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Unlike much of the news these days, reports this week that PBS is planning an animated spinoff of “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood” are enough to lower the blood pressure.
It's been eight years since the reassuringly kind man in the sweater and sneakers passed away. Re-runs of his show, an oasis of calm amid TV bombast, ended in 2008, meaning this generation of preschoolers is the first since the late 1960s unable to get a daily Mr. Rogers fix of mellow.
But it's not all about the kids – in an era of so-called Reality TV, we all could use a return to the Land of Make-Believe.
The new show – called “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” – will star the son of our favorite striped little big cat (who apparently grew up to be just fine, despite hectoring by Lady Elaine Fairchilde). Word of the spinoff comes, coincidentally or otherwise, at a time brimming with childhood throwbacks: the surprising Smurfs are battling for box office supremacy and the old-school "Winnie the Pooh" reboot is getting honey-laden reviews. We're most excited, though, by the new Muppets movie due out in November.
The Muppets, of course, are the big furry-and-felt players on "Sesame Street," Mr. Rogers' edgier, delightfully extroverted PBS neighbor. The shows, both of which debuted in the late 1960s, represented a morning tag-team of seeming opposites. But both treated the audience of all ages with respect, embracing childhood, while not standing for childishness, especially from those old enough to know better.
Mr. Rogers treated his guest, famous and otherwise, with a similar respect, showcasing the value of conversation – and, perhaps more importantly, the value of listening. As Mr. Rogers used to sing in his closing song about the promise of a new day, “You’ll have things you’ll want to talk about. I will, too” – words that seem anathema in a media culture where much of our public discourse has denigrated into one big shouting contest. The Reality TV landscape, meanwhile, is filled with regular people who quarrel and act foolish in a grab for fame. In Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, conflict was resolved, sans rancor, in a fantasyland of puppets and people, just a trolley ride away.
Sesame Street, headed for its 42nd season, and the new Muppet movie represent the ongoing legacy of the vibrantly creative Jim Henson, more than 20 year after his death. We expect "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" will mark a long-overdue extension of the legacy of Fred Rogers, whose gentle style, hopefully, has a place in our popular culture.
A 2009 study found that even in this Internet age, kids 2 to 5 spend nearly 25 hours a week watching TV. It couldn't hurt for them to spend some of that time in a neighborhood we all should revisit.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.