By WILL DIGRAVIO
This article originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 21, 2018. It can be accessed online, here.
Mister Rogers left a void in television culture when he went off the air 17 years ago. A Vermont father of two felt the absence of wholesome, slower-paced children’s television programming and now finds himself channeling Fred Rogers on Vermont PBS.
“Fred Rogers himself would probably say we should try not to be like Mister Rogers, but be just like ourselves,” Chris Dorman said. “That’s the way he likes us, just the way we are.”
The chances are high that you watched ‘Mister Rogers Neighborhood’ as a child during its 1968-2001 run on PBS and now have children of your own. Maybe you saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the new documentary about Rogers, and wondered if there is anyone like him on television today.
The short answer: Yes.
Dorman is the host of “Mister Chris and Friends,” a new children’s television program in the style of Rogers, though he and Vermont PBS CEO Holly Groschner are quick to say the goal of the show is not to be “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood 2.0.”
In fact, Groschner said she tried to convince Dorman to change the name of his persona, but he declined. He has been going by “Mister Chris” since he started teaching music to children in 2011.
While Vermont PBS may not be trying to make a carbon copy of Rogers, his influence on the new show is difficult to miss.
For example, in the show’s pilot, Mister Chris enters the set from a door stage right, takes off his hat, hangs it up, and puts on another. Replace the hat with a sweater and you have the trademark Fred Rogers entrance.
As he started brainstorming what the show could be, Dorman said he was not thinking about Rogers. But, once the creative process started going, it was hard not to see how the show follows in his footsteps.
“Fred Rogers is a great inspiration,” he said. “We are definitely following in his legacy of slow paced media, genuine connection with the viewers, and thinking about children first in everything we do.”
Like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, the show focuses on how children navigate their feelings and process information. Dorman hopes to do so primarily through song, playing the guitar, and other forms of music, which he said is a universal language. It is a view Rogers shared.
The goal, Dorman said, is for the children to go on a journey with Mister Chris as he too learns about the world around him.
“The purpose of the show is to illuminate the beauty of the world around us,” he said.
Can a show like this survive?
“In public media circles, people think I’m a little bit off my rocker,” Groschner said of her decision to put money behind a locally produced children’s program.
“Mister Chris and Friends” is as local a show as you can get. Dorman, 35, lives with his family on a farm that sits on the Shelburne-South Burlington town line. Groschner discovered him after a friend’s two-year-old daughter saw him perform live.
She said producing homegrown content is central to the mission of Vermont PBS.
“I think this is important to Vermont,” Groschner said. “It helps us connect neighbors.”
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first began as a local program in Pittsburgh, with many skeptical that it would succueed. The show existed in different forms and names for five years before it was picked up PBS.
Jason Mittell, a media studies professor at Middlebury College whose area of expertise includes children’s television, was surprised to learn that Vermont PBS was producing a children’s program in a small market state like Vermont, especially in today’s media ecosystem.
“It’s very difficult to produce programming on a local level that’s going to meet a niche,” Mittell said. “You’re not just competing with your other local stations, you’re competing with YouTube and Netflix.”
A market for empathy
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a celebration of the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and Fred Rogers’ success and the positive imprint it left on thousands of children. But, the documentary also explores honestly the show’s failed attempts to inject Rogers’ vision for what television should be into the mainstream.
“It was more of a standalone outlier that defined what it was doing on its own terms, and did so incredibly successfully,” Mittell said.
‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ defined itself by being calm, quiet and, by today’s standards, boring. In other words, the opposite of the loud, hyperbolic, hyper-commercialized children’s programming to which we are accustomed.
Now that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” has become the highest-grossing documentary of the year, prompting a wave of Mister Rogers nostalgia, perhaps parents will be reminded of the value of such programs, and turn to “Mister Chris and Friends” for an old style of TV that, in 2018, feels oddly refreshing and new.