Monday, November 20, 2000

'Mister Rogers' moves to Internet

        It's still a beautiful day in my neighborhood. Yes, I know, I should be sad that Fred Rogers will end production of PBS' Mister Rogers' Neighborhood next month after 33 years. But here's the comforting reality: With almost 1,000 shows on tape, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood should always be a child's first TV friend. And as long as kids can grow up with Mister Rogers, there will be adults who insist that their children watch him, too.

        “Young parents who watched the show are now offering it to their children. It's a service that naturally I hadn't expected,” Mr. Rogers told me when I spent a day with him in his Pittsburgh studio in 1997.

        “How could I have ever known that we would have been doing this for 30 years?

        “That is a real joy for me, to think that — like some classic book that a parent's parents might have known through their own parents and grandparents and then offered to them — that this is the first chance that a television program could do that.”

National treasure

               Mister Rogers' Neighborhood isn't just any children's program. It's a TV ministry for our youngest, most impressionable viewers written and performed by Mr. Rogers, ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1962.

        It's a remarkable series on child development, from the child's perspective. PBS' longest-running series is the vision of a TV pioneer who realized the power of the young medium in the early 1950s.

        “When I saw television for the first time, I saw people throwing pies in each others' faces — demeaning things,” said Mr. Rogers, 72, who started in TV 50 years ago on NBC's Lucky Strike Hit Parade and Kate Smith Hour. He has worked at Pittsburgh's WQED-TV since 1953, before it went on the air.

        “I knew then that this superb medium needed to be used for things that might elevate the human spirt, not denigrate it.”

        For 33 years, Mr. Rogers has provided a safe haven for parents and their babies. Unlike Sesame Street —which invented the high-energy “MTV-style” of television 12 years before MTV was born — Mr. Rogers spoke slowly and directly to his audience. He talked about their fears and emotions, everything from getting angry to worries about going to the doctor or being sucked down the bathtub drain.

        He told them they were loved. Who else does that on TV?

        “I've wanted all these years to let the children know that there are many ways to say "I love you.' And that each one of those children is unique and acceptable,” he said in 1997.

        “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.

        “I'd love to go off to heaven knowing that kids have felt within their being that they have this to share, and that their neighbor is every bit as important as they are.”

Two years without reruns

               Heaven can wait for now. Mr. Rogers plans to focus on the Internet and other media projects now that he has completed a Mister Rogers' Neighborhood library that can air for two years without reruns.

        “This takes a lot of pressure off of Fred. He used so much energy writing (all the) scripts and trying to produce them,” says David Newell, the Neighborhood public relations director seen as Speedy Delivery man Mr. McFeely for 33 years.

        Mr. Rogers' non-profit company, Family Communications Inc. ( or, can concentrate on videos and support materials for parents, teachers and counselors about diversity, abused children and other issues.

        Health is not an issue. Mr. Rogers still swims a mile a day.

        “Fred is not retiring. He is expanding his neighborhood with endeavors that will continue to build a brighter tomorrow for future generations of children,” FCI announced after Mr. Rogers informed PBS of his decision in typical Mr. Rogers style, without any fanfare or farewell tour.

Spiritual experience

               Fred McFeely Rogers, born in Latrobe, Pa., in 1928, is the most selfless celebrity I've ever met. He always deflected the attention to somebody else, often responding to my questions by posing them to me. A day with Mr. Rogers was a spiritual experience, like being in the presence of a modern-day saint.

        For years, Mr. Rogers has been much more than sneakers and sweaters. His company also has produced materials and videos available from his Internet site:

        • Family Cares, a series of illustrated pamphlets with helpful hints about everyday family issues (in English and Spanish).

        • An Around the Neighborhood newsletter three times a year for child-care providers listing show topics.

        • A 430-page Mister Rogers' Plan & Play Book for day-care centers with activities for 600 episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

        • Children's books about adoption, cancer, divorce and death.

        • Different and the Same, nine 15-minutes videos and a guidebook for early elementary teachers about about identifying and preventing prejudice.

        • Safe Havens, three 20-minute videos and training materials for preschool and elementary teachers about children who have been exposed to violence at home.

        Now Mr. Rogers, who lives life in the slow lane, is expanding his neighborhood via the information superhighway. Can you say “Cyberspace?” Sure you can.

        “The Internet is intriguing Fred,” Mr. Newell says. “He likens where we are now with the Internet to the early days of television. It's very primitive, nothing like it will eventually be. It's a very exciting time.”

Cyberspace haven
               Parents should be excited, too. Not that Mr. Rogers will tame the wild frontiers of the World Wide Web, but he can provide some safe havens on the Net for families. I'll take his Land of Make-Believe over chat rooms where sexual predators meet children on line.

        “You and I must do all we can to encourage the producers and purveyors of all mass media to help us raise children who will reject violence and cruelty,” he told TV critics in 1998.

        “If we can help children to develop the taste for what is essentially nourishing in their lives, it could be one of the greatest steps our country takes,” he told me.

        “I'll never give up hoping for that. And it's not any kind of Pollyanna-ish thing either . . . because most of us were born out of love.”

        It's a beautiful day in cyberspace. Won't you be my neighbor?



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