2014 Pittsburgher of the Year Award: The Fred Rogers Company
Sharing the DNA of the father of children’s television, the Fred Rogers Company reinvigorates a beloved legacy while creating new hit characters and content that help children to grow, giggle and learn.
There’s a dinosaur at the door. And he’s wearing sneakers and a sweater. The 6-foot-tall statue grinning at the corner of 21st and Wharton streets in the South Side is a hometown wink to a local legend. Two generations of Pittsburghers instantly would recognize the puppets in his claws as characters from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the longest-running PBS series in history, and his attire as the signature costume that Fred Rogers donned at the beginning of each show.
But the Fred Rogers Company, headquartered since 2013 inside the building, is no dinosaur. A half-century after its founder and namesake first appeared on public television in Pittsburgh, the results of its deliberate reinvention as a production company for international children’s programming on platforms ranging from traditional TV sets to cell phones are attracting children — and their parents — by the millions.
“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” which premiered in 2012, is ranked among the five top Nielsen-rated PBS programs for children, and “Peg + Cat” rapidly has followed suit. The latter, a math-based program that premiered in 2013, was a top 10 series for moms in eight of its first 12 months.
With the addition of “Odd Squad” in November, the company’s shows now fill nearly half of the network’s eight-hour daytime block, and its steadfast insistence that young children’s social and emotional skills are as important as their ABCs has become the core of public television’s youth programming. Its use of Pittsburgh’s pioneering child-development research has inspired other exciting local partnerships to nurture children and set high state standards for early learning.
For its application of 21st-century media technologies, its reinvigoration of a beloved legacy and its passionate advocacy for children, the Fred Rogers Company and its talented staffers are Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2014 Pittsburghers of the Year.
A decade ago, many locals assumed the company was defunct. Rogers’ sudden death in February 2003 came two years after production of the final season of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Instead, the board of the nonprofit company quietly was finding its way forward. And when “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” debuted, the characters bore a family resemblance to their 20th-century relations — albeit in animated form.
“It’s the Neighborhood of Make-Believe for a younger generation. We’ve created characters [who] are their own age,” explains Paul Siefken, the company’s vice president for broadcast and digital media.
Siefken shepherded “Daniel” from the PBS side before being recruited to Pittsburgh and the Rogers team in 2013. Now in its second season, “Daniel” is a hit. It has been among the top five shows for kids ages 2-5 every month since July 2014 and has been in the top five shows for their moms since January 2014. The program also has led the Fred Rogers Company in a new direction: abroad. The program is broadcast in more than 50 overseas television markets from Germany to South Korea, with another 20 under contract.
“Peg + Cat,” which adds math readiness skills for the pre-school set, won an Emmy as the outstanding preschool children’s animated program in its first season. And even before its Nov. 26 debut, “Odd Squad” — the company’s third project in as many years — proved popular: the live-action show, also focused on math, had been streamed 30 million times online.
“It’s a nice family we’ve built. But we’re too busy to think of how gratifying it is,” says Siefken.
Some members of the Rogers team, among them Siefken, are new recruits. Others have logged decades with the company. William H. Isler worked alongside Fred Rogers for two decades before Rogers’ death and has been CEO since 1987. Now overseeing a $20 million annual budget, he contrasts the company’s current operations with his “Neighborhood” days at the WQED studios in Oakland, the company’s previous home, where it produced 15 half-hour episodes for $1.5 million a year.
“It was not expensive,” Isler says. “One person was doing all writing, one person was doing puppets, one person was writing music. We didn’t have to pay for music rights. Everything was plowed right back into the company since it was a nonprofit.
“When Fred died,” he adds, “we were fiscally a healthy organization.”
A new landscape: The organization — still numbering only 17 staffers and with much of its original culture intact — remains so, even as the new media landscape in which it operates is both more expensive and more extensive. Gazing hungrily at a huge and growing U.S. preschool market of 16 million children, cable networks such as Nickelodeon, media companies such as Disney and online providers such as Amazon compete with PBS to find hit programming.
