Mister Rogers Gains New Influence, Of Sorts, On Kids’ TV

Analysis: The popular children's broadcaster passed away in 2003, but the company he founded is enjoying a resurgence

The Fred Rogers Company

What does Mister Rogers, the straight-laced kiddie icon, have in common with an animated tiger seeking emotional maturity, a wise-cracking cat and a young girl who keeps a marble under her cap, and an anonymous bureau of agents who solve strange phenomena? Unless you’re having a fever dream, nothing, right?

Yet Fred Rogers has a lot to do with those three concepts, two of which (“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and “Peg + Cat”) are on PBS’ air nearly every day, and the third, “Odd Squad,” about a clandestine agency run by kids, set to debut later this week. The company he founded, the Pittsburgh-based Fred Rogers Company, once was basically a one-trick pony, of sorts: Its business was largely the management of old episodes of the seminal “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (the company has produced a few other limited series over the years). By the end of 2014, however, Fred Rogers will have helped launch three new kid-focused series in the span of just two years.

“The company has gone through an extreme amount of change,” said Kevin Morrison, the company’s chief operating officer. Since Morrison’s arrival in 2006, Fred Rogers Company – once known as Family Communications – has focused on finding what Morrison calls “like-minded producers” who can help fulfill the company’s original mission of helping children develop. “We can’t do it all here,” says Morrison, espousing a thought that the company likely never hatched in its earlier incarnation. Its founder, after all, was so involved with the show that bore his name that he supplied several of the voices of the puppets who lived in its fictional and well-recalled “Land of Make Believe” segments.

To be certain, Fred Rogers is less a part of the post-millenial generation that currently forms the bulk of kiddie-TV viewership. Yet his influence could be a balm of sorts to it, particularly as tots face a veritable onslaught of content from media giants who want to woo them – and the buying power of their parents. “His perspective on children is so necessary as kids go to the digital side and it’s so fast-paced,” said Angela Santomero, the creator of long-running kids’ hit “Blue’s Clues,” and the new “Daniel Tiger” program. To lose the work Rogers had done in figuring out how to talk to young children would be “sad,” she added. “When you think about what a pre-schooler needs, it’s very different than what a ten-year-old needs,” she said.

Rogers died in 2003, two years after the company wrapped production of original episodes of his landmark program. Yet his ideas about how to talk to kids show up frequently on PBS, thanks to his company’s decision to launch new shows. One character on “Daniel Tiger” is a young girl who must use braces, and the other characters – the offspring of such famous Rogers creations as X The Owl and Lady Elaine – react to her being different. The problem-solving girl-and-feline duo on “Peg + Cat” typically fail at first in their quest to put things right, then learn from their mistakes and press on. When “Odd Squad” launches on November 26, kids will see an office comedy, of sorts, in which kids from a range of backgrounds help floundering adults, but there will be little mention of who’s rich or poor, male or female.

“The legacy of Fred Rogers is an integral part of our DNA,” said Lesli Rotenberg, general manager of children’s programming for PBS. Indeed, with the launch of “Odd Squad,” Fred Rogers Company will become one of the larger suppliers of new original episodes to PBS this season (WGBH, the Boston station that produces “Arthur,” “Curious George”and “Martha Speaks,” is another).
In short, the company provides insight into what appeals to wee viewers. Paul Siefken, its vice president of broadcast and digital media, has served stints at Cartoon Network, and, more recently at PBS Kids, where he helped develop everything from “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” to “Wild Kratts” and “Sid The Science Kid.” He often watches the new efforts with an eye to how children might interpret them, said Tim McKeon, one of the creators of “Odd Squad.” “We had a librarian character and an author, and it just happened the author was a guy and the librarian was a girl,” he explained. Siefken said, “’Flip that. Make the author a woman and the librarian a guy,” he remembered. The program was supposed to show diversity in the kids’ secret-squad workplace, McKeon said, but “if you don’t call it out in the script, it doesn’t happen.”

And the company’s experience in producing a PBS show for decades is useful to those just starting out, because PBS is not supported by traditional advertising. Most of the kids’ programs require the assistance of grants. When McKeon and his fellow “Odd Squad” creator, Adam Peltzman, learned PBS wanted to develop their concept for “Odd Squad,” they were elated but also had reason for concern. All they had was a small company they had just formed and an 11-minute pilot. Now PBS wanted 40 half-hour episodes, for which the two would have to secure some of the funding. “At the end of the day, you want the expert, the pro, to explain to you how things work,” said McKeon. “They play a larger role.”

Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson, the creators of “Peg + Cat,” ran into similar challenges. After responding to a PBS call for a show that would teach math, the two learned that getting a pick-up of their idea was only the start of the process. “What that means is you have to put together the financing, somehow,” Oxley said. Fred Rogers Company often gets involved in securing book and toy deals, too, as well as finding production studios to help the creators.

Some of these elements are new for the small non-profit. “Fred was never in this to make money,“ said William Isler, the company’s chief executive officer. “It was really a single focus, a mission of his, to do the programming.” Now staffers examine the potential for online games around properties and are cognizant of how its shows fare when kids stream them on tablets and mobile devices.

Can Fred Rogers add more shows to its portfolio? “We have ambitions to be a long-term provider of programming in this sector,” said Morrison, noting there’s a limit on how much work the company can handle. “Financing these shows is a major activity around here,” he said. “We’d love to have another three shows, but we’d be taking on three more headaches in terms of funding.” As one-time viewers of “Mister Rogers” might recall, the host once ended his program by singing about the promise of tomorrow.