Kids' cartoons have more LGBTQ representation than ever before - but only if you pay for it

Kids' cartoons have more LGBTQ representation than ever before - but only if you pay for it
LGBT kids show characters on a pink and green background with logos of tv networks behind them, including ABC Kids, The CW, Disney Afternoon, PBS Kids, and WB.
Over 90% of #LGBTQ characters in kids cartoons require a fee to view them. Here's how that happened - and why it matters. Skye Gould/Insider
  • Insider found over 90% of LGBTQ characters in children's cartoons are behind a paywall.

  • Experts say it's because of the rise of cable, which resulted in low-income kids having less access.

  • Still, families, shows, and distributors are trying to help kids have greater access.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Most millennials remember PBS' animated hit "Arthur," about a glasses-wearing aardvark and his animal friends and family. What they may not have seen is its spinoff, "Postcards from Buster," which aired one of the earliest LGBTQ representation moments in kids' TV.

The live-action-animation hybrid, aimed at 4-to-8-year-olds, followed Arthur's best bunny friend Buster as he traveled around the world, introducing young viewers to diverse communities and the kids who lived in them.

In 2005, "Postcards to Buster" aired "Sugartime" a 26-minute-long episode where Buster goes to Vermont to learn how maple sugar is made. He also pays a visit to a local family with two moms.

"We just wanted to showcase how there are so many different kinds of kids - how they can learn something from that,'" Carol Greenwald, "Arthur" and "Postcards" executive producer, told Insider.

While a few stations ran the episode, commissioned by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of an effort to air more stories about real kids, the network effectively pulled "Sugartime."

The move came after then-secretary of education Margaret Spellings publicly urged the network to return any federal funding used to produce the episode on the grounds that the nation's parents wouldn't want their children "exposed to the lifestyles portrayed."

"I think what happened was George Bush hired a new secretary of education who had to prove her conservative credentials, and she happened to see this and then we were off to the races," Greenwald said.

A married couple watches TV with their son and daughter
Insider found that the majority of LGBTQ representation in children's TV animation is hidden behind a paywall. 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Over 90% of LGBTQ characters in animated kids programming require a fee to view them

The moms in "Sugartime" are among some of the earliest publicly confirmed representations of LGBTQ people in US animated children's TV.

When it was initially produced, it was just one of a handful of series - including "Gargoyles" and "Superman: The Animated Series" - to have representation on a free TV network.

Since the episode aired in the mid-2000s, LGBTQ representation has skyrocketed. The year 2019 marked the highest number of newly-confirmed animated queer and gender diverse characters in a single year of TV.

But Insider's database, featuring more than 250 LGBTQ and other gender-minority characters, shows the majority of this representation is hidden behind a paywall.

More than 90%, or exactly 234 of these characters, require either a cable, satellite, streaming, or internet subscription to view them on first airing, meaning children whose families can't afford paid TV or internet have virtually no access to the animated representation meant to represent them.

David Levine, Chief Content Officer at Moonbug, which owns YouTube kids animation behemoth "Cocomelon," told Insider that "kids TV on US broadcast" has died.

"That's a big driver. You have to consider that a crazy percentage of animation, of any kind, is behind a 'paywall,'" he added.

Levine, who's also Disney's former vice president of international kids programming, pointed to one major reason for this: the demise of the syndicated cartoon block and the rise of cable television.

Two children sitting on a couch watching TV and eating popcorn
Advertisers have played a part in limiting LGBTQ animated kids' content on free stations. Portra/Getty Images

The LGBTQ inclusion boom in animated children's TV got locked behind a paywall because of cable TV's growing popularity

Beginning in the 1950s, Hanna-Barbera dominated the Saturday morning cartoon space with hits like "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!" and "Josie and the Pussycats," which it developed for CBS, ABC, and NBC.

But by 1990, the year Disney debuted its two-hour syndicated cartoon block, Disney Afternoon, these individual series had morphed into bundles of shows that aired through agreements with local affiliate stations versus a single national broadcaster.

This also marked the end of commercials disguised as highly-gendered kids media (think "G.I. Joe" and "Strawberry Shortcake"), which were most prominent during the 1970s and 1980s.

Around this same time, concerned parents and their lobbying groups began to challenge the presence of toy advertising in children's programming - a move that came to a head in the 1990s. The decade saw two waves of FCC regulations on content standards and commercials in children's programming.

Coupled with the additional profits of putting cartoons behind a paywall, studios now saw cable, with its fewer regulations and a rapidly growing viewership, as the next frontier.

"It was just about eyeballs. Eyeballs bring advertising dollars," "Disney Afternoon" author Jake Friedman told Insider. "Cable television had just taken over by 1996 - Cartoon Network, Disney, even Nickelodeon was growing its Nicktoons family."

