Editor’s Note: This column originally published on USA Today’s opinion page.
It was 1997 and I was seated at Fred Rogers’ table at a Children and Media Conference. I might as well have been sitting with Justin Timberlake or Bruce Springsteen. This was the KING of preschool television!
I couldn’t believe it. I was instantly transformed back to my 4-year-old self. At 4, I was Fred’s No. 1 fan. I never missed an episode, and I could not sit any closer to the television when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on. I talked to him through the TV.
Mister Rogers was someone who…
Seemed to look at me … and really listen. He looked me in the eye, albeit through the television screen, and told me he liked me just the way I was — and I believed him.
He was the calm voice in my loud Italian household. He was the voice that spoke to me, on my level, about my feelings, and explained, without talking down to me, some of the harder concepts I needed to learn.
Because of Mister Rogers, I stood taller, had more confidence, and knew that there was only one person in the world exactly like me. And it was a good feeling.
I’ve always considered Fred my mentor from afar
As an eighth grader, while my classmates wrote about famous sports heroes or astronauts, I chose Fred Rogers as the subject of an essay paper about someone I looked up to.
I was interested in television production and soon realized that Fred was an anomaly. He had a master’s degree in child developmental psychology.
He went into children’s television because he had something important to say to kids, and truth be told, he didn’t like what was being broadcast to them at the time.
He believed that children deserved more than pratfalls and silliness and that television could be used to teach a socio-emotional curriculum to preschoolers.
“What is mentionable is manageable,” Fred believed. And, of course, he also continues to inspire us all with his famous plea for support for the value of public broadcasting in 1969 to the U.S. Senate which resulted in PBS’ $20 million grant.
Armed with my master’s in developmental psychology, I headed out into the world to honor Fred and make my own dent in children’s media.
Premiering in 1996, my first show was Blue’s Clues — an educational and interactive “game show” that taught preschoolers everything they needed to know before they entered kindergarten.
My mission was to give kids a voice, to be heard, to know that if they do the work, practice and “take a step at a time,” they can do anything that they want to do.
Like Fred in the late 60s, I too, in the 90s, wanted to change the course of children’s media. In the 90s, television was becoming a vehicle for toy-based “commercials.” I wanted to bring it back to its educational roots that I grew up with on Mister Rogers and Sesame Street.
Blue’s Clues became a huge “breakthrough” success, and in press I talked about our deliberately slow pace, our direct eye contact through the camera and our educational mission.
In each interview, I pointed to the work of Fred Rogers as inspiration. This was the reason why I found myself sitting on the other side of Fred’s table at a luncheon.
Meeting Fred in person
I couldn’t eat as I sat at his table and watched him speak to his colleagues with that easy warm way about him and interested gaze that made you feel like you were the only person in the room.
It seemed clear to me that he was as kind and empathetic as his on-camera persona. Across the table, he caught my eye and smiled at me. I, shyly, smiled back and got up the courage to walk over to his side of the table, crouch down next to him, and say hello.
I took a deep breath and in my New York fast-paced style said, “I-just- wanted-you-to-know-the-whole-reason-I-went-into-children’s-television- was-because-of-you and if my shows could reach just one child the way you reached and inspired me than I will feel I have done my job.” Smooth.
I paused to take a breath (or rather, gasp for air) and Fred smiled, and said, very slowly and methodically, “What is your name?”
I laughed and as if we had all the time in the world, we started our conversation all over again. As it happens, he still thought most children’s television programs were missing the mark, but he did recognize and appreciate the child development foundation in my work.
Overjoyed, I told him that our “Blue skidoo” was a transition device inspired by his Trolley. I told him that Steve talking directly to camera was because of how much I felt Mister Rogers had talked directly to me as a preschooler.
Fred’s smile broadened, and his eyes misted over. Then he said, looking right at me, “I’m so proud of you.” And this time it wasn’t through the television.
After Fred died, I was given the opportunity, by The Fred Rogers’ Company, to create a new show.
This was my chance to truly promote Fred’s legacy, to take a walk in his shoes, to bring his beloved characters back to life in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood for PBS.
As you can imagine, I cried because that 4-year-old little girl finally got to skidoo right into the television set and play with her Neighborhood of Make Believe friends, for real.
Bringing Daniel to the world has been a love project and I knew would elevate Fred, once again, in 2017, as a voice that we all still need to hear.
It has been nearly 50 years since that passionate plea to the U. S. Senate, and it would seem safe to assume that in such a length of time, so much would have changed and that Fred’s words to the Senate would be more historical than relevant nowadays. But here’s the thing:
They’re not. At all.
Meaningful content is quality content
In 1969, that Senate Subcommittee speech spoke of the importance of media content to help young children process the world around them: the inner drama of childhood, such as feelings towards siblings and friends, the anger that sometimes arises in family situations.
Meaningful content is quality content, regardless of the size or shape of the screen it’s delivered on. No doubt the channels and formats that feed us content have changed dramatically over the years, but one thing has held true: There are universal truths to childhood that Fred Rogers needed to address almost 50 years ago, and that I still know are essential to address today.
The power of understanding and believing in your preschool audience cannot be overstated. After all these years, the value of public broadcasting has never wavered, and the responsibility of children’s media creators to stay true to the needs of our youngest audience has never weakened.
I still look at the picture of me holding Fred’s sneakers as I create new shows for kids as a reminder to walk in Fred’s shoes, and try to change the world … one show at a time.
Angela Santomero, co-creator of Blue’s Clues; and the creator of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, is author of Preschool Clues: Raising Smart, Inspired and Engaged Kids in a Screen-Filled World out this April.
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