Meet the cub of the tiger of the house that Fred built
Daniel Tiger inherits the Neighborhood
It hasn’t been a truly beautiful day in the neighborhood for more than 10 years. Not since Fred Rogers, star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for 33 years, hung up his red cardigan sweater for the last time in 2001. He had made 900 episodes of TV’s most gently nurturing programs for children.
A couple of years later, in early 2003, Rogers died of stomach cancer and, though his nonprofit company lived on, his Neighborhood became a ghost town, existing only in reruns. Two years ago, PBS cut the number of reruns on its national schedule to one a week — at 6 a.m. Saturday. Now barely over half of PBS stations broadcast the old show.
But now there’s a new Neighborhood on the horizon. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, announced earlier this summer, is being carefully and lovingly produced by Rogers fans and disciples. Their goal is to preserve the best of the old series as they modernize it.
The first of 80 quarter-hour segments of the show will premiere in fall 2012, just as PBS’s rights to the original expire. The product of a decade of discussion and planning. the new series departs from its predecessor in several key respects.
Instead of centering the show on a live host in a cardigan, with a supporting cast that’s mostly puppets, the new series will be animated. Instead of targeting a broader age range of kids, it will be aimed narrowly at children two to five years old. Instead of an adult at the center of the series, the spotlight will be on an inquisitive four-year-old tiger.
But this Neighborhood, just like the original, will still be a place for children to figure out what cooperating, sharing and waiting your turn is all about, as well as how to deal with emotions. Like the original, this series will still be that rare exception in the PBS lineup of children’s shows that addresses emotional and social issues rather than giving kids an early start in reading, science or math.
It was never preordained that the Fred Rogers Co. would or could develop a successor series. Family Communications, as it was known during Rogers’ life, had never produced a TV show other than Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Five years after the last episode was made and three years after Rogers’ death, there had been only talk.
Then the company hired as its chief operating officer Kevin Morrison. The Brit was experienced in TV and family entertainment but had never met Rogers. “My only connection with Fred was having watched him a lot with a three-year-old son on my lap,” Morrison said.
The company that Rogers left behind kept busy with sponsored seminars and research on childhood development but had not made any significant effort to return to TV production.
“The company was searching for somebody to help move them into a new direction,” Morrison recalled. “From the moment I showed up, I said, ‘I think you have made a major contribution to public television in the last 40 years and I think you should continue to do that. You can’t do it with Fred, but there are other ways you can do it. And that’s what I think you should do.’
The next step was finding a producing partner. “We’re a small organization with about a dozen people,” Morrison said. “The order of the day is not to produce Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood but to do something else, and we don’t have anybody who actually knows how to go about that.”
Morrison spoke with several potential partners but soon recognized that teaming with Angela Santomero was the equivalent of hitting the trifecta.
First, as creator of Blue’s Clues on Nickelodeon as well as Super Why! on PBS, she knew children’s TV inside and out. Second, she and her company, Out of the Blue Enterprises, were recognized and respected within PBS. Third, she was an enormous fan of Rogers, and he had admired her work.
“When Fred visited my office once, it was like a rock performer walked in,” she said.
Still another similarity: Santomero has a master’s degree in child development psychology, and Rogers had never tired of learning more about the subject.
Gradually, the outline of a new series began to form. Even though the intended preschool audience had most likely never heard of Fred Rogers, and even though Blue’s Clues had replaced one host with another, Morrison and Santomero agreed that no one could fill Fred Rogers’ sneakers.
“Nobody gave that any thought,” Morrison said. “That was always a nonstarter, because Fred was unique and irreplaceable.”
“We would not want to replace Fred Rogers,” Santomero said. “You can’t. That kind of person can’t be found. He is born. You cannot find another actor to do that. The only interest I had was to take his theories and his music and his Neighborhood of Make Believe and create a show for this generation of kids that’s based on his principles.”
Morrison was consulted on creative decisions and retained veto power, but he said he largely turned development of the series over to Santomero: “There’s an old English expression which goes, ‘You don’t buy a dog and bark yourself.’ And having entered into a very productive relationship with Angela and signed off on her vision, we’re not telling her how to do it.”
Meanwhile, PBS could do little until Morrison and Santomero made their pitch.
“We had been in discussions with the Fred Rogers Co. for a long time, ever since the end of the Mister Rogers series,” said Lesli Rotenberg, the network’s senior v.p. of children’s media. “It took a long time because we all cared so much about getting it right and finding the right partners. I would say the development took off when the Fred Rogers Co. got together with Out of the Blue Enterprises.
That’s when the magic happened in terms of bringing both their visions together and making something that we, for the first time, saw as a series that would be successful.”
