The best films provide us with an escape, and inspiration.
I recently fled the blazing hot summer sun for the cool comfort of a theater to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary about children’s TV host Fred Rogers. Away from the vitriol of social media and today’s political discourse, I bathed in filmmaker Morgan Neville’s thoughtful illumination of how Rogers changed the media landscape by speaking slowly, soothingly, and directly to the heart of each of the millions of children who visited his Neighborhood every day. I came away inspired that this kinder, gentler approach might still point the way forward: maybe for our society, and certainly for children’s media.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted in 1968, when most programming for children featured fast-paced lunacy, pies in the face, and frenetic cartoons. His show bucked those trends, opting for a slower pace and gentler tone meant to lift kids up. At the height of the Vietnam War and soon after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood spoke to children thoughtfully about processing those traumatic events. “I think silence is one of the greatest gifts we have,” Rogers says in the film.
I was eager to ask psychologist Susan Linn her impressions of the film – not just because she’s the founder and former Executive Director of CCFC and has researched and written extensively about the impact of media and marketing on children, but because she actually worked with Fred Rogers. On several episodes beginning in 1971, Linn visited Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and lovingly voiced her puppets Audrey Duck and Catalion. The puppets even visited the Neighborhood of Make-Believe sans Susan.
Linn says the filmmaker did a fantastic job of capturing what Fred Rogers was like and why people love him. “The story about his impact on people drives the response that the film has gotten today,” she told me, “but back then, he and the show were undervalued. Sesame Street came on a year after, and was hip and catered to adults as well as children, and was much more fun for adults to watch, and dealt with less subtle things. I think there was a lot of misunderstanding about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. People thought he was square. They thought the show was so 1950’s. In fact, it’s probably the most radical children’s television show ever.”
Rogers refused to use his platform to market toys and breakfast cereal to kids. In the film, he laments that in the U.S., “a child is appreciated for what he will be. He will be a great consumer someday.” “Of course,” says Linn, “today, kids are not being trained by media to be future consumers, they’re being trained to be consumers now. We have to ask ourselves, if a program is built on principles of healthy child development, but supports itself by selling junk food, toys, or anything to kids, is that show really good for children?”
In 2018, media producers gush guiltlessly in industry publications about how their new cartoon concepts — with enriching themes of kindness and compassion toward others — already have an internet and social media plan to “deepen engagement” by young viewers. In other words, before the first episode is even created, the producers know exactly how they will make kids want to buy the toys, games, and other products emblazoned with licensed characters. “Fred Rogers would have been absolutely appalled at companies wanting to encourage kids to nag their parents,” says Linn of this new landscape. “That’s antithetical to the child development principles he followed. He put children first.”
For Rogers, putting children first meant doing more than producing quality, meaningful, commercial-free television. It meant promoting policies that support children’s needs. In 1969, the U.S. Senate convened a hearing to consider slashing $20 million which was earmarked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Rhode Island Senator John Pastore, who chaired the hearing, was skeptical of the need for the funds and antsy to end the hearing, when it was Fred Rogers’ turn to testify. Rogers spoke directly to the Senator’s heart, as he softly explained what Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about. “This is what I give. I give an expression of care, every day, to each child.” Pastore’s icy shell melted instantly, and he sat rapt as Rogers recited the lyrics of a song about how boys and girls can channel anger in a healthy way. When Rogers finished (Spoiler Alert!), Pastore waved a hand and said “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the twenty million dollars.”
Fred Rogers’ genuine, kind approach succeeded in uplifting a generation of kids, and his message to put children first still resonates deeply here at CCFC and in schools and homes across the world. It should resonate just as loudly in halls of government and corporate board rooms. And with Rogers gone, it’s up to us to raise our voices.