Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mr. Rogers vs. Blues Clues: A Case for PBS

In my classes, we talk a lot about popular culture and the influences that its had on how we see ourselves and who we are. This is no small subject and it produces a lot of really interesting and really accomplished writing. A subject came up in the recent presidential election that has come up before--what is the purpose of public television? Certainly the answers to that question are many and more complex than I will offer here, and the factors that go into the funding of PBS and NPR are questionable at times--these things should be looked into--but I have a defense that holds some water right here.

I grew up watching Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. From there, PBS ushered me through amazing documentaries about the Civil War, Jazz, the National Parks, and quantum physics. So I see a great value in them. I want to talk directly, however, about Mr. Rogers. If you're not familiar with Mr. Rogers, please cut your teeth here by watching a bit of an episode:


You will notice a few things about the show, whether you just watched some of that or not. One thing that always gets me about Mr. Rogers is the pacing. It's slow. He talks to you--talks through the camera--and waits for the kids to respond. He's not talking down, really, but he's being sweet and kind and patient. And though this is a television set talking to you, isn't it nice to be a kid and have a grown up pay this kind of attention to you?

One question that I encounter a lot when talking about Mr. Rogers is, was he an asshole in real life? Wasn't he a Navy Seal or something? No.There are always going to be legions of urban legends about kids show hosts. They're almost always untrue. The guy was authentic. This wasn't a job for him, it was a calling. He made the show, wrote the scripts (thousands and thousands of them!) wrote the music, made the puppets, voiced the puppets, designed the messages--all himself. He did it all. It was is passion.

Want proof? Let's take a look at him when he's not hosting a show. Let's see how he behaves when he's addressing Congress. In 1969, Mr. Rogers had to go before the senate--and the president--to defend PBS. Mr. Nixon (seen here sitting next to Fred) wanted to take away the 20 million dollar grant that funded PBS and his show in part. Let's watch and see how he carries himself:


Look at that! The guy pulls no punches, doesn't change his tone, just sits there next to the most