And while dolls, books and other merchandise have been spinoffs of children’s television for decades, social media and online applications for desktops, tablets and smartphones to stream episodes and extend content now are equally essential. These days, the cost of developing a 40-episode season of a series such as “Daniel” reaches $20 million, covering the costs of modern-day partners ranging from Toronto-based animators and musicians to digital-gaming developer Schell Games in Pittsburgh.
With its depth in children’s programming, PBS remains the gold standard for producers, as well as parents. The network allows producers to retain the rights to shows they’ve created — a powerful incentive. Although dozens of hopeful companies pitch their ideas to the network each year, at most two programs get the nod. The Fred Rogers Company’s three concurrent programs on PBS bespeak powerful talent.
“Nickelodeon or Disney pay 100 percent of the cost to produce, but they have a say,” explains Kevin Morrison, the Fred Rogers Company’s chief operating officer and executive producer for “Daniel.” “They’re thinking of advertisers — what they think sells. We have quite different conversations with PBS. They let the producer be much more creative.”
As a result, the rock stars of children’s programming gravitate to PBS and increasingly to Pittsburgh. Often, they’re old friends: “Blue’s Clues” developer Angela Santomero, who would work with the company to create the animated “son” of Rogers’ beloved puppet Daniel Striped Tiger, has a long history with the Fred Rogers Company, as do Jen Oxley and Billy Aronson, the creators of “Wonder Pets.” “When PBS brings us together each year at a summit, it’s like a high-school reunion,” says Morrison. “As a group, they’re the best in the world. We’re like-minded on the duty of educational programming for kids.”
Both Morrison and Siefken arrived at Rogers with stellar reputations. Morrison, a soft-spoken Brit, had extensive experience in animation and television production in the United Kingdom and Los Angeles before arriving in Pittsburgh in 2006. He interviewed possible production partners for the next several years before PBS greenlighted “Daniel” in 2011. Siefken helped to launch hit programs at Cartoon Network (where he helped to develop “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “The Powerpuff Girls” and the “Adult Swim” block of programming) and developed shows at PBS (“The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That,” “WordGirl” and “Wild Kratts”) before he agreed to move his family to Pittsburgh in 2013.
Morrison and Siefken were fans of Santomero, who created the award-winning “Super WHY” for PBS as well as “Blue’s Clues” for Nick Jr. The latter, a guessing game for preschoolers, had the hallmarks of Fred Rogers’ signature approach: a gentle human host who spoke directly to viewers, interacting with cheerful make-believe characters. That, says Santomero, was intentional.
“I was a huge fan of Mister Rogers, starting as a preschooler,” she recalls of her mentor. “I would talk directly to him on the TV. I later used his research on how children learn through media. I finally got to meet him, [around] 1991, when he came to speak at the Museum of TV and Radio in New York, and we talked about child development.” By 2007, Morrison believed that Santomero was the ideal person to create a new program with the Fred Rogers Company, and Santomero immediately accepted.
“I felt the honor of it,” she says. “It was life coming full circle. At first, I froze. I didn’t know if I could do this. But bringing Daniel to life in a sweater and sneakers felt right.”
Santomero translated the tiger toddler to the animated character of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” adopting the curriculum that she says Rogers perfected over 40 years to address preschoolers’ social and emotional needs. “We wanted to be able to see facial expressions as much as possible. Puppets were amazing play therapy, but we wanted to take that one step further.”
Live-action segments remain a key element of the show. Introduced by six “sweater kids” — young Pittsburgh actors who visit sites such as the Benedum Center or Volkwein Music — the episodes also rely on local production crews. Animation is handled by Toronto’s 9 Story Entertainment, where its music creator Voodoo Highway Music and Post also is located.
As “Daniel” was in development, Morrison received a call from another old friend. Jen Oxley’s pitch with Billy Aronson for a quirky, comic approach to early math learning for preschoolers had been well-received at PBS, and Oxley was looking for some friendly advice.
