Fred McFeely Rogers, better known to millions of American children as Mr. Rogers, is the creator and executive producer of the longest-running children's program on public television, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. While commercial television most often offers children animated cartoons and many educational programs employ the slick, fast-paced techniques of commercial television, Rogers' approach is as unique as his content. He simply talks with his young viewers. Although his program provides a great deal of information, the focus is not upon teaching specific facts or skills but upon acknowledging the uniqueness of each child and affirming his or her importance.
Rogers did not originally plan to work in children's television. Rather, he studied music composition at Rollins College in Florida, receiving a bachelors degree in 1951. He happened to see a children's television program and felt it was so abysmal that he wanted to offer something better. While he worked in television, however, he also pursued his dream of entering the ministry, continuing his education at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In 1962 Rogers received the Bachelor of Divinity degree and was ordained by the United Presbyterian Church with the charge to work with children and their families through the mass media.
Rogers began his television career at NBC but joined the founding staff of America's first community-supported television station, WQED in Pittsburgh, as a program director in 1953. His priority was to schedule a children's program; however, when no one came forward to produce it, Rogers assumed the task and in April 1954, launched The Children's Corner. He collaborated with on-screen hostess Josie Carey on both the scripts and music to produce a show that received immediate acclaim, winning the 1955 Sylvania Award for the best locally produced children's program in the country. Rogers and Carey also created a separate show with similar material for NBC network distribution on Saturday mornings. With only a meager budget their public television show was not a slick production, but Rogers did not view this as a detriment. He wanted children to think that they could make their own puppets, no matter how simple, and create their own fantasies. The important element was to create the friendly, warm atmosphere in the interactions of Josie and the puppets (many of whom are still a part of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood), which has become the hallmark of the program.
In 1963, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Toronto provided Rogers another opportunity to pursue his ministerial charge through a fifteen-minute daily program called Misterogers. This was his first opportunity to develop his on-camera style, gentle, affirming, and conversational. The style is grounded in Rogers' view of himself as an adult who takes time to give children his undivided attention rather than as an entertainer.
Rogers returned to Pittsburgh in 1964, acquired the rights to the CBC programs, and lengthened them to thirty minutes for distribution by the Eastern Educational Network. When production funds ran out in 1967 and stations began announcing the cancellation of the show, an outpouring of public response spurred the search for new funding. As a result of support by the Sears, Roebuck Foundation and National Educational Television, a new series entitled Misterogers' Neighborhood began production for national distribution. Currently there are 700 episodes in the library, and since 1979 Rogers has produced a few new segments each year, adding freshness and immediacy to the series.
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is unique because it provides a warmth and intimacy seldom found in mass media productions. The show is designed to approximate a visit between friends and is meticulously planned in consultation with psychologists at the Arsenal Family and Children's Center, under the direction of Margaret B. McFarland until her death in 1988. The visit begins with a model trolley which travels through a make-believe town to Rogers' home. He enters, singing "Won't you Be My Neighbor?", an invitation for the viewer to feel as close to him as to an actual neighbor. He also creates a bond with his audience by speaking directly to the camera, always in an inclusive manner about things of interest to his viewers. As he speaks, he changes from his sport coat to his trademark cardigan sweater and from street shoes to tennis shoes to further create a relaxed, intimate atmosphere.
The pacing of the program also approximates that of an in-depth conversation between friends. Rogers speaks slowly, allowing time for children to think about what he has said and to respond at home. And psychologists studying the show verify that children do respond. He also takes time to examine objects around him or to do simple chores such as feed his fish. Although he invites other "neighbors," such as pianist Van Cliburn, to share their knowledge, the warm rapport also allows him to tackle personal subjects, such as fears of the dark or the arrival of a new baby.
Recognizing the importance of play as a creative means of working through childhood problems, he also invites children into the Neighborhood of Make Believe. Because Rogers wants children to clearly separate fantasy from reality this adjacent neighborhood can only be reached via a trolley through a tunnel. The Neighborhood of Make Believe is populated by a number of puppets who are kindly and respectful but not perfect. King Friday XIII, for example, is kind but also somewhat pompous and authoritarian.
Human characters also inhabit this neighborhood and engage the puppets on an equal level. Since Rogers is the puppeteer and voice for most of the puppets, it is difficult for him to interact in this segment. This movement away from "center stage," however, is a conscious choice. His lack of visible participation underscores the separation between the reality he creates in his "home" and these moments of fantasy. The trolley then takes the children back to Rogers' home, and the visit ends as he changes back into his street clothes and leaves the house, inviting the children back at a later date.
In 1971, Rogers formed Family Communications, Inc., a non-profit corporation of which he is president, to produce Mister Rogers Neighborhood and other audio-visual, educational materials. Many of these productions, such as the prime time series Mister Rogers Talks with Parents (1983) and his books Mister Rogers Talks with Parents (1983) and How Families Grow (1988), are guides for parents. He has also recorded six albums of children's songs. However, these activities are viewed as educational endeavors rather than profit-generating enterprises, and most of the funding for his productions still comes from grants.
Mr. Rogers has succeeded in providing something different for children on television and in acknowledgment of his accomplishments has received two Peabody awards, a first for non-commercial television. Rather than loud, fast-paced animation or entertaining education, he presents a caring adult who visits with children, affirming their distinction and value, understanding their hopes and fears.
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Blau, Eleanor. "Rogers Has New TV Series on School." The New York Times, 20 August 1979.
Berkvist, Robert. "Misterogers Is a Caring Man." The New York Times, 16 November 1969.
Briggs, Kenneth A. "Mr. Rogers Decides It's Time to Head for New Neighborhoods." The New York Times, 8 May 1975.
Collins, Glenn. "TV's Mr. Rogers--A Busy Surrogate Dad." The New York Times, 19 June 1983.
Fischer, Stuart. "Children's Corner." Kids TV: The First Twenty-Five Years. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1983.
"Fred M(cFeely) Rogers." Current Biography. Moritz, Charles, editor. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1970.