Advertisers and their dollars, in particular, have played an indirect role in curbing LGBTQ animated kids' content on free stations. Unlike cable and streaming, broadcast TV is largely funded by ads, which might disappear if a program's content is deemed controversial by an advertiser.

Vito Viscomi, a writer-showrunner who has produced series across platforms, including Netflix's "The Hollow," told Insider that networks are "going to take a lot less chances and try to be more safe because of those advertisers."

Historically, broadcasters have also prioritized broad demographics, though mostly the eyeballs of (unspokenly straight) white viewers. But on cable, and now even more so with streaming, subscription dollars can level the playing field, and give marginalized viewers - and representation - equal power.

"You're making a choice to actually take on this service and you're paying for it, and you can always vote with your dollar," Levine said. "So if you don't like something, you can turn off your subscription."

A father and daughter watch TV on a laptop together
The internet has granted easier access to LGBTQ shows, but not for everyone. FG Trade/Getty

The internet is an imperfect solution to making animated representation more accessible

Over months of interviews, showrunners, writers, and TV executives frequently pointed to cheaper streaming services and the internet, particularly YouTube, as an answer to the dearth of inclusive and free kids programming.

But according to TechCrunch, Nielsen found that in 2019, of the more than 16 million homes that had cut their cable and satellite cords, about 6.6 million were relying solely on a digital antenna, with no streaming subscriptions.

Moreover, while it's free to use, YouTube isn't free to access. YouTube's content - which is frequently "age-inappropriate" for children 8 and under, according to research from Common Sense Media - is locked behind its own complicated paywall of one-time and recurring internet, equipment, and installment charges.

This is on top of the nation's pre-existing broadband infrastructure issues, which disproportionately affect low-income, rural, Black, Native American, and Latinx people.

AnneMarie McClain, a children's media and education researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Insider that inclusive shows are essential to kids across income differences.

"Children might not have representation in their communities. They might not have representation in their schools. And so media is a source of representation that can help children know that they're OK and that their identities are valid," McClain said.

Yet, in 2018 as streamers and online content boomed, around 6% of children aged 3 to 18 with some form of the internet at home, could only access inclusive cartoons through a smartphone, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Another 6% had no internet access at all. And the FCC determined 10 million school-aged children had no internet access, which means that even the presumably "free" option remains unavailable to them, according to a report by The Startup in 2019.

A child sitting on the floor and holding a remote while watching TV
Some studios are finding different ways to make LGBTQ-inclusive programs more accessible to families. One method involves the first-run paywall, second-run free model. Moodboard/Getty Images

Creatives and viewers are using old and new tricks to get LGBTQ representation to young viewers and families

Despite these challenges, the evolving industry has a few workarounds for making its LGBTQ-inclusive animated kids shows more accessible.

Some studios and networks continue to use the first-run paywall, second-run free model - where a show airs on a paid TV channel platform before airing on a no-cost one to help get their content to more viewers. For example, iconic kids program "Sesame Street" has a deal that sees its program airing on HBO before debuting on PBS nine months later.

Disney Plus and Amazon Video have rolled out Group Watch features, which allow users with one account to stream from different locations through multiple profiles. Google Meet also introduced a new element to their "casting" tool that will mirror Disney Plus and Netflix streams to an entire meeting.

Georgia mom Morgan McFarland, 41, told Insider that she and her 12-year-old Rosie are using online tools to watch inclusive content after their household ditched cable a few years ago.

"[Rosie] goes on Sundays to an online queer kids club, and they made their own Discord," McFarland said of the video and text communication service used by millions. "They're in different parts of the world so they stream media that you can't necessarily access outside a paywall depending on where you are."

As the focus from studios on physical releases decreases, the DVD or Blu-Ray a parent could once loan from a library is increasingly offered up through streaming apps, which let you download and save episodes to watch later without the internet - a solution for parents who rely on Wi-Fi through a public space.

PBS offers variations on most of this, alongside on-demand episodes and live-streamed TV viewing, through the PBS Kids video app. In the case of "Arthur," which featured a much-celebrated gay wedding in a 2019 episode, kids can access free companion material like games and video shorts.

"It's the way we help kids grow," Greenwald said of "Arthur's" cross-platform availability. "It's critical to their social-emotional development for them to feel like they belong in our communities and other cultures, and that everyone else that they encounter belongs."

Some creatives with fewer options told Insider that they've quietly cheered the pirating of their content. Others, such as "Craig of the Creek" head writer Jeff Trammell, try to reach young viewers through channels like the writer's room's Twitter handle, where they share curated clips.

"If you just see that clip, even if you never watched the show, you know that that's there," Trammell told Insider. "And if you are feeling like you need something to relate to, you know you can come find us and these characters."

Kalai Chik contributed to this report.

Read the original article on Insider