When kids channel Nickelodeon was starting work on a detective show called "The Mystery Files of Shelby Wink," it decided to spend a few more dollars and hold extra casting sessions in San Francisco and Vancouver, cities with large Asian populations.
Although actresses of all ethnic groups were considered for the part, "we were aware that there were not a lot of Asian Americans" on the air," says Nickelodeon President Herb Scannell. Nick ultimately found actress Irene Ng, in New York as it turned out, and changed the character's name to Shelby Woo.
The approach helps explain why Nickelodeon is considered one of the TV outlets where ethnic diversity is not only present but flourishes. And while it is a cable channel where the economic pressures are not quite as unforgiving as network TV, nevertheless the success Nick has with diversity may be a window into the future of TV viewing behavior, given that its 2- to 11-year-old audience will soon grow into the next generation that prime-time programming executives will be focused on.
There's not just one African American on Nickelodeon's airwaves, but many, reflecting a gamut of black cultures. Shows are in development featuring Mexican-American boys and a Puerto Rican girl. Girls play lead roles, and kids of different shapes and sizes show up, some better-looking than others. "Some of what we've done is looked at TV and said, 'What's not on TV?' " notes Scannell. And after several months of planning, next week Nick will announce the creation of a fellowship program to encourage ethnically diverse writers .
Presenting a diverse world makes sense, Scannell says, because that's the world that kids live in. A recent Nickelodeon/Time Magazine poll of young people found that 91% of respondents had friends of a different race or color, and 79% of those kids hang out with those friends after school. "We really do believe that reflecting our audience is our strength. Nick has always had a point of view," he says.
It's a strategy that is clearly working. Nickelodeon has been the top-ranked programming choice for kids since 1990. It had all of the top 10 shows among the 2-11 crowd in the just-wrapped TV season. WB's "Pokemon" was the first non-Nick program to break that streak, coming in 13th. On Saturday mornings, once solely the major networks' domain, Nickelodeon sits solidly at the head of the class, followed by ABC, Fox Kids, WB, Disney and Cartoon Network.
It takes extra effort to ensure a multicultural mix of characters on air, but Scannell doesn't agree with producers who say the talent isn't there. "You've got to want to do it," Scannell says. Nick has held casting calls outside the traditional New York and Los Angeles venues, in Atlanta, Chicago and Orlando, Fla., "places where you find communities where the people reflect the diversity we're looking for."
The approach has paid off in cutting across racial lines as the top-rated cable network among black, white and Latino kids. And Nick has also been able to debunk the myth that boys won't watch shows starring girls or vice versa; most shows draw a mixed audience. "If you believe it's a value, you can do it," Scannell says. "And economically, we're a great business, so you tell me."