Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the children?s TV show, Mister Rogers? Neighborhood, died in 2003 of stomach cancer, just a little more than two years after he stopped filming new episodes of his show. But Mister Rogers, his on-air persona for 40 years, died this past September, slain by the hand of PBS programmers who removed his show from the daily menu of kid?s programming sent to PBS affiliates.
Of course, PBS claims that Mister Rogers isn?t dead, and technically he isn?t. They still send him out on the weekend feed, so many local stations are running him once a week. There is a pale shadow of his neighborhood on the PBS Web site, and the network claims it will expand that online content, someday. But the fact remains that if you have to find the weekend schedule online and program your video recorder to get a mere 30 minutes per week, or have a high-speed Internet connection to view the few snippets on the Web site, then Mister Rogers might as well be dead.
The death of Fred Rogers a few years ago was a tragedy for the Rogers family and for his many friends in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. But it didn?t change very much for his audience. We knew with absolute certainty that the spirit of Fred Rogers had simply left the Neighborhood of Make-Believe for that mysterious realm known as Someplace Else and was now spreading peace, love, and understanding on an infinite scale. (And, yes, I know I just made a backhanded case for the canonization of St. Fred, and so be it.) Fred?s physical death wasn?t that hard for us to take because he had left us a monumental gift?his hundreds of hours of humane, artful, and relentlessly life-affirming shows.
Sure, Fred?s kids, grandkids, and widow have missed him, and so has David Newell (the actor who played his sidekick, Mister McFeely). But the rest of us would always have Prince Tuesday, King Friday, and Queen Sara. The visits of the jazz-playing Marsalis family and cellist Yo-Yo Ma with his young son would just keep coming around in regular rotation. The painter Red Grooms would always return one day to paint the neighborhood trolley again. As the neighbors always said, ?Anything can happen in Make-Believe,? even immortality.
THERE WAS NO good reason for PBS to pull Mister Rogers. The show existed in its own timeless realm. There was very little that dated it. Certainly it was immune from the whims of fashion, since Mister Rogers? zip-up sweaters and canvas sneakers never changed in 40 years. The only time an adult viewer could identify the decade an episode was produced was when the show left Mister Rogers? television house for the big world outside. Then we might meet a pediatrician with those enormous ?80s glasses, or a factory worker with a Paleolithic mullet. Or we could do the math on how young a celebrity visitor was on the screen compared to how old he is now. And sure, Mister Rogers used videotape in ?Picture Picture,? and in some really old episodes, reels of film.
But that?s all trivia that never registered in the minds of his core audience of 2- to 5-year-olds. What they saw was a friendly, affectionate grown-up who looked them in the eye and talked to them about the things that were important?especially their fears and confusions. He asked them questions and waited for their answers. And the kids answered him. I know they did. I?ve seen all three of my children engage, right out loud, in those conversations Mister Rogers was always striking up with his television neighbor.
Mister Rogers is being replaced by a lot of shows that are supposed to teach ?content? and ?cognitive skills? and make all kinds of dumbed-down concessions to the presumably stunted attention spans of contemporary children. Apparently there will never again be room in the mainstream of American culture for children?s programming that is mostly about unquantifiable intangibles such as truth, beauty, and love.
Mister Rogers really has left the building this time, and he?ll be a long time gone.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.