Wednesday, May 08, 2013

A Look At The Availability Of Children's Programming And Characters For Girls On TV

In a special commentary feature, the entertainment news website C21Media takes a look at animated series and characters aimed towards girls and the lack thereof of them on television:
The trouble with girls

Producers are lining up to make cartoons for girls but the broadcasters won’t bite, insisting the smart money is still with boys’ action. Sean Davidson reports.

Whether they are real or animated, showbusiness can be tough on women. It’s axiomatic that Hollywood actresses are judged to a great extent by their looks and even the most talented have a hard time finding work past the age of 35.

A sympathetic nod, if you please, to Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger, Meg Ryan and, in a few years, perhaps Angelina Jolie too. But at least those women had their moment in the sun, and can rely on later-life roles as evil queens and hot moms.

For their animated little sisters, things are even harder.

Name, if you can, a recent kids’ cartoon led by a strong female character. Totally Spies? Arguably, but hardly ‘recent’ – the series wrapped in 2008. Kim Possible ceased production in 2007. Powerpuff Girls? 2005. Dora the Explorer? We’ll get to her in a moment.

Totally Spies

In fact, only 31% of the main characters in children’s fictional animation are female, according to a 2008 study by the International Central Institute for Youth & Educational Television and the Prix Jeunesse Foundation of Programming in 24 countries including the US, the UK, Canada, Israel and Australia. Not a great turnout, seeing as the real world is 51% female.

If they are heroes, animated females are “significantly more often” part of groups, in contrast to males, who are more likely to be written as heroic loners. Animated females, furthermore, are usually thin teenagers with blonde or red hair. Overweight or ageing women are “virtually absent,” according to the study’s authors.

Just like Hollywood, in other words.

But the shortage of girls in animation mirrors the overall lack of animation for girls. This is a situation industry insiders acknowledge, though there is little agreement about how, or indeed whether to fix it.

Animation is “totally boy-dominated,” notes Nat Abraham, president of distribution at Breakthrough Entertainment in Toronto, which does heavy trade in kids’ and animated titles. “I’ve yet to take a girl-skewing animated programme into a broadcaster without them saying they’re looking for boys’ action.”

Producers keep turning out very promising girl-skewing properties, only to have them die in development because they can’t connect with a buyer, he says. “Every time we get anywhere near that demographic we’re told to switch gear and go after boys,” says Abraham. “I’d love to know who’s looking for girl stuff because we’ve taken it everywhere.”

It’s “a chicken and egg” problem, offers Rob Davies, VP of development at Atomic Cartoons. Risk-averse broadcasters stick with what works, especially these days, and producers tend to follow their lead – although Davies’ Vancouver-based shop swam against the tide several years ago with its girl-friendly copro Atomic Betty. Davies remembers: “We thought we’d go with a powerful female lead, a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” personified by a slip of a girl who moonlights as an intergalactic peacekeeper.

Atomic Betty arrived on channels including Cartoon Network in the US with a big push in 2004. There was a great deal of buzz and oodles of merchandise lined up with Playmates Toys. “It was very empowering but we never saw it as a girls’ property; we saw it as something everyone could enjoy,” says Davies.

The ratings said otherwise. Atomic Betty wasn’t “generating the numbers,” he admits, and was dropped by Cartoon Network, though it continued to run in Canada on Teletoon.

And for commercial broadcasters, it’s as simple as that. Although the preschool and educational programming (hello, Dora) typically seen on public television tends to have more balanced representation and viewership, the ad-supported world says it just can’t pay its bills by aiming animation at girls.

Girls are said to lose interest in make-believe cartoons by around age eight in favour of live-action, which does a better job of serving their burgeoning interest in the real world and social interaction.

“Networks go by the mantra that once girls hit eight years old they’re into relationships,” says Bob Higgins, executive VP of kids and family entertainment at FremantleMedia. “Whether that’s true or not, it’s become a self-perpetuating truth. It’s one of those things everyone has accepted.”

