The man who says “You can’t talk with children until you’ve listened to them” has begun another season on public television doing precisely that — talking and listening to youngsters across the country. He is Fred Rogers, the host of Misterogers’ Neighborhood, a half-hour show viewed on KCET — Channel 28, weekdays at 9 AM and 5:30 PM.
Rogers makes his entrance through the front door, greeting his young viewers with a cheery, “How in the world are you?” and hangs his coat very carefully in the closet. Everything he does on the program is in the same normal, gentle, sincere fashion. In person, he is that way, too.
Parents across the country are asking, “Who is this Fred Rogers that the children call their friend? What is he really like?”
Everyone who has met him says, “He’s for real. He treats children with respect because he genuinely, honestly respects them.”
The series is his own creation, and some say it’s unorthodox — it breaks every rule of programming for children. If that is so, then children, their parents, their educators, doctors and psychologists love the broken rules, for on Fred Rogers’ programs, there’s no violence, no frenzy, no frenetic demand for attention.
Mister Rogers understands fantasy
Tall, lean, soft-spoken, gentle Fred Rogers has long believed that television can be an intimate medium for reaching deeply into the heart of a youngster. Because it has this power, it must be used with the utmost integrity.
When Rogers sits with an audience of youthful viewers, he tunes them in and structures his conversation in such a manner that each of them will be led into discussions in a natural way. It’s the same on the air. You should call him non-commercial.
“You see,” he says, “I care about human relationships. I don’t tell children ‘I want you to become an adult as quickly as possible so you can buy the stuff I sell.’ I want them to mature at their own pace but from the strength of adult experience.
“The development of a human personality,” says Rogers, “is a serious matter, I believe, and those of us who are in a position to influence this development must recognize the grave responsibility.
“Popularity at the expense of a young mind is a hollow thing,” he says. “An excess of violence stifles the imagination, repeatedly forces the child into the role of spectator, captive and fearful. Or, even more damaging, it encourages a child to seek relief from his own problems by withdrawing into passivity and watching another human being get clobbered.
“I’d rather,” he says thoughtfully, “teach a child to cope with what he disagrees with, instead of exciting him to destroy it, or manipulate its destruction.”
Basically, the format for Misterogers’ Neighborhood is simple. It involves creating a real atmosphere that a child can recognize and relate to in his expanding life. One program may center around getting a haircut, another about a toy that breaks, or taking a bath, fear of the dark, the arrival of a new baby, the difference between boys and girls. Always the child’s approach to the situation is treated with respect. Rogers spends six hours every week reviewing his program plans with a team of psychologists. When asked why his “neighborhood” is make-believe, he answered:
“You have to understand that childhood is a magical time. Children respond to fantasy. In the ‘Neighborhood of Makebelieve’ (one of the features on the program) everything is possible. When you understand fantasy and deal with it in a real way, it becomes a wonderfully effective vehicle.”
An unorthodox approach
None of this “unorthodox” approach to children’s programming happened quickly. Rogers, now 39, has planned, studied and worked to develop his ideas since he was a student at Rollins College where he graduated in 1951 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music.
Rogers is an educator, Presbyterian minister, a candidate for an advanced degree in child development, a consultant to the Child Study Center of the University of Pittsburgh and a veteran of such commercial television shows as Voice of Firestone, Your Hit Parade, and the Kate Smith Hour.
In 1953, when WQED, Pittsburgh’s Educational Television station was in its early stages of development, he was invited to establish a schedule of programming. It was here that he first began lo translate his concept of a children’s program into actuality, and began Children’s Corner locally. This series grew in importance over the next several years and in 1955 won the Sylvania Award as the best locally produced children’s show in the country.
In 1956, the series went on NBC for 26 weeks, and averaged 6,000 letters a program. Commercial TV was not ready at that time for this kind of series, and sponsors, always harder to find for children’s programming than any other, were not forthcoming.
Rogers returned to his work of studying and perfecting his concept, and for the next six years, worked on new scripts, revised old ones, worked and re-worked the children’s songs and music.
In 1963, the results of his dedication were incorporated into a daily 15-minute program, Misterogers, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Television Network. In 1966, the Misterogers’ Neighborhood thirty-minute series was established. The Eastern Educational Network bought the rights and it emerged on the air in several Eastern cities.
But, as often happens in educational television, the production money came to an end, and the word went out that there would be no more Misterogers on TV. The response was instantaneous, vigorously, vehemently protesting the loss, and it came from thousands — young and old, ordinary people and professionals.
The hue and cry crescendoed and it was the Sears Roebuck Foundation that recognized the need and saved the day. The Foundation came to the rescue with a grant of $150,000. National Educational Television and its affiliated stations came up with a matching amount to finance 130 new episodes and make them available to non-commercial television stations across the country.
Mister Rogers is the Pied Piper of Educational Television
Fred Rogers has been called “The Pied Piper of Educational Television.” He writes, directs, produces and stars in the series as both himself and the voices behind his many puppets.
Fred Rogers takes a five-minute break during the taping of a Misterogers’ Neighborhood program, to listen with delight as young Jan tells a story about what happened to her that morning.
His mystique is that he provides small-fry with something other than the dish of violence and cartoons that is commercial television’s fare. A Sacramento mother, in a recent letter to KVIE, summed up the Misterogers message… “I am more impressed with the intelligent content of the program each time I see it. If only there were more programs like this for children!”