“As I drove home, I thought, ‘Wait a minute. There’s a marriage here. We’ve got all the things they don’t have. We know how to get animation in Toronto and negotiate animation tax credits.’ They had no idea on international distribution or how to negotiate a license with PBS. We’d done all of that with ‘Daniel,’” Morrison recalls. “For us, that was easy the second time around. For her, the proposition was enchanting. And the property was one that we loved.”
Peg + Cat,” a pairing of an exuberant young girl and her deadpan blue pet, became the second new Rogers show, co-produced with Oxley and Aronson at a studio in Brooklyn, N.Y. Another acquaintance had the perfect credentials for Rogers’ next project, “Odd Squad.”
“J.J. Johnson brings a certain amount of comfort,” says Siefken. “He’s arguably the most successful live-action producer in five or 10 years in children’s live-action internationally,” with the popular “Dino Dan” on Nickelodeon as a calling card. He, too, is based in Toronto.
STAFF PHOTO BY MARTHA RIAL; ALL OTHER ART COURTESY OF THE FRED ROGERS COMPANY
Being ‘Freddish’: Morrison has an adjective for the Fred Rogers Company’s intense focus on reassuring and encouraging youngsters. He calls it the “Freddish” approach: teaching compassion, curiosity and ways to cope with new emotions and experiences. For “Daniel” viewers, songs and scripts enforce simple messages, such as “Grownups come back.” “Peg + Cat” and “Odd Squad” also embed ideas about patience and perseverance while introducing math.
“What’s Freddish is that emphasis on social-emotional issues, such as persistence. You don’t say, ‘I can’t.’ You try again. You ask for help. Peg models all of those social emotional aspects of learning,” says Morrison.
In reviewing “Odd Squad,” the latest Rogers production, Common Sense Media agreed. “The fact that the agents never lose sight of their goals or succumb to negativity — even when a solution is elusive — reminds kids of the value of learning from mistakes.”
PBS is “Freddish,” too, says Lesli Rotenberg, the network’s general manager for children’s media. “We see social-emotional learning as the center of our curriculum framework. Everything else emanates from there,” she emphasizes. “Literacy skills are important. So are math skills and problem solving skills. But social-emotional content is threaded through every one of our properties.” Rotenberg heads the PBS KIDS Next Generation Media Advisory Board, which, like Rogers, brings together renowned experts in the fields of child development, education, psychology and new media.
New technologies and online audiences: Response to the special August 2014 episode that opened the second season of “Daniel” confirmed that the program resonated among young families. When the Tiger family welcomed the infant Margaret (a character named for child-development expert Margaret McFarland, a longtime Rogers collaborator), the program was streamed 65.6 million times. Overall, “Daniel” is PBS’ most-streamed children’s program, with an average of 40 million views per month. “We know that young children are still watching a lot of broadcast television,” says Siefken. “That hasn’t declined, but perhaps more children are watching streaming video.”
Some 80 percent of the program’s views now are on mobile devices. That’s further proof that transmedia content has become a huge factor in children’s programming. Games and apps for even the smallest audience members enhance early learning.
“Mobile devices are a game-changer,” says Siefken. As a toddler, “I may not be able to manipulate a mouse, but I can control my finger.”
To create that content for “Daniel,” the Fred Rogers Company turned to a Pittsburgh expert. Jesse Schell, a former creative director of the Walt Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio and a professor at CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center, heads a 100-person firm just blocks from its headquarters. While Schell Games has forged an international reputation for sophisticated massive multiplayer online games, console games and interactive displays, the firm welcomed the challenge of engaging a new audience.
“There are lots of games for 6- to 12-year-olds,” Schell explains, “but this was our first for [ages] 3 to 5, with the barrier to reading. You get over that through dialogue and being very visually intuitive.” Schell Games has produced a series of gentle games starring the show’s characters at play. With settings from a tea party to bathtime, they offer non-readers and their parents a new way to explore. The games are available as free PBS activities online or for purchase as modestly priced apps.
