Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mister Rogers, Father Dave & Me

A few weeks ago, my pal Brian Ives appeared on Sirius Radio's Catholic Channel to discuss U2 and faith, a subject he knows I hold near and dear.

Afterwards, he told me he'd mentioned our little documentary to the show's producers, with whom he later connected me via email. Friday night after work, then, found me thirty-six stories above Sixth Avenue, alone in Sirius' massive, space-aged lobby. My interview on Father Dave's Busted Halo Show was scheduled for 8:20. Sure enough, Executive Producer Robyn Gould appeared before me with a huge, rock 'n roll smile just seconds prior. And just an instant after shaking hands with Father Dave and producers Brett and Brian, I was on air.

Now, you may be wondering, why the Catholic Channel when I'm lapsed, and Mister Rogers when he was Presbyterian? And why now, when the film's not even done?

I look at it this way. It's not about the film, it's about the assignment. Mister Rogers told me to spread the [deep and simple] message," so I'm going to seize on any opportunity to do so; it's only going to broaden that message's reach.

Moreover, specific tenants of Christianity never really seemed to be the point. True, Mister Rogers was an ordained minister who treated the space between himself and his audience as sacred, but his values (articulated so well by Bo Lozoff) were core to the world's religions: take time to reflect, be wary of materialism.

So there I was, rambling about my day job (came to learn that Father Dave used to work for my supervisor), my music (specifically, how Mister Rogers gave me the courage to be myself), and the film. Father Dave was quick and hip and funny, and connected it all with a through line of "cool," identifying and inquiring about my "PBS mind in an MTV world." I was self-deprecating (perhaps too much so), characterizing myself as "the least cool guy in most rooms" (which may actually be true. And while the conversation stayed mostly philosophical, Father Dave gently brought it home in the end.

He played a clip from Mister Rogers' last episode in which he says,

I'm just so proud of those of you who've grown up with us, and I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead. But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were younger: I love you just the way you are. And what's more, I'm so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you'll do everything you can to keep them safe, and express their feelings in ways that will bring heeling in many different neighborhoods.

Afterwards, Father Dave said, "And that's it, right? God loves us just the way we are, whether we're cool or uncool." And as he wrapped up the interview, he asked when the film was going to reach theaters.

I rambled a bit and finally said, "Sometime next year," then added -- knocking on wood as an afterthought -- "God willing."

To which Father Dave replied, "Looks by what you've accomplished thus far, God is willing."

I spilled out onto the chilly city with a smile, and strode west. The streets were streaked with rain, reflecting the neon lights as if everything were run through with brightly-lit, high voltage. I dialed up Coldplay's "Life In Technicolor" on my iPod, and walked on absolutely gobsmacked that everything is in its right place.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On The Commercialization Of Childhood

Our primary objective in visiting Dr. Susan Linn's Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood offices in Boston was to add factual heft to our film.

Of course, Dr. Linn was a perfect candidate for the gig, as she's written two key texts on the subject of children and media, "Consuming Kids," and "The Case For Make Believe."

In the few days since we've been home, I've immersed myself in her work, and others (like The Kaiser Family Foundation's 114-page opus, "Generation M: Media In The Lives Of 8-18 Year-olds).

What's challenging about tackling the subject of marketing to children is breaking away from our own memories as adults. We remember ads for Connect Four or Burger King, so think, "What's the harm?" The harm is in the massive increase of marketer's expenditure and screen exposure, and the erosion of creative time as a result. Have a look:

32% of two to seven-year olds, and 26% of children under two have a television in their bedroom. (Source: Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood)

In 1983, advertisers spent $100M on marketing to children. In 2008, advertisers spent $17B. (Juliet Schor, "Born to Buy")

The average 18-year-old has witnessed 200,000 acts of televised violence. That's nearly three-a-day. (Source: National Institute On Media & The Family)

The average 18-year-old has seen over 700,000 advertisements. That's more than 100-a-day. (American Psychological Association)

The average 10-year-old can name 400 brands. (Source: Progressive Policy Institute)

Children between 4 and 12-years-old spend $30B a year on junk food, candy, toys and games, an increase of 400 percent in twenty years. (Source: Progressive Policy Institute)

Children and teenagers influence up to $500B in family spending annualy, a 1000% increase since 1960. (Source: Progressive Policy Institute)

The average child spends six and a half hours using electronic media, including three hours of television. (Source: Kaiser Foundation)

98% of televised food ads seen by children are for products high in sugar, fat or sodium. (Source: CCFC)

Obesity rates among children 6-11 have quadrupled since 1980. (Source: CCFC)

85% of Americans believe that children's television should be commercial-free. (Source: The Center For The New American Dream)

87% of Americans say that "current consumer culture makes it harder to instill positive values in children." (Source: The Center For The New American Dream)

In the end, "Mister Rogers & Me" doesn't endeavor to be preachy, but instead to give pause, and allow for reflection. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Mister Rogers, Susan Linn & Me

As I say in "Mister Rogers & Me" voice over, "We learned pretty quickly that there are no coincidences in Mister Rogers' neighborhood."

A few weeks ago, Slamdance co-founder Paul Rachman gave Chris and I some great feedback on our film, not the least of which being that it needed more facts about the effect of media on children.

In my research, I discovered many valuable facts and figures at the Campaign For A Commercial Free Childhood website. CCFC is a national, non-profit organization devoted to limiting the impact of commercial culture on children. So I emailed CCF's co-founder, Dr. Susan Linn.

Shortly thereafter, Save Mister Rogers' Neighborhood founder, Brian Linder, told me, "Dude, she wrote the book the impact of media on television!" Sure enough, Dr. Linn's "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood" is full of alarming data, like that American advertisers spent $17B marketing to children last year up from $100M in 1983.

A few weeks later, when I asked Brian if he had any suggestions as to what I might ask Dr. Linn, he said, "Well, obviously ask about Audrey Duck's guest appearances on The Neighborhood." Um, obviously.

Ends up that Dr. Linn is a ventriloquist who, along with her puppet, Audrey Duck, appeared on "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" numerous times, then went on to get her PhD in psychology and co-found CCFC. And so, in seeking fact to inform our very personal, emotionally-grounded film with hard facts, we found the perfect person: an expert who knew and worked with Mister Rogers, and carries his legacy with her every day!

Chris and I spent a few hours with Dr. Linn at her office in the Judge Baker Children's Center in Brookline Thursday. Not surprisingly, Dr. Linn is a thoughtful, warm, remarkably intelligent and hugely-engaged person. We talked about how she became involved with The Neighborhood, her time in there, what she learned from Mister Rogers, the gravity of the situation, and the stakes of inaction.

We'd initially planned to place Dr. Linn's expertise interstitially throughout the film. But it was apparent to Chris and me as we post-mortemed the shoot that her deep connection to Mister Rogers and passionate, informed engagement with the issue warrant a full, stand-alone segment.

I haven't transcribed the interview yet (we only got home eighteen hours ago, eight of which I was sleeping, and eight of which I've been working), but my favorite part -- and what is sure to make the final edit for the film -- is her simple explanation that with the proliferation of screens and targeting of children, we are raising a generation of children overweight, overly-sexualized, and overly-violent consumers incapable of relishing the silence required to create art, music or poetry.

And then what?