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October 13, 2015

New Times, New Tiger

The Fred Rogers legacy looks to a new generation

Libby Slate

As he zips up a jacket and dons his shoes, a friendly figure on the PBS Kids network sings a familiar tune: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Won’t you be my neighbor?”

But this isn’t Fred Rogers, the beloved late creator and star of the children’s educational classic Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s Daniel Tiger, four-year-old “son” of the puppet Daniel Striped Tiger from the original series. This new Daniel stars in the animated series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, set in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, also a staple of Rogers’s show.

Premiering in September 2012, this Neighborhood is the first of three original programs from the Fred Rogers Company (all airing on PBS Kids) that have been produced since Rogers’s death in February 2003. The math-themed Peg + Cat, airing since October 2013, is for kids aged three to six, while the core audience for Odd Squad, which premiered in November, and involves problem-solving via math, is aged five to eight.

“Fred felt very strongly about the power of television and the responsibility that makers of television wield,” says Paul Siefken, vice-president of broadcast and digital programming of the Rogers Company (known during Rogers’s life as Family Communications, Inc.). “We hold that power and responsibility close.”

In the Rogers tradition, Siefken explains, the current shows present age-appropriate social and emotional relationships between children and focus on “what the child will find most funny or engaging.”

Angela Santomero, creator of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, grew up watching Rogers, met him at a conference and was inspired by him when she created the long-running Nickelodeon show Blue’s Clues.

“I was doing [Daniel] with the Mr. Rogers brand in mind,” says Santomero, whose New York–based Out of the Blue Enterprises is a lead production partner with the Rogers Company. “This has been a love project.”

It’s also a project firmly grounded in accepted principles of child development and what Santomero calls a “respectful collaboration” with the Rogers Company.

As for the company’s future, “We’re developing new content and looking for partners who are like-minded producers,” Siefken says. “We’ve come to a point we like, where we can live up to Fred Rogers’s legacy and also be contemporary.”

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