Ever since Nickelodeon premiered Dora the Explorer on its Nick Jr. preschool block six years ago, the Latina cartoon character has become a cultural icon whose popularity stretches far beyond the Hispanic community.
Nickelodeon was an early adopter as an Anglo outlet tapping the Hispanic market; it continued with Dora spinoff Go, Diego, Go! in 2005.
Nickelodeon will soon unspool another series for Hispanics, one centered on a Chinese character and an additional show about a black teenager.
“The DNA of Nickelodeon is about being relevant and reflective of the real kid's world,” says Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon and head of MTVN Kids and Family Group. “It wouldn't be a complete picture if we didn't include the shifts in diversity that are out there.”
Nickelodeon redoubled its efforts to reflect a diverse population when the 2000 census showed that the minority population had surged in the 1990s.
Hispanics now account for 20.3% of the under-15-year-old population, for instance, according to 2005 estimates from the Census Bureau. That compares with 14.4% of the entire population.
Among Nickelodeon's upcoming shows is El Tigre, which will debut in March. The show is about a Mexican-American teenager who has to choose between becoming a superhero or a villain.
Ni Hao Kai-Lan revolves around a Chinese family. Scheduled to premiere next fall, it is geared to preschoolers and will teach viewers Mandarin words.
The sitcom Just Jordan is about an African-American teenager who deals with ordinary “issues,” such as trying to figure out what girls look for in a guy. Jordan is expected to debut in January.
“As early as Clarissa Explains It All , we thought there were myths in television that were not necessarily reflecting the real lives of kids,” says Zarghami. “We put shows on where girls were the lead characters and expected boys to watch as well—and they did.”
Nickelodeon also reflects diversity beyond ethnicity. For instance, its teen-oriented network, The N, last November launched South of Nowhere, which has characters exploring their personal identities, including sexual orientation.
In a medium that draws protests like candles attract moths, that theme is risky. It also won the network some plaudits.
But Zarghami insists Nickelodeon's history proves that it's not adding token diversity programming just to get brownie points.
“You can't say, 'Okay, I have a show with African- Americans, I have a show with a Latina, I have a show with a Chinese girl. Check, check, check.' Our effort needs to be ongoing,” she says. “The diversity on your air should not be measured by 'one of each.'”