Is it the dearth of female leads that pushes the girl viewers away? Or is the absence of female viewership the reason for the dearth?
If one were to flip through the children’s channel category on their television, one would think that the little ones in our country are spoiled for choice with the plethora of content available. It seems all the more so for those born in the 1990s as there was only one channel then- Cartoon Network. While the satellite television boom brought many channels for kids, a cursory glance through their shows will reveal a strange reality- a pronounced absence of female protagonists.
Children have a host of channels to choose from- Cartoon Network, Pogo, Disney Channel, Marvel HQ, Hungama TV, Nickelodeon, Nickelodeon Sonic, Nick Jr., Discovery Kids, Sony YAY and some regional channels as well. The popular shows on these channels are- Chhota Bheem, Motu Patlu, Ninja Hatori, Shin Chan, Taarak Mehta ka Chhota Chashma, Kisna among many others. A quick look at their titles itself gives you a good hint of the gender of their main characters. Why do most Indian television shows for children have male leads?
Keerat Grewal, partner, Ormax Media, says that from a very early age, girls start moving to live action content. Meanwhile the viewership of animation content continues for boys almost till they are in their early teens.
“Girls start weaning out of animation content and moving to live action as early as the age of nine. it could be influenced by what the mothers were watching. They tend to watch GEC content as well. While boys watch animated content till around 13 or 14 years. This could be one of the reasons why a lot of animated content catering to seven to eleven-years-old has male characters as leads,” she says.
Sonali Kelapure, Founder, Ka Kha Ga, a creative content studio that has worked with several kids channels and OTT platforms, said that the Indian animation industry is still evolving and the characters will evolve with it. Though the leads may be few, she points out that the shows have strong female characters.
“There are strong female characters in Indian animation industry like Chutki in Chhota Bheem or Kavya in Little Singham. Moreover, animation attracts 60% male viewers and 40% female viewers. That makes it a broadcaster’s business call,” she said.
So is it the dearth of female leads that pushes the girl viewers away? Or is the absence of female viewership the reason for the dearth? Well, it’s hard to say as it is a chicken and egg situation. As the girls grow older, they are not the dominant TG for these channels.
“If I don’t have girls watching my channel right now, as a business choice the content will be made catering to the boys. The inclination to make content relatable for girls will be lowered,” she adds.
But if one is to go by the success of the Disney Princess series and the demand for the merchandise, there’s definitely an affinity towards animated content among the girls. Girls prefer to watch content that is more relationship-oriented or female character-dominated.
Grewal adds, “There is a high degree of relevance for female characters, for example Barbie or Frozen or even female-driven live action content like Hannah Montana. They don't have much content that they can relate to, and so they tend to move away from animation content. But the reason they're moving into live action is primarily because their genre preferences are much different compared to boys.”
Meanwhile the content for preschoolers (till the age of six) is in a way gender inclusive. For example, shows like Peppa Pig and Dora the Explorer.
“Over there, we don't see any gender affinity amongst children, because at that time it is not a very clear thought. These shows also have a lot of animals and it's a combination of males and females in a friend group,” she said.
Today in the kids entertainment category, the majority of the Indian shows are based on mythological characters- Chhota Bheem, Bal Ganesh, Selfie with Bajrangi, etc. Though Indian mythology has its share of strong female characters, this is not reflected in the kids content space. Disney launched Mira, Royal Detective last year. The show is based on an Indian character, making her the ‘first South Asian protagonist’ in a Disney Junior Show. However it also catered to the younger audience.
Grewal feels that in India the makers haven’t really explored a lead female animation character.
“This could be because of an existing bias that only male characters work. But we've seen this being really challenged by international content like Captain Marvel and Black Widow. There was a time when there were only male superheroes. Over the years, Hollywood has really challenged this and perhaps it's time for India also to do that,” she adds.
Kelapure says that the endeavour while creating these shows is always to portray female characters as equals.
“Even if the female character is not the lead, when we get the character description it comes as an equal to the male protagonists,” she says.
While there is as much a dearth of female protagonists in the OTT space, can it be a solution to provide the girls the much-needed relatable content?
Grewal agrees, saying, “OTT has really democratised content consumption. It doesn’t have to deliver what the majority of the masses want. It builds itself on more detailed audience segments. Undoubtedly, it’s a much easier call to take for OTT than for television channels.”
Sony YAY, on its part, intends to create shows catering to this age group of girls on their OTT platform. “We are currently working on our OTT offerings that will be available on Sony LIV soon. Since the content on television is largely targeted to the boys, the OTT shows will also be relatable to the girls,” said Leena Lele Dutta, business head, Sony Pictures Networks India, kids’ genre during a press conference announcing their new shows last week.