Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

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Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

"Won't you be my neighbor?" Fred McFeely Rogers has asked television viewers the same question for three decades. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood has helped create an entire genre of educational television, one that nurtures children's self-worth. Few series have come close to maintaining the continuity and moral tenor of Fred Rogers' long running PBS series, however. Lacking the commercial development of nearly all the network's other children series, Rogers has maintained a commitment to education that has wavered little over the past 30 years.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1928, Fred McFeely Rogers began work in television with variety programs such as The Voice of Firestone and The Lucky Strike Hit Parade. In November, 1953, Rogers moved back to his roots and western Pennsylvania where he began working with WQED, the nation's first community-supported public television station. Rogers began experimenting with children's programming while at WQED, including the award-winning Children's Corner, which contained the puppets and other details of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. During this period, Rogers began studying child development and became an ordained Presbyterian minister. Each of these sensibilities infuse his on-air persona.

After the 1966 release of Fred Rogers' similar program called Miste Rogers Neighborhood, his renamed Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was released nationally in 1968. That same year, Rogers was appointed Chairman of the Forum on Mass Media and Child Development of the White House Conference on Children and Youth. Rogers had become a leading spokesmen in American education and particularly how the television medium would be utilized. He steered the programming toward a non-commercial format that could be easily coordinated with classroom use. By 1971 he had created Family Communications, Inc., a company dedicated to children and providing educational support to the families and people who care for them.

Rogers has resisted the flamboyant staging of some children's programs for a conservative, unchanging appearance. Each show begins and ends in the living room of Mister Rogers' "television house." At the opening of each show, Mister Rogers invites the television viewer to be his neighbor and enters his house, hangs up his coat in the closet, slips into his cardigan sweater, and changes into his sneakers. From his living room, Rogers introduces the viewer to a new idea or object that will be the focus of the show for the day or week. After his brief introduction, Mister Rogers takes time to visit other people in his neighborhood or places where everyday things are made like a balloon or crayon factory, for example.

Aside from Mister Rogers' seemingly intimate conversation with the viewer, his "television neighbor," the most engaging action of the program includes the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe," a puppet kingdom ruled by King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday and inhabited by several other puppets and humans. To help children make a distinction between real and pretend, none of the characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe ever appear in Mister Rogers' "real" world. Despite advances in visual technology, the conveyor between the "real" world of Mister Rogers' living room and the imaginary world of make-believe remains a mechanical trolley. Often the themes in the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" revolve around the management of feelings, but are consistent with the theme introduced by Mister Rogers at the beginning of the show. During each visit to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe puppets and humans use cooperative and constructive problem-solving. While the puppets try to understand and resolve their emotional troubles, the humans mediate and help console them, often in song. Some of the songs include "What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel (When You Feel So Mad You Could Bite?)" and "There Are Many Ways (To Say I Love You)." Through his resistance to more modern technologies, supporters say, Rogers has created a timeless program that appeals to any viewer from any era.

While many comedians have parodied Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (most memorably Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live), educators have backed-up Rogers' claim that consistency is crucial for young viewers. Though many educational programs in the 1980s and 1990s have used more compromised standards, Rogers has largely refused alteration. The show remains based on the premise that if children feel comfortable and welcome they will be more open to learning new things. Despite remaining out of the marketing loop, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood reaches almost eight million households and child-care settings each week. There are nearly 700 episodes in the series, and Rogers continues to write and produce several weeks of new programs each season, adding freshness and immediacy to what has become the longest-running children's program on public television. Fred Rogers has received more than 30 honorary degrees from universities, and in 1998, his commitment to children and public broadcasting was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Emmies.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Barcus, Francis Earle. Images of Life on Children's Television: Sex Roles, Minorities, and Families. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.

Collins, Mark, editor. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: Children, Television, and Fred Rogers. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Hendershot, Heather. Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation Before the V-Chip. Durham, Duke University Press, 1998.