Rogers’ colleagues plan new series, research unit

Published in Current, March 12, 2007
By Karen Everhart

Family Communications Inc., the nonprofit built around the late children’s TV producer and host Fred Rogers, has set its course to extend Rogers’ legacy. 

Under the leadership of new Chief Operating Officer Kevin Morrison, the company recently began seeking outside partners to create a new children’s television show — what they hope will be a worthy successor to the longrunning PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The PBS series ended production in 2001, two years before Rogers’ death, but continues to air on most PBS stations.

Morrison, a British media executive who relocated from Los Angeles last summer to become FCI’s c.o.o., sees the new endeavor as the best option to revitalize the 36-year-old company based at Pittsburgh’s WQED-TV/FM.

Since December Rogers has been memorialized outside the station with a statue that took some artistic license with Rogers’ gentle persona — a fanciful fiberglass dinosaur (Fredosaurus Rex Friday XIII) wearing Rogers’ signature attire — red cardigan and blue tennis shoes — and holding his puppets King Friday XIII and Henrietta Pussycat. It was one of 100 dinosaur statues erected during Pittsburgh’s DinoMite Days.

Rogers died at age 74 in February 2003 after a brief battle with stomach cancer. Family Communications’ staff of 14 carried on, continuing to provide services supporting Neighborhood broadcasts, upgrading the series’ companion website on PBSKids.org and producing training materials for preschool teachers, caregivers and parents.

Refugee from L.A.

Morrison, a former production exec for Central Television, the commercial broadcaster then serving Britain’s Midlands, spent the previous two decades making TV in Los Angeles. In the 1980s he was sent to America to help lead Central’s expansion into the U.S. television market, and he later moved to Zodiac Entertainment, an animation company in which he had invested. Morrison also had stints heading Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment and other companies.

“I wanted to get out of L.A., which was no longer a place I enjoyed living,” Morrison told Current. He had been looking for jobs in the nonprofit sector, where he felt he would find “far greater job satisfaction,” when a headhunter told him that FCI was looking for a new leader.

When asked during interviews what he envisioned for the nonprofit in five years, Morrison said: “‘You’ve got to do a new program or there won’t be an FCI in five years.’ I think everybody else signed on to that,” he said.

For its entire existence, FCI was “built around Fred Rogers, and its purpose was to make Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and support Fred,” Morrison said. Without Rogers, the nonprofit had to examine “what it’s for if Fred’s not here,” Morrison said.

FCI began soliciting proposals from outside producers last year, looking to negotiate development deals with established children’s television producers who share Rogers’ philosophy and can bring “a fresh perspective and new ideas,” Morrison said. Since shuttering production of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 2001, FCI lacks the staff and the resources to mount a new production on its own, he said.

FCI set basic criteria for program concepts it will consider. The show will serve preschool children and address their social and emotional development. “Unlike other shows on television, it’s not our job to teach ABCs or how to count or about science,” Morrison said. “It’s about what Mister Rogers was about — getting ready to learn. It’s about emotional and social issues. There aren’t many programs in that category at the moment.” 

Morrison plans to sign more than one development deal and present concepts to PBS. “We hope to be at the presentation stage later this year,” he said, “but I won’t put an artificial timetable on it because we have to get it right.”

Anyone who thinks that “the people who inherit the Mister Rogers tradition are a bunch of fuddy-duddies will be surprised because we’re not,” Morrison said. “We think there’s value in everything that Fred did because it’s timeless, and we can come up with formats” that address today’s children. 

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood continues to air on stations reaching more than 80 percent of U.S. television households, as of January, and PBS’s license to distribute the series extends through next year. But fewer major-market stations broadcast it in January than 17 months ago, according to carriage information provided by TV Guide to the pubTV research firm TRAC Media Services. Since October 2005, the earliest month covered in TRAC’s database, carriage of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the Nielsen’s top 25 markets dropped from 96 percent to 72 percent.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is “part of the daily feed and will be this year and next year,” Morrison said. “You can’t say that for many other programs.” 

“We have to be honest with ourselves and say it isn’t going to last forever, even for ordinary reasons like that it’s not available in digital high-definition format and so on,” Morrison said. “We have a duty to try and keep it out there and give it to as many people as want it and explore new ways of making it available to people.”

Rogers’ legacy in research

Rogers’ colleagues have also created a sister organization to FCI, which Rogers himself began developing, building on his interest in child development. The Fred M. Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, established in 2003 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., recently appointed its first senior fellow, children’s media researcher Ellen Wartella.

The center says its mission is to “advance the state of early learning and children’s media by acting as a catalyst for communication, collaboration and creative change across both fields.”

Working as a “virtual fellow,” Wartella will conduct an environmental scan of the organizations and projects currently addressing the role of media in young children’s lives. She will do the work from the University of California in Riverside, where she is executive vice chancellor, provost and distinguished professor of psychology.

Bill Isler, FCI president since 1995, is executive director of the Center. The two organizations are governed separately, Isler said, but are collaborating on efforts to create a central repository for materials and knowledge that defined Rogers’ approach to children’s educational television. Rogers’ widow, Joanne Byrd Rogers, is board chair for Family Communications and honorary chair of the Rogers Center. 

Reported with assistance from Emily Jo Boots.

Web page posted May 24, 2009
Copyright 2007 by Current LLC

EARLIER ARTICLES

Rogers died in March 2003, about two years after ceasing production of his show.

LINK

Rogers' production company, Family Communications Inc., Pittsburgh.

The Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., studies children's and family issues.

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