Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mister Rogers, Divorce & Me

"Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About Divorce" premiered on Sunday February 15, 1981, just as my parents' marriage was falling apart.

Unfortunately, it took twenty-five years to learn of the show's existence, and until this afternoon to see it myself for the very first time.

All I knew of Susan Stamberg's relationship to Fred Rogers when I walked into NPR's Washington, DC, studios way back in November, 2006, was that the two had taped some television specials together in the '80s. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered the topic of the specials was divorce, something my family had endured, and about which Mister Rogers and I had conversed.

When our copy of the show was finally shipped from FCI last week, my sense of serendipity was heightened still when Chris told me the original air date.

The hour-long special is nothing if not deep and simple. Susan hosts, fielding questions from the WQED studio audience, while Fred and author and bereavement counselor, Rabbi Earl Grollman, respond. Periodically, Fred tosses to brief interview segments with young children.

The set, graphics, and wardrobe are antiquated to be sure. Still, the premise, pacing and patience is so Fred Rogers: deep and simple through and through.

At one point, Susan asks him why the Neighborhood had recently taken its viewers on a tour of the inside of a plane.

There are a lot of children who have to fly alone back and forth between their mothers and their fathers. And I've talked to stewardesses who say that sometimes they're scared, and sometimes they cry.

For any of you who know anything about my recording career (and for those of you who don't, my 2001 song, "Crash Site," was a metaphor for my parent's divorce, and the airplane trips shuttling between them), it was a section I had to watch twice.

As Susan wrapped up the show, and Fred said his final words -- warm and sage as always -- I found myself standing there in front of the television with a big smile on my face, and even bigger crocodile tears in my eyes.

"Remember," he said, "How persistent the feelings of childhood are all through our lives."

Friday, August 01, 2008

Saving Mister Rogers

I'm blessed and lucky for my brief but meaningful time with Mister Rogers, and the wheels those few moments set in motion.

When I need a dose of calm, or insight on managing my anger, sadness, or fear in the face of this crazy, crazy world, I don't have to go anywhere or do anything. I just pause, and I hear him in my head.

What's more, he's rarely out of eyeshot. At my office, a photo of us in the living room of his Crooked House rests on a shelf above my desk, and a postcard reading, "It's such a good feeling to know that we're friends" is tacked to my bulletin board. At home, I've framed the very first photo he sent me, one that reads, "For my real ACK neighbor!" Another postcard (this one reading "You make each day a special day by just your being you!") is on the refrigerator.

When the news broke a few weeks ago that PBS told member stations it would send them just one weekly episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" instead of one daily, I'll be honest: I was sad, but not terribly surprised.

He is a permanent part of my life, as influential as many of my friends and family. What's more, by the time I have children old enough to watch, best as I can tell from my conversations with FCI, Fred will be available either on DVD or on-demand, or both.

As media executive, I wasn't terribly shocked. Throughout the making of "Mister Rogers & Me," Chris and I have seen tiny examples of Fred's on-air presence diminishing on the local level. At one point, I launched a small letter writing campaign.

In general, though, while Chris and I discussed addressing it in the film, and even advocating on the show's behalf, it felt like more than I could chew given the context of my day job, the film, the music, etc. Plus, it felt like a different story than the one we were trying to tell. And, honestly, I was exhausted from hitting our IFP deadline.

Television is a rapidly-shifting landscape. When "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" premiered, PBS was the fourth of four networks. Fred insisted that "We have to remember to whom the airwaves belong, and we must put as great an emphasis on the nurturing of the human personality as we can."

I believe that those of us who are the producers and purveyors of television -- or video games or newspapers or any mass media -- I believe that we are the servants of this nation.

But the market place has exploded. There are hundreds of channels, thousand if you consider online video -- all of which are radically fragmented and commodified.

To be just a little jaded for one second, I witness corporate media machinations every day. And while, in my experience, intentions are generally the best, the bottom line always prevails -- even with strong advocacy. With Fred gone, the power of that advocacy is too.

Now, I'm not entirely sure that's what's at play here. As I've witnessed at work and as I understand it (and as I witnessed first-hand when I toured Iowa Public Television last month), broadcasters are increasingly digital.

The aegis will be on local stations to manage their own "Neighborhood" libraries, no easy task as you know from keeping all your files straight on your computer. It also means that there will no longer be a shared experience; what airs in Columbia, SC, will be different than what airs in New York City.

That said, it's the subtext of the once-weekly vs. daily transmission that's disconcerting. It suggests, however implicitly, that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" lacks daily urgency or import.

In these days of global unrest, economic insecurity, school shootings, and a news media more interested in Lynn Spears than Lynn Cheney, Mister Rogers' soothing, patient and sage insights are

Which is why South Carolina journalist and parent Brian Linder did not rest so easily when he heard the news. As the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette put it, "he didn't have to be told twice what to do with the mad that he felt, to paraphrase one of Fred Rogers' songs."

And so, Save Mister Rogers was born.

Brian's premise is simple, his intentions the absolute best:

We’re asking PBS to please reconsider their decision, and allow Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with its timeless expressions of care for children, to remain a part of their syndicated Monday through Friday schedule.

Brian and I spoke real quickly yesterday. He's doing his best to helm this increasingly-visible project while retaining his day job (ours are remarkably similar: he's a freelance writer for IGN Movies) and parenting his newborn twins, Grace and Zoe. He sounds sweet, smart, and passionate. I appreciate his efforts, and look forward to speaking with him further and helping however I can.

I have every confidence that the "Neighborhood" will remain available, though, to Brian's point, it may be increasingly difficult and expensive to find and thereby increasingly limited in its reach.

The key, as always, is to remember that the airwaves belong to the public. And so the public must remain vigilant with its local PBS station in demanding that deep, simple, and essential programming like "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" remain free and unfettered on all media platforms.

For me, then, the best part of Brian's efforts, the show's future discoverability notwithstanding, is the reminder that, in this increasingly fragmented, emotionally disconnected world, we are all neighbors.