On Threatening the Land of Make Believe: The impact of PBS Kids programming

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Courtesy of The Fred Rogers Company
Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 6:17pm

In the skinny budget proposed in March by President Donald Trump, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be defunded. The agency, which carries a budget of about $445 million, would lose all its money and, as a result, public media stations and producers are slated to lose sizable amounts of their budgets.

This isn’t the first time that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was threatened with budget cuts. During a presidential debate in 2012, Republican Mitt Romney said he would cut the agency’s funding.

“I’m going to the stop the subsidy to PBS,” he said. “… I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you (Jim Lehrer), too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

However, in this round of budget cuts, Big Bird wouldn’t be directly threatened by the cuts. Back in 2015, Sesame Workshop, which produces “Sesame Street,” signed a deal with HBO to help fund the show in return for access to new episodes nine months before they air on PBS.

Still, local stations and production companies would be heavily affected by the proposed cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. One of those entities is The Fred Rogers Company. This production company started as the home for the classic children’s program “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” but in 2010, it started producing original programs of its own.

The new flagship for the company is “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” The show, which features characters from Mr. Rogers’s Land of Make Believe, follows Daniel, a 4-year-old tiger who deals with similar issues to normal 4-year-olds. The show focuses mostly on teaching kids social and emotional skills.

In a phone interview, Ellen Doherty, the executive in charge of production at the Fred Rogers Company, talked about how the show continues Rogers’s legacy by speaking to children at their own age.

“That was what Fred was really committed to was thinking about what do kids know and what do they need,” she said. “In producing the program, we and our partners at Out of the Blue Productions are looking at (questions like) ‘Is this the right thing to say?’ ‘Is this how Daniel, who's age 4, would talk?’ ‘Is this what he would be thinking about?’ ”

For Doherty, the themes of “Daniel Tiger” resonate with children because the show’s stories parallel what a young child would deal with in their lives, too.

“‘Daniel Tiger deals with the issues that are tough for toddlers. Daniel has to learn how to use the potty; he has to learn how to get along with his friends; he has to learn how to deal when he has a brand-new baby sister and he's not the one in the spotlight all the time anymore. Those are huge issues when you are 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds.”

Daniel Tiger

Daniel Tiger
Courtesy of The Fred Rogers Company

The Fred Rogers Company also produces “Peg + Cat.” This program, which primarily focuses on teaching math skills, follows Peg and her best friend, Cat, as they try and solve problems using the math skills they use in the episode.

“Each episode focuses on one or two themes in math and Peg and/or Cat encounter a problem, Doherty said. “Peg is totally freaking out to try and figure out how to fix it and then she fixes it and then they encounter something else, another iteration of that math. So it shows persistence in problem solving. Persistence is huge with math.”

For Doherty, the premise of “Peg + Cat” allows the show to take the characters to fantastical places.

“ ‘Peg + Cat’ can go anywhere,” she said. “They go to the moon. They go visit Beethoven. They're on a farm. … Your imagination can take you wherever you want to go. That's what you see play out in ‘Peg + Cat.’ ”

The other show The Fred Rogers Company produces is “Odd Squad.” The series follows a group of agents who use math skills to battle “Oddness” in their world. It’s targeted at a slightly older age group than the other two programs. According to Doherty, the spy premise connects with the show’s viewers.

“They want to be agents,” she said. “That's the beauty of the premise. This is one odd squad headquarters. There are Odd Squads all over the place. It feels like a community they can be part of. They could help. They could have these crazy adventures.”

The Fred Rogers Company receives the funding to produce these programs from a variety of sources including corporations, government agencies and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. According to a company spokesperson, they would be affected by cuts to the CPB and would have to rework their plan to make up for the deficit.

For the people in public media, these shows reach out to children, as well as parents. The Fred Rogers Company released an app this year called “Daniel Tiger for Parents.” It’s meant to give parents access to materials to help guide them through helping their child through a difficult moment like a temper tantrum.

Detroit Public Television, Detroit’s public television station, uses the characters and resources created in conjunction with Fred Roger Company’s shows in local events on its own.

Tara Hardy, an education specialist at the station, discussed its role in a phone interview.

“When we bring a Daniel Tiger character to an event, it's like bringing a rock star to a concert for 5-year-olds. We usually bring Daniel as one of our first choices of characters when we're designing kids events. … I use Daniel Tiger a lot when I'm talking about kids throwing temper tantrums or what to do when you're sad. It gives kids a lot of manageable tools and parents a lot of manageable tools.”

“Peg + Cat” also played a big role in one of Detroit Public Television’s key educational initiatives. It receives funding through a grant the Department of Education called the Ready to Learn grant.

“The Ready to Learn grant is designed to go into classrooms and into schools. We were able to bring in iPads and tablets to classrooms and were able to train teachers on how to use their smart boards. There's a few smart board activities that “Peg + Cat” put out that the kids just ate up. I mostly worked with kindergarten classrooms. ... “Peg + Cat” was one of the favorites.”

Peg and Cat

Peg and Cat
Courtesy of The Fred Rogers Company

According to Hardy, this grant would go away in the event that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is defunded. The full impact of the defunding for the station isn’t yet known, but a station spokesman wrote in an email to the Daily, “It will prevent us from expanding our work in that space and offering early-childhood education programming to those who need it most.”

Detroit Public Television also tries to reach out to parents through a series of interstitials between programs on its new 24-hour PBS Kids channel.

“A lot of the times we're leading them to PBS resources or we're saying ‘it's a gorgeous day outside today. Why don't you take the child to the park?’ to help empower parents,” she said.

“Us being able to talk to those parents gives us a real in to the parents that really have been unreachable otherwise,” she added. “Those are the parents who don't have their kids in preschool or are not active if their kids are school age at the school. We're able to talk to them and that's a really unique position in the field of early childhood.”

Also, there are kids in the Detroit metro area who don’t have access to a preschool education.

“What we've found in our work in Detroit and around the areas is there's not enough slots in preschools for every child that's four to be in,” Hardy said. “We like to see ourselves as a supplement to a quality preschool program, but we also like to see ourselves as providing the content as best we can without that social piece to families that really don't have the access to a quality preschool.”

For Hardy, the possible defunding of the CPB is frustrating.

“I've been working here for roughly three years. I have really in those three years discovered how powerful and impactful public media can be, especially working with young children and working with parents. Kids are watching TV no matter what we do. ... Public media has the chance to put quality in front of those kids.”

For Doherty, the noncommercial nature of PBS allows for the ability to create different kinds of shows that wouldn’t otherwise be on television.

“Public broadcasting is really unique. … Public media is a great safe zone for kids,” she said. “Fred (Rogers) literally helped get it funded through is testimony to Congress and what he called the expression of care for children and families. That's really what's kept me working in public media for most of my career is knowing that's it's really helping, making content that really helps kids and that reaches a lot of kids who don't necessarily have other ways to get TV content.”

After many years of working in public media, Doherty has seen how the shows she has made has changed the lives of the children who watched them.

“You're going to hear from kids in 10 years talking about how ‘Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood’ had a lasting influence on them,” Doherty added. “That's what's unique about public media. We want to make sure that we're making shows that people watch, but we want to make shows that are good for kids and give them valued stuff but without the pressures that commercial channels face.”