The Animation Primer project is a joint initiative of the Association of Bulgarian Animation Producers, the Institute of Art Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the production companies Zographic Film and Chase a Cloud and was supported by the Audiences 2023 Programme of the National Culture Fund. The aim is to gather reliable and up-to-date primary information about children’s habits and preferences in relation to animated cinema. The project explores the relationship between Bulgarian animation and the audience in the age range 5–11 years. The scientific team working on the project is led by Prof. Nadezhda Marinchevska, PhD, with the participation of Prof. Radostina Neykova, PhD, Assoc. Prof. Alexander Donev, PhD, and Lachezar Velinov – PhD student at the Institute of Art Studies, BAS.
The article presents the first results of the quantitative survey conducted by the Estat Sociological Agency at the end of April 2023. A process of in-depth analysis and interpretation is underway, but some aspects make an impression at first glance and confirm or question different hypotheses of the research team.
For example, the preliminary attitudes were that the children are entirely under the influence of mass production and a negligible part of them have touched on Bulgarian animation, i.e., a result close to 0% answered positively to the question whether they have watched a Bulgarian animated film. It turned out that the percentage was 30.3%.
This surprisingly positive result is neutralized by the lack of a connection between the Bulgarian animation and the audience. A large part of the respondents (83.8%) who have watched Bulgarian films do not or cannot name a favourite Bulgarian cartoon character. This was to be expected. Bulgarian animation has historically developed in the field of short author’s cinema. Attempts at television series or feature films can be counted on the fingers of two hands both in the period of the communist regime, during which film production flourished and the so-called “Bulgarian animation school” was formed, and after 1989, when a “market model” was introduced. In fact, these two forms – full-length films and series – have the ability, supported by other communication tools such as advertising and merchandising, to build a lasting connection with the audience, which is also supported by subsequent results.
Children hardly mention short animations, i.e., their presence has no statistical reliability. The most common titles in the polls are “The Three Fools” (series) with 20.6%, followed by “PUK” (full-length film) with 8.1%, “The Adventures of Choco and Boko the Frog” with 6.6% (series) and “Bulgar” with 5.9% (series and full-length film). I should note that the titles quoted are not television series in the classical sense of the term. They are a series of individual author’s short films produced over a long period of time, united on the basis of the same characters. The series “The Three Fools” includes 11 films produced in 20 years, and
“The Adventures of Choco and Boko the Frog” – 13 films produced in 11 years. In Bulgarian animation history, the concept of seasonality does not exist. However, the data clearly shows that the recurrence of characters in different movies and situations leads to recognizability and relatability.
Another interesting fact is that 82% of children watch an animation alone with a brother, a sister, or a friend in the absence of an adult. Therefore, parents are not familiar with the messages that reach the children.
The choice of what to watch is also left to the children. In only 2.9% of cases, the decision comes from the parents, i.e., watching an animation, and not only, has become an autonomous activity of the children, where the parents rely mainly on the editorial policy of the respective media without exercising effective parental control. This is a worrying fact in view of the increasing consumption through mobile devices of user-generated content (TikTok). The concept of short videos selected and rotated by an algorithm removes editorial and parental control over content. Content demonstrating unacceptable behaviour, attitude towards people, or dangerous behaviour only comes to public attention when it qualifies as a crime (the case of the Hook, the Chechen, and the Scooter).
In such situations, we can talk about deficits, lack of interest in institutions and parents regarding what content reaches children, how it affects them, what values and cultural concepts are in their minds.
Although the figures show that parents have self-excluded themselves from the process of watching animation, the survey is indicative of children’s needs. They are willing to share what they see with their parents and 80.6% of them do so always, very often or frequently. Only 1.6% never talk to their parents about what they watched.
Surprisingly, parents who are otherwise almost not involved in the watching process and have no direct impressions of the content itself and its educational value, for the most part (84%) believe that children learn new things from cartoons, and only 3.8% that they do not learn anything new. The difference between these data needs to be analysed in more depth. At the moment, we can state two hypotheses. One is that periodically publicized research on the educational potential of animation has formed a positive public opinion. The second is that parents identify new knowledge acquired by children that could not have come otherwise than from cartoons.
More broadly, the Animation Primer study will look for the connection between media, media consumption, and the formation of a national identity with the means of animation. In this respect, it is important to understand how much the audience differentiates when a content has a national origin and when it does not. Although children’s cartoons are synchronized in Bulgarian by professional actors, i.e., the characters speak expressively and emotionally in children’s native language, 56% of children say they understand when a film is not Bulgarian. The study was conducted with a booster group of socially disadvantaged families. It is in these families that children show a significantly lower ability to determine whether a film is Bulgarian or not. Precisely in groups where national identity is more difficult to identify, there is a lag in the formation of national identity.
There is also less use of digital media devices – smartphones, tablets, and computers. In socially disadvantaged families, children compensate for limited access to digital devices with higher television consumption. That is why media equality is observed in access to television. In both subgroups, only 2% of children do not have access to television.
This leads to the assumption that for children from specific social strata, linear television still remains the main media channel. These data strongly support the joint initiative of the Association of Bulgarian Cartoon Producers and the National Network for Children to create a children’s broadcast public channel to the BNT. Creating a Children’s BNT would solve the problem of both editorial control and access to animated content for children from socially disadvantaged families.
An interesting question is how children determine the nationality of a film. Preliminary expectations were that visual markers have a leading role – for example, the appearance of the schools, houses, streets, and rooms of the characters; the inscriptions on buildings, shops, road signs, etc. The assumption was based on a study by Elia Cornelio-Marie, PhD, on Mexican children regarding cartoons from the United States.
Our research shows that visual markers are in second place, and the narrative is leading. Another marker for determining the nationality of cartoons is the behaviour of the characters. Language only in the last place, probably because of the professional dubbing of the films.
Returning to the narrative, the largest share of those interviewed determined that the speech of the characters differed from the things they knew and their surroundings. This fact explains why determining the nationality of the film makes it more difficult for children from socially disadvantaged families, in which group the minority ethnic component is larger. These are families in which the mother tongue is not Bulgarian.
Above all, the different narrative of foreign films speaks of important cultural differences that influence children and shape their thinking and attitudes. These are additional arguments in support of the cause of creating a Children’s BNT that is accessible and free of charge in every household – regardless of economic and ethnic status, and which would be a bearer of national values.
In-depth knowledge of the habits and preferences of today’s children in terms of media consumption, including animation, is of utmost importance for the development of adequate state policies in the field of culture and education, pedagogical, and psychological practice.
 The expression is put in quotation marks, as there is no real market competition, but rather a competition for state subsidies on a project basis.
 According to date of the National Statistics Institute. See https://www.nsi.bg/sites/default/files/files/pressreleases/SILC2022_4UPGZS4.pdf