I've just begun a Senior Fellowship with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College. For someone in my field, merely having my name in the same sentence as Mister Rogers is a heady, humbling experience. I'm too old to have grown up with him as a "television friend," but young enough that his work was seminal to my career choice.
Meeting Fred left an indelible impression. My first time, I was working at PBS. I'd heard he was visiting the children's programing department, and angled to be there when his meeting ended (funny how many others did the same!). It took only a brief exchange to know there was no "character" or artifice to Fred: he was Mister Rogers. I left with the oddest feeling (that others tell me they've also experienced) that it would have felt perfectly natural to confess my hopes and anxieties to this man I'd just met.
Our other memorable encounter brought me to every public speaker's greatest nightmare: in an already high-pressure setting, I followed an iconic -- the iconic -- voice of my field, who had just brought the audience to a reverential hush and left them emotionally spent.
The occasion was a White House Summit on Children and Television, attended by Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al and Tipper Gore, and roughly 50 industry luminaries. Fred Rogers spoke about our awesome responsibility to honor children's time and trust, sang a song, and -- as was his custom -- asked us to spend thirty seconds in silence thinking about someone influential to who we'd become. Live on C-SPAN, the leaders of the free world and the leaders of the entertainment world sat lost in memories of mentors.
Soon, the spell was broken and it was my turn to speak, on international standards of children's TV excellence. One thing saved me from a terribly awkward transition: in the silence, I'd thought about the man who first put Fred Rogers (as himself) in front of the camera. Fred Rainsberry, then head of children's programming for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, had died the previous week.
I'd met Fred Rainsberry via PRIX JEUNESSE, the international children's television festival. He chaired the festival's advisory board (and was succeeded by my Center's founder, and then me).
It was instantly clear why the two Freds bonded: Rainsberry was the gentle conscience of a festival that had to negotiate a delicate cultural, economic and creative balancing act. Delegates from media-rich nations came, accustomed to ubiquitous, entertaining, highly-produced TV. Those from the developing world worked with rudimentary tools (one reported having access to her channel's only camera just once weekly) and begged for the program slots they needed to further national learning goals.
Rainsberry's calm wisdom shaped a competition and conference that was relevant, constructive and fair to all, by focusing on the same elements that made up the heart and soul of Fred Rogers' works.
For both, the first criterion for excellence would always be alignment with the target audience's developmental needs and abilities. The festival supplemented the global constants of development with respect for unique cultural perspectives on growth, learning and media use.
While both PRIX JEUNESSE and Mister Rogers Neighborhood honored high production values, neither let whiz-bang overwhelm appropriate and effective use of resources. A good idea needs to underpin both high-budget shows and those made for pennies, and you can't rescue a bad idea with money or special effects.
At PRIX JEUNESSE, this leveled the global competitive field. For Fred Rogers, it was expressed in the simplicity of Johnny Costa's piano, the spare documentary style of "Picture Picture" videos, and the humble sets and simple puppets. Television artifice never got in the way of making a human connection through the lens.
As a Fred Rogers Center Senior Fellow, I'll help launch an online dialogue about excellence in children's digital media. Our goals are to help industry apply a quality framework in creating media content, parents and educators use it in finding what's right for their children, and researchers build onto it with new findings and insights. (Your thoughts, in the comments section below, are warmly invited!)
I'll do so with a Fred on each shoulder. They'll remind me that while uses and opportunities vary from TV to game to e-reader to tablet, all screens carry two inviolable responsibilities: we must make mindful use of technologies' possibilities, and always be guided by a vision of the child at play.