In 1969, a cost-cutting measure by the US Congress threatened to slash the funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Congress called for hearings on the matter and the issue rested on the testimony by children's television host Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers discarded the idea of simply reading the printed material and instead spent about six minutes speaking openly and honestly about the benefits of educational children's television to the US Senate Subcommittee on Communications headed by Sen. John Pastore (D-R.I.), who was, until that point, unfamiliar with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1928, and earned a B.A. in Music Composition from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, in 1951. He had originally planned to attend seminary, but during Spring Break of his senior year, he visited his parents in Pennsylvania and for the first time saw a television set and the shows that were broadcast on it. He then told his parents that he wanted to enter the television business to bring a higher quality of entertainment to the medium. He later explained, "I got into television because I saw people throwing pies at each other's faces, and that to me was such a demeaning behavior. And if there's anything that bothers me, it's one person demeaning another. That really makes me mad!"
He applied for work in television in New York, and accepted an offer to work on various NBC musical shows, which he started on October 1, 1951. In 1952, he married Sara Byrd, whom he had met in Florida, and in the following year he moved to Pittsburgh, where he became co-producer and head musician and puppeteer for The Children's Corner. During his lunch breaks, he continued his seminary studies at the Western (later Pittsburgh) Theological Seminary; the ordaining body, however, hesitated to ordain a minister who had no intention of starting or adopting his own church. A plan to have the ordaining body produce a children's TV program itself as an outreach tool failed when the financing fell through and the concept was cancelled.
Only a day later, Fred Rogers received a call from Dr. Fred Rainsberry, head of children's programming for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Dr. Rainsberry, impressed by the rapport which Rogers had with children, offered him a 15-minute daily children's show to air all across Canada, and the show MisteRogers was born. The next year, Fred Rogers graduated from the seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and in 1966 he was able to move the shows to WQED in Pittsburgh, with a slight name change to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Two years later, thanks to a show-saving donation from Sears Roebuck, the show went national.
Years later, Mr. Rogers explained to Sen. Pastore that shows like his offered an alternative to what he called the animated "bombardment" typical of many cartoons. "We deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood. We don't have to bop somebody over the head to make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as getting a haircut, or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations, and we speak to it constructively."
He continued, "I give an expression of care every day to each child to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, 'You've made this day a special day by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are." And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we would have done a great service for mental health." Rogers impressed Pastore enough to save Public Television's financing on the spot.
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood ran for another 32 years, an entire generation, and Rogers himself won a Lifetime Emmy and, in 2002, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was the Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses parade the following January, and died about two months later, peacefully in his bed, with his wife of 51 years by his side.
Links and Sources:
The testimony of Fred Rogers before Congress, available on YouTube here.
A (long) interview with him appears on the Archive of American Television here.
Video of him accepting his Lifetime Emmy is on YouTube here.
The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, by Amy Hollingsworth, Thomas Nelson, 2005. The quote of Mr. Rogers about demeaning television is from this book.
BW photo of Mr. Rogers is from PBS Television.
"Mr. Rogers Goes to Washington" © 2015 by James Husband.