THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A whole new ‘neighborhood’

Another generation visits with iconic PBS host via the Web

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid email address
Invalid email address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

Mister Rogers has a new neighborhood - a cyber one that is.

The late, iconic, cardigan-wearing Fred Rogers, former host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’’ lives on in a website that was launched last week to feature games, videos, and segments from his 33 years on PBS. The website showcases Rogers, his puppets, and wooden trolley so a new generation of children and their nostalgic parents can access the fantasy neighborhood online 24 hours a day.

“It’s Fred 2.0,’’ said Paul Reynolds, president of Fablevision, the Boston-based animation studio that produced the online effort.

Fablevision, a 42-employee educational media firm whose clients include Nickelodeon, Verizon, and Random House, created the online neighborhood for Family Communications Inc., the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit production company that owns rights to the show. In recent years, as PBS ran fewer reruns, Family Communications tapped Fablevision to update the show’s old website with an interactive, virtual neighborhood. Neither company would disclose financial details of the deal.

For the past year, a team of seven producers and animators at Fablevision watched decades of episodes that featured Rogers taking viewers to such places as the zoo, a pediatrician’s office, and a crayon factory. Producers incorporated what they call the “best of Mr. Rogers’’ or 40 clips for the website, www.pbskids.org/rogers, including his chats with famous guests such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and him showing the different sounds a tuba and a French horn make.

Although some of the con tent is decades old, the look of the site is radiant and fresh with bright primary colors. The site has games, an area for visitors to paint and color using a mouse, and a catalog of songs that Rogers sang on the show. For adults who want to reminisce, there’s a section called “Neighbors of All Ages,’’ that features letters written by historians and journalists with historic footage. Among them: Rogers testifying before the Senate to get more funding for his show and other PBS programs in 1968.

“It’s reintroducing Fred,’’ said Cathy Droz, director of special projects at Family Communications. “It’s a way (for) kids and families who don’t have the program available on television to experience it.’’

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’’ launched in Pittsburgh and then Boston in 1966 before broadcasting nationally in 1968. Rogers hosted 900 episodes of his eponymous TV show until the last episode aired in August 2001.

Rogers, a quiet man who spoke in a soft tone, talked about issues that were important to children: topics ranging from divorce to fear of drowning in a bathtub drain. Rogers often whisked viewers away on field trips that showed how the world worked and people in everyday jobs. He ended the half-hour program with his signature sign off: “See you next time.’’

Even though Rogers died in 2003 at age 74 of stomach cancer, he has become known to millions of preschoolers through reruns. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’’ averaged about 1.4 million viewers per week nationally, according to February 2008 Nielsen ratings. (PBS stopped including the show in its recent Nielsen ratings.)

“The fact that he died doesn’t really matter,’’ said Robert Thompson, television and pop culture professor at Syracuse University. “Mr. Rogers was . . . incredibly gentle and soft-spoken right down to his cardigan sweaters. He was so comforting, and little kids responded to that. Besides, there are so many episodes, you don’t get the sense that you are cycling through them every week.’’

Sara DeWitt, senior director for PBS Kids Interactive, which funded the Rogers website, said it was important for PBS to introduce “Mister Rogers’’ to the next generation of children. The station had a similar approach with another classic program: When “Zoom,’’ a show that was aimed at children ages 8-12, went off the air four years ago, PBS worked with the show’s producer to make room for a “Zoom’’ website so that kids could play games from the show and interact.

PBS applied that same concept to Rogers and has been promoting the new website on www.pbs.org, its affiliated children’s websites, and social media websites. “We knew that it was very important for us to continue his digital legacy,’’ DeWitt said.

Reynolds, who cofounded Fablevision with his twin brother, Peter, in 1996, agrees. Reynolds said he remembers watching Rogers’s show with his brother when they were younger, saying they “had the records’’ and “would sing the songs.’’

“More and more kids are going to the Internet for their entertainment anyway,’’ Reynolds said, adding that the website “is a solid place to storm ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ ’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.