of international relations in addition to managing several teams responsible for business relations and program administration for the Canada Media Fund. She is passionate about current affairs in the screen-based industry as well as the showcasing of content here and abroad.
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