If girls “watch up” they also buy up – which makes them a difficult market to reach with licensed products, a key ingredient of any kids property. Davies notes, with the benefit of hindsight, that no 10-year-old girl “is going to show up at school wearing Atomic Betty shoes.” Even the powerful Barbie franchise and its arch-rival Bratz face challenges reaching their intended market as girls aged nine to 12 have increasingly turned their attention to teen and adult properties.

It’s the phenomenon marketers call KGOY: kids getting older, younger.

Aiming at boys is a safer bet. They grow up slower. The writing is relatively unburdened by the girlish issues of body image and over-sexualisation. And boys’ action-packed shows are perhaps a better fit for the multi-screen media, says Abraham.

“In the multi-platform world, attentions spans aren’t there,” he says. “Animation has got to be fast-paced, it’s got to move. It’s not like when you could let a story develop and expect people to be glued to it.”

It is also often said that boy-skewing shows manage to attract girls, while no girl-skewing programme will draw any boys, though those in the kids’ business are divided on this point. The most common compromise is to turn out something gender-neutral, like the blended family of Disney’s Phineas & Ferb or DHX Media’s SheZow, which sees a young boy with super powers forced to take on his female alter ego.

Focus testing on SheZow, ordered by ABC in Australia, is revealing “tremendous appeal” among girls age six and up, says Josh Scherba, senior VP of distribution at DHX, which also shops Calliou and Rastamouse. At press time, deals were close with broadcasters in the US, France and Italy. “We think we’ve got the tone right so that it won’t alienate boys,” Scherba says. “It’s certainly a balancing act.”

It wasn’t always like this. Before the rise of specialty channels, animators cranked out material and passed it along to generalist networks with little fretting over who was watching or why. Those were good times for Bugs Bunny, My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake.

Things got harder with the rise of narrow-focused specialty nets like Disney and Nickelodeon in the 1990s. “Kids’ programming largely left the networks in North America, whose remit was to entertain everybody in that grand BBC tradition,” says Alan Gregg, director of original content at Canadian kidcaster Teletoon. “To have all that kids’ programming in one block simply doesn’t exist anymore, even on the BBC.”

Davies adds: “Now you have to come in with a little bit of science in your pitch,” aiming a series at tiny demographic gaps in a channel’s line-up.

Things got harder still when Disney embraced live-action in the mid-2000s. Kim Possible was suddenly out of a job, Hannah Montana got her parking spot and much of the industry followed the Mouse House into live-action comedies.

“Disney’s always been the leader at capturing girls and their schedule over the years has gone from girl-skewing animation to tween live-action,” says Scherba. “Whether Kim Possible would work with today’s audience is doubtful. When it comes to capturing girls, Disney tends to go with gender-neutral comedies,” he adds, citing Phineas & Ferb and Gravity Falls. “These shows still have strong male and female characters, and comedy tends to be what ties boys and girls together.”

“Disney has traditionally been better at capturing girls, so if they believed there was a market today for girl-skewing animation they’d probably be there,” says Scherba.

DHX has some older girl-skewing animation, including Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony in its back catalogue, properties that continue to sell around the world though not always to their original, intended audience. Given the KGOY phenomenon, now they often go to preschool broadcasters, says Scherba.

But if market cycles put a chill on girls’ animation, those same cycles will some day help revive it – perhaps sooner than expected, if boys’ action continues its downward trend. The genre is losing ground to video games, leading some broadcasters to back away.

“Boys’ action is not the big driver it used to be,” says Gregg, noting that Teletoon has discontinued its Kapow block of superhero programming.

Things could change, say observers, if some enterprising producer comes up with a property that does with animation what Disney and Hannah Montana did with live-action – a cartoon series that dwells on social interaction and relationships from a young-female perspective. A tall order, yes, but not impossible.

“Somebody will do it and find a network brave enough to buck the trend. And it will work,” predicts Higgins. Gregg agrees, adding: “It only takes one giant smash and girls will gravitate towards it. I’m not sure where it will come from but it will probably happen.”

Sean Davidson