At about that time, Rotenberg was getting feedback from her newly created Next Generation Advisory Board. She had established the board, comprised of child psychologists, child psychiatrists and early-learning specialists, to tell PBS what type of children’s show was needed most. The board recommended a series that showed children the social skills needed to do well in kindergarten.
And who better to do a show about self-control and playing with others than the company that pioneered TV lessons in that touchy-feely territory?
“We’re teaching kids strategy to deal with school readiness,” Santomero said. And the strategy will be delivered with music, just like Mr. Rogers used to do.
“For instance, one of Fred’s famous songs is ‘What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?’ And we showcase a new version of that song at the end of the pilot episode. The strategy is ‘When you feel so bad you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.’ We show little kids being very angry and then we show them calming down, using the strategy and figuring out a solution to their problem.”
At PBS, Linda Simensky, v.p. for children’s programming, was responsible for the show.
“Angela and I go way back,” Simensky said. “We worked together at Nickelodeon. She was one of the first people I brought in to be a show creator after I got here.” After Simensky moved to PBS, they collaborated on Super Why! “Angela and I see eye to eye. I like the way she does her research. I like the way she thinks about things.”
At the same time, Simensky had years of animation expertise gleaned from work at Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and the Cartoon Network, as well as a lifetime of love for cartoons. She joined PBS when her son turned two and began watching TV. “I found that I really didn’t want him to watch anything I was working on at the Cartoon Network, and I had a little bit of a life crisis after that.”
All the while, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was taking shape.
Santomero’s plan was to design a show around the descendants of the characters that appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Accordingly, the first-generation characters had grown up and now have kids of their own.
The son of Rogers’ shy hand puppet Daniel Striped Tiger became Daniel Tiger, a round-faced, bright-eyed toon, who emerged as “the natural star of the show,” Santomero said. “And we ended up putting him in a little red sweater and sneakers as an homage to Fred.”
Other characters developed quickly, all related to the originals. Prince Wednesday is the son of King Friday and Queen Sara. Miss Elaina is the daughter of Lady Elaine Fairchilde. Katerina Kittycat is the child of Henrietta Pussycat, and O the Owl is the nephew of X the Owl. Reprising their former roles, albeit as cartoons, are Mr. McFeely and, of course, the Trolley.
Simensky claims credit for only two decisions about the new series.
“In the pilot, there’s a moment when Daniel asks to handle a cake and it gets all smushed. This actually happened with my son,” Simensky said. Researchers opposed the plot line, arguing that this made Daniel look as if he can’t get things right. Simensky insisted it would up the stakes a bit and strengthen the story about disappointment. Besides, she reasoned, he comes out of the mess feeling good and viewers won’t feel sorry for him, either.
Each half-hour episode consists of two stories. Simensky’s second suggestion for the series was that the message from the first segment be reinforced in the second. “We hadn’t done that with any shows or, if we had, it wasn’t on purpose.”
The Rogers company auditioned a number of animation houses and selected 9 Story Entertainment, a nine-year-old Toronto studio owned by Nelvana Enterprises. The studio previously produced episodes of Wild Kratts, Peep and the Big Wide World, Pound Puppies and Wibbly Pig.
Online games and digital apps are being designed by Schell Games, which has offices in Pittsburgh and Austin, Texas. The games will teach school readiness and explore social/emotional issues, Simensky said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s really innovative. That’s what I’m really excited about.”
“Every show that we do for PBS Kids has to have something that either breaks the rule or is innovative in some way or does something that no one has done before,” Simensky said. “In this case, what we’ve got is a school-readiness curriculum that doesn’t hold back.”
The business model for the show is much the same as for most PBS shows. PBS pays less than half the cost of production, and the Fred Rogers Co. and Out of the Blue Enterprises contribute and raise additional funds.
In return, PBS gets exclusive rights to the show in the U.S. and a percentage of the ancillary revenue from DVDs, dolls and so forth that is roughly in line with the percentage of its overall contribution, Rotenberg said.
Ancillary revenues for really big shows can be considerable. For an extraordinary hit like Santomero’s Blue’s Clues, the highest-rated show for preschoolers on commercial television, with sales of more than 10 million books by 2001, licensing fees brought in more than $1 billion in five years to Nickelodeon’s owner, Viacom, and other stakeholders.
Even if Santomero didn’t have that business success, her company and Rogers’ give Daniel an impressive lineage.
“I think the expectations are going to be really high on this one,” Rotenberg said. “We have a high level of confidence here that we got this one right and that next fall it will be embraced by fans and lovers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and by people who have never heard of that series.”
Corrections: The print edition of this story gave the wrong job title for Kevin Morrison, who is chief operating officer. The chief executive officer is William Isler.
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Copyright 2011 American University