Like the storyboards and conferencing that hone Rogers scripts, game content requires frequent testing. “Fortunately, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh helps us,” Schell says. “When we’re in development, we drive over there once a week. There’s an infinite supply of 3- to 5-year-olds and their parents to give feedback.”
The willing cooperation of the Children’s Museum goes both ways. Schell was an early proponent of the Museum’s MAKESHOP. The popular exhibit has become a nationally praised model of how open-ended play with paper, felt, electronic gadgets and more stimulates learning and engages whole families.
Schell is an enthusiastic partner in Pittsburgh learning collaborations that take advantage of new technologies. One successful example is the Kids + Creativity Network, an alliance of regional strengths in hands-on learning, digital technologies, creative arts, early childhood education, and media production. The effort includes more than 200 organizations, from CMU’s CREATE Lab to nonprofits such as the Rogers Company. Their teamwork is getting the attention of the White House and the U.S. Department of Education and was honored last year by the Disruptor Foundation, which spotlights breakthroughs occurring at the intersection of technology and culture.
The Grable Foundation is among the Pittsburgh philanthropies that have supported that work. Gregg Behr, its executive director, says the spirit of the network is pure Fred Rogers. “He was a bit of a geek. He saw that the technology of 1950s — television — could make what was attractive, good. Now Pittsburgh has roboticists, artists and game developers, all of whom believe that things that are interesting to kids now can be used for good,” he says. “The ongoing work of the Fred Rogers Company reminds us to put kids first.”
Behr is among many Pittsburghers who cite Isler, the Rogers CEO, as a tireless champion for that philosophy. Isler, 67, also is the elected first vice president of the Pittsburgh School Board, as well as a board member of local and national organizations dedicated to children.
“Bill’s like the mayor for kids and learning and education,” Behr says with a laugh. “It’s a role he’s played for many years. He himself is deeply knowledgeable about what kids need. He brings that all to bear in his professional capacity at the Fred Rogers Company. But he’s stepped up time and time again because he’s called to service. In each of those organizations, he admonishes us to think of kids first.”
Isler, longtime Rogers colleague Hedda Sharapan and Rogers himself studied child development at the University of Pittsburgh, which forged early discoveries in its lab school. The Arsenal Family & Children’s Center, founded in 1953 by pediatrician Benjamin Spock, attracted the field’s most innovative thinkers. The foundations of today’s expertise were laid 60 years ago.
“Look what we had in Pittsburgh then — Ben Spock and [famed developmental psychologist] Erik Erikson,” says Sharapan, Rogers’ director of early childhood initiatives and associate director of public relations. “They were helping physicians understand human development more broadly than just the biological aspect. Pitt’s master’s program was based on relationships, the whole child, the developmental perspective and the value of play. We continue to fight for that in today’s world.”
Ongoing research on infant and child brain development, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, was applied in projects funded by The Heinz Endowments, Grable and other philanthropies. The Fred Rogers Company has advised many of those successes, such as local kindergarten readiness programs, the statewide Keystone STARS program to improve childcare and PNC’s Grow Up Great. The $350 million information campaign focuses resources for children’s first five years. “PNC — they’ve brought it to the forefront,” says Sharapan. “We’re fortunate that [former Chairman] Jim Rohr had that vision and understanding.”
What’s ahead for the Rogers Company? Isler, who anticipates “a few more years” at the helm, says his staff now is developing an arts-themed program for the preschool set. They’re also investigating the production of a live touring stage show with the “Daniel” characters. Meanwhile, the company is casting an eye toward partnerships outside traditional media. “We’ve been working exclusively with PBS, but we’re looking at other opportunities,” he says.
Meanwhile, says Siefken, “the legacy lives on. We’re continuing Fred’s idea that media is an incredibly powerful tool and should be used to convey positive messages. That’s the driving force behind everything we make.”
Photo BY dave dicello