The golden age of inclusive TV for kids

The golden age of inclusive TV  for kids
Posted on Wed 1 May 2019

Written by Tina Wild

 

TV plays a big role in entertaining, influencing and educating kids, so it’s heartening to see so many inclusive children’s programs, particularly featuring people living with disability. If TV holds a mirror up to our culture, does this mean we’re in the midst of a shift towards greater inclusion?

CPA spoke to Libbie Doherty, Acting Head of Children’s Content at the ABC to find out what the ABC’s strategy is for inclusion and representation.

With better quality entertainment that taps into global issues, Libby believes now is the golden age of content for kids. And as content makers -- on platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat - kids are driving the stories.

 

What has influenced the increase in diversity?

Representation of people living with disability on ABC has improved significantly in recent years. Libbie believes this is as a result of extensive advocacy work by disability content makers and people living with disability, who heavily lobbied screen agencies.

The #MeToo movement has also made the ABC think about how they represent gender and cultural diversity.

“There’s been a groundswell and a recognition across the industry that there’s lots of work to do and stories to be told,” says Libbie.

“It’s within our charter to represent all Australian children. For us, this became very visible three years ago. We had a good hard look at our slate, and made a concerted effort to turn that around.”

Programs take a long time to produce so what we’re seeing on screen now are the fruits of the past three years’ labour. The turnaround started with What It’s Like last year,” said Libbie, a show that provides an opportunity for young people, whose voices, stories and perspectives aren't often seen or heard in our community, to share their experiences. 

“The earlier we bring difference into programming for children the better,” says Libby, referring to one of the hosts of preschool show, Play School, Kiruna Stamell, who has dwarfism.

 

Opportunities for young actors living with disability

The ABC provides opportunities for many first time actors living with a disability to get into what is a notoriously competitive industry. New program Hardball features actor Logan Reberger, who lives with Multi Mini-Core Myopathy, playing a character named Jerry, who lives with cerebral palsy.

Jerry was written into Hardball to represent diversity. “The casting priority is to find an actor with an authentic condition where possible,” says Libby, but here, “it wasn’t about his diagnosis, we wanted someone funny, a really interesting, textured character.”

For this role, the casting agent was briefed quite specifically on what the producers were looking for.  “5-10 years ago, we relied more heavily on blind casting, which resulted in lots of white, blonde, cute kids, so all shows looked and felt the same.”

Positive messaging and behaviour are carefully and implicitly explored in Hardball. “Kids are taught to be critical thinkers at school now,” Libbie says, “and of course, they respond to anything funny.”

“We’re not trying to pretend it’s all roses for younger people,” says Libby. The reality is bullying still goes on, but “we try to hide the vegetables in the bolognaise”.

While there are multiple points of view on whether only actors living with a disability should play characters living with a disability, Libbie believes what’s important is that there’s a conversation. She claims the ABC’s “first stop is always to choose an actor living with a disability.”

Ten-year old Logan, who plays Jerry on Hardball, believes there’s been a big breakthrough in inclusion the entertainment industry.

“It’s good that they are getting people with actual disabilities to play characters with disabilities. We are more than capable of doing it! I think it’s important that everyone is treated equally and it is their acting ability that gets them the role.”

Hardball normalises Jerry, he’s the genius behind Mikey’s quest to become a handball champion. Nothing steps in Jerry’s way because of his disability,” says Libbie. Similarly, nothing steps in Logan’s way. When asked if his disability created any challenge to his acting opportunities, he said,

“Hardball was my first audition I went to and I got it! I wanted to be on TV so I started going to Brent St at Fox Studios. I hadn’t been there long and was asked if I wanted to be put forward for a role on a show where they wanted a kid with a physical disability. I went to a casting call and that was the start of my journey in acting.”

 

Earning stripes

With rigorous child protection policies in place, the ABC ensures the health, safety and support of all actors. ABC is used to working with young new actors, like Logan on Hardball, who reap the benefit of on the job training.

In fact, many children and families aren’t comfortable with being involved in acting, which is why most of the time the ABC gets first-time actors like Logan.

“Logan’s parents were part of the magic of Logan, and were incredibly supportive and communicative about how he was feeling,” says Libbie.

“Young actors learn the strict rules and processes on set. They have to hit their mark, be in the right place, say the right line and work with a director.”

”It’s lovely to see how their confidence grows. It’s challenging, with 30-40 adults around you, the pressure is on and it takes a special kid to deliver and sustain that. Logan’s been a champ, he’s given a great performance.”

 

What does the future look like for actors living with disability?

“Acting is incredibly tough, and 95% of the time actors are out of work, but I believe the future looks brighter for actors living with disabilities,” says Libbie.

Logan is equally optimistic about his future, and aims “to star in a Marvel Studio production and to be in a BBC Doctor Who episode. I have watched both of these all my life and would feel complete if I could achieve this, or should I say WHEN I achieve this.”

“I hope my disability doesn’t stop me from getting more roles, because I should be known for my acting ability. I’m not a disabled actor, I’m an actor with a disability,” says Logan.

Logan’s advice to other aspiring young actors living with disability to “choose something you love and are passionate about. If you feel it’s not accessible, then get it modified, and go for it!

Libbie reminds us that the “ABC is an ad free environment, we’re not pushing an agenda. Rather, we are trying to celebrate childhood. So as a public broadcaster, we have a massive role to help facilitate the conversation, and bring stories to life about what it’s like for these families.

And we’ve only scratched the surface."

 

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