Foundation Alum Discusses Diversity & Representation for Kids on Television
In 2014, when Daniel Barnes applied for the Television Academy Foundation Internship program, he did so with trepidation. "I was scared because I lived in a small town and I didn't know anyone in Hollywood," said the Alabama native who landed the internship after applying twice. "I was so excited when I finally got it; I wouldn't have a career if it wasn't for the Foundation. They gave me a dream internship which led to my first industry job!"
Today, Barnes is a Development Executive at Moonbug Entertainment, a global company that distributes inspirational children's media. While working from home due to COVID-19, Barnes spoke with us about the responsibility of children's programming to address race, what needs to change in the entertainment industry, as well as the joys of creating content that "kids love and parents trust."
Why children's programming?
Growing up in Alabama, television was my escape. I would get lost in Nickelodeon shows such as Rugrats, Hey Arnold and Doug. As I got a little older, I started watching That's So Raven and Lizzie McGuire. These shows provided a slice of life for kids and dealt with real-life issues. I started realizing how powerful TV can be through that. It made me feel like I wasn't alone as they spoke on issues I was dealing with. I wanted to make kids' content to make sure other kids didn't feel alone. That was the fuel. I wanted to show an accurate portrayal of kids/teens.
Describe how your Television Academy Foundation internship impacted your career.
Without the Television Academy Foundation, I wouldn't be here. Coming from a small city, the Foundation helped build my L.A. family while also helping me financially sustain a life here. I was placed at Hasbro Studios, a company that made content based on their toys. I learned so much there such as how the industry works, the groundwork of animation and so much more. It was one of the best summers of my life. The last two weeks of my internship, a position opened up at Hasbro. I got hired after the completion of my internship and I've been working in L.A. ever since!
In response to recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Hollywood has been called upon to make significant changes within our industry. What has been your experience as a Black person working in television?
I've always worked on the creative development team of every job that I've been at, and at every one of those jobs, I've always been the only Black person in terms of my immediate team. I've been blessed that my co-workers have been really great allies who help to champion change. But, in terms of development and studio-wise, it has always been majority white.
What are some immediate actions that the entertainment industry can take to facilitate change?
One big thing that needs to change is the money that is allocated for entry-level positions. Because essentially, in order to break into Hollywood, you have to be an assistant first. A lot of those assistant positions do not pay a livable wage for a city as expensive as L.A. So, unless you come from a privileged background, where mom and dad can help you out while you get on your feet, or you're a local and you can live at home; a lot of talent gets cut out for the simple fact that they can't afford to move across the country, find a place and sustain themselves. The Television Academy Foundation stipend got me to L.A.
For me, at Moonbug Entertainment, when we have meetings about budget, I make suggestions for salary increases for entry-level because we can open up opportunities for people who may not come from a privileged family but have the talent, passion, hunger and desire to make it. That's what I try to be vocal about. Also, I think a lot of companies who have diversity and inclusion initiatives should be intentional about going to places where it's difficult for people who may want to come into entertainment (for example, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama.) There's talent there and it may not be as easy for them to get out as it is for the person who lives in major cities such as New York, Dallas or Atlanta.
How can the hiring process change?
Because I am in charge of hiring, when I'm filtering through resumes, oftentimes people will automatically get thrown out because they don't have a certain type of experience. For example, they might not have had a proper internship or haven't worked at an entertainment company as an assistant—this shouldn't cancel them out. Because again you have to take into consideration, what could they achieve based on their location? It would be hard to get entertainment experience when you live in Alabama. I really do try to get to know people better who apply and don't have the traditional experience, just to see where they are coming from. The biggest things I look for are hunger and passion. It's that drive and hunger to learn. I had an intern whose only experience was volunteering with kids at a library, she knew the age demo, the types of stories they liked to read and everything. This is still valuable even though she didn't have the traditional entertainment experience.
As a Development Executive, discuss the power and responsibility of television to inform and educate children on serious topics such as race.
In the preschool age demo, I feel like as practitioners of content creation, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure that the content we are giving them is going to help create a better generation than the one we are living with. A huge part of that is research -- fully understanding that children are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.
I'm constantly looking at research and articles that discuss the development cycles of kids. There was a statistic that said that by around 16 months, kids can start associating behaviors and actions with race. Children as young as 2 years old use race to reason about people's behaviors, by 30 months most children use race to choose playmates. Kids do see color. If you're a white child in a white family, you might not be exposed to other races until you're much older. This is why representation on television is important and can be so powerful. A black person on television might be their only introduction to a person of color in their life. If they can see different races, backgrounds displayed/portrayed on television especially in that preschool age, playing and having fun together, then when they get into the real world, they can use that reasoning. They can start making those connections and we can start reversing some of those biases that might have formed because of their environment. Diversity, representation and inclusion are important in kids' media because we can really do a lot of great and positive work. This is important work that we all should start doing. We make sure that our writers' room is diverse so that the content benefits. And also, it's always encouraging to see others that look like you at a place of work. I've always pushed for diverse content.
What advice do you have for a young person who wants to work in the industry?
Do what you can with what you have. If you have an iPhone, and some friends who are willing to shoot stuff, shoot fun skits. That helped me to make stuff and build confidence. Don't be scared to ask for help.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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