Fred Rogers' attitude toward electronic media perfectly mirrored the love/hate relationship many of us have with technology today. "I got into television because I hated it so," he told CNN in 2001
. Over decades, he reached millions of households and won every award in the business. His position was simple: TV is here to stay, and its ubiquity and power must be harnessed to help our youngest and most vulnerable.
"In a young child's mind, parents probably condone what's on the television, just like they choose what's in the refrigerator or on the stove," he once said in an interview. "That's why we who make television for children must be especially careful."
Yet his position was ambiguous, for even as he condemned most television he became one of the century's most embraced TV personalities. The film portrays him as basically single-handedly saving public media with his heartfelt testimony
to a Senate panel in 1969.
Today, the debate about both the quality and quantity of children's media use is hotter than ever. Four in 10 children under 8 have their own handheld device, and they spent nearly an hour a day with them
, according to one 2017 study.
Leaving aside the question of dosage, how much of that content could, or should, parents condone?
Public television still exists, and there are highly rated apps and games
from commercial providers. But streaming video like YouTube has flooded the market for kids' media. It gives children instant access to millions of hours of content, a lot of which is probably ill-suited, and some of which doesn't even seem to be made by human hands
Which leads to the question: Could a show like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood succeed today? Would 2018's children sit still to watch a man take off his loafers and lace up his sneakers, and to watch a little trolley trundle off into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe?
There are some gently paced
shows for preschoolers, although nothing quite as slow as the original Neighborhood. Very few are live-action, except for good old Sesame Street.
In content? "Fred Rogers pretty much invented [social and emotional learning] as a topic for a show," says Linda Simensky, the vice president of children's programming at PBS. In 2013, they debuted Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood
, an animated reboot of the Mister Rogers universe. The show is streamed millions of times a month, mostly on mobile devices.
Each episode uses a song to teach a strategy for dealing with an emotion, including fear, anger and frustration. "The whole curriculum is based on Fred's research and teaching," Simensky says.
Daniel Tiger tackles potty training, allergies, and Mom going to work. But, now in its fourth season, it hasn't taken on politics or current events.
The good news is that Mr. Rogers left us enough episodes that there is one to fit almost anything that might come up in the news today.
In one episode from the very first week of the show, the hand-puppet King Friday XIII opposes change. So he decides to build a wall around his kingdom. Some of the other puppets and people float balloons over the wall with messages like LOVE and PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE, warming the king's heart. The wall comes down.