PBS objects to fundraiser by ‘successor’ to Mister Rogers

By Dru Sefton

PBS is accusing a San Diego teenager of “falsely claiming association” with the network and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He is selling tickets for a May 31 gala event where, according to a news release by his publicist, he will present himself as successor to the late Fred Rogers.

Michael Kinsell says he has six episodes of Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood ready to go. (Photo: Children’s Media Foundation)

Michael Kinsell says he has six episodes of Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood ready to go. (Photo: Children’s Media Foundation)

Michael Kinsell, who told Current he is 18, said he has produced six episodes of a new show, Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood.

Kinsell described the benefit event, to be held at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, as a tribute to Rogers that will raise funds for “children’s public television” and, he hopes, for his own new show.

He said he invited members of Rogers’ family to receive a Children’s Hero Award in Rogers’ honor and said he will give $10,000 in mid-June to Family Communications Inc., Rogers’ production company in Pittsburgh.

In a complaint this month to the California Attorney General’s office obtained by Current, PBS says that Kinsell, with event publicity falsely associating himself with PBS and Rogers, could divert funds to his nonprofit from the network and Rogers’ company.

Reached over the weekend, PBS spokesperson Jan McNamara said, “PBS has no affiliation with Michael Kinsell.” The network’s complaint states that both PBS and Family Communications have “spoken personally” with Michael Kinsell and sent him cease-and-desist letters.

“This event may set a record of the biggest celebrity turnout in the history for San Diego,” said the event’s website.

Kinsell said that he was “not at liberty” to say who would appear at the gala, but “foundation supporters” include Bette Midler, Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Barbara Eden and Eddie Murphy. “That’s kind of our way of saying they will be on stage that night, but scheduling stars is difficult,” he added.

PBS apparently looked into Kinsell’s talent arrangements. In its complaint it said a talent agent for the tribute, “having been repeatedly assured by Kinsell that it is a PBS-sanctioned event,” booked an entertainer who delayed a trip to entertain U.S troops in Iraq to participate. PBS did not identify the performer.

The event’s website, childrensheroaward.com, lists ticket prices ranging from $75 to $300. For $500, it says, a ticketholder will receive a “dinner with the stars (limited to 400 guests).”

Kinsell wouldn’t say how many tickets have been sold. He said the capacity of the Escondido concert hall is 1,523, and he expects the tickets to sell out.

A spokeswoman for the arts center confirmed Kinsell has rented its main concert hall. She said the center is not involved with the event.

Kinsell, his show and the gala are “in no way are connected” to PBS or Rogers’ production company in Pittsburgh, Family Communications Inc., said FCI Chief Operating Officer Kevin Morrison. “Both organizations on a number of occasions have asked Mr. Kinsell to stop using logos, trademarks and copyrighted materials.”

In a certified letter sent to Kinsell May 5, PBS said it and Family Communications had contacted Kinsell previously and asked him to cease and desist from associating himself with PBS, FCI and PBS member stations.

Kinsell denied receiving “anything like that.” He said he got “a few e-mails” from FCI, “and the only thing they said was to be careful if we used (Rogers’) picture.” A photo and a video of Rogers appear on the event website.

The site bills the happening as “An Evening Honoring Fred M. Rogers, His Family, Friends and the 40th Anniversary of his PBS classic, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

FCI’s Morrison said no one from the Rogers family will be attending. Some fans of Rogers have called FCI in Pittsburgh to say they’ve purchased tickets, thinking erroneously that the production company is involved.

Kinsell said the gala will be taped for use by PBS as a pledge show. But in the certified letter, PBS rejected an offer to distribute the show. PBS said it received correspondence from Kinsell April 20 that attempted “to donate all rights” to the show. The letter said PBS “absolutely does not accept” the program, and “the apparent attempt to legitimize the program by falsely associating it” with PBS is “grounds for legal and possibly regulatory actions.”

The letter identifies Kinsell’s “alleged charities” as the Children’s Media Foundation and the National Endowment for Children’s Educational Media. (The latter name is similar to that of a now-inactive federal entity created by Congress in the 1970s, the National Endowment for Children’s Educational Television.)

The event website explains: “The National Endowment for Children’s Educational Media was created by Children’s Media Foundation to support the development and production of television programming that enhances the education of children. He said the endowment provides matching grants for television productions to supplement current children’s programs that strengthen “intellectual, emotional, and social skills of children.”

Kinsell wouldn’t say how either group is funded or what assets they hold.

A Neighborhood of his own

In addition to organizing the gala, Kinsell said he’s also been working on Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood. He refers to it as “the new children’s TV program I am currently hosting.”

What is missing on children’s television is a show to carry on Rogers’ ideals, he said. “What we did in Michael’s Neighborhood, we followed the concepts pioneered by Rogers,” he said. “The emotional drama of childhood, the feelings to expect when a pet dies, or a baby comes, or I feel so mad I want to bite someone.”

He approached San Diego public TV/radio licensee KPBS early in 2008 for production help. “But we never began filming,” he said. KPBS gave him a proposal and “had done all the work with me,” he  said, “but the funding wasn’t there.”

Kinsell said he eventually taped six episodes at a private studio in Miramar, Calif., after “we stabilized financially.”

In the program, he said, he has “a visit with my television friend, looking through the lens of the camera.” Many programs in addition to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood have had performers speak to the camera, he added.

He further described his show in a February 2008 interview in the student newspaper at San Diego’s Point Loma Nazarene University, which he was attending.

In the show, Kinsell told the newspaper he sings a song, “It’s a Lovely Day to Play,” and visits puppet characters King Kindly, Queen Abigail and Prince Nicely. (Kinsell said this week he has dropped the puppets as the show has evolved.)

Rogers sang “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” and visits King Friday, Queen Sara and Prince Tuesday.

Accompanying the interview was a photo of Kinsell in a red buttoned cardigan, tying his sneakers. He said the photograph “was just a funny picture.”

He said he and his mother, Liz Kinsell, have funded his show and the gala on their own.

Liz Kinsell told Current that for years she’s been financing “all these endeavors” through her tax-preparation business.

How much are they putting up for the gala? “Let’s just say it’s a tremendously significant amount of money, around and over $100,000 at this time. But it’s for a good cause.” She cited the need to bring attention to quality television programming for youngsters.

Liz Kinsell also said she and Michael had not received any cease-and-desist orders from PBS. However, they were told by the network “not to say that we’re partnering with PBS, and we’re not,” she said. “We have to make sure everything remains legal.”

Michael Kinsell said he hopes Family Communications will accept the $10,000 donation. “I can’t see why they wouldn’t,” he said. In this economy, “everyone is in need of help.”

He said that Fred Rogers “did win this award” from the foundation. “And if he was alive and called to decline it, or if someone said that on his behalf when he was alive, then, fine, we would have done something else.”

“But the fact is, he can’t speak for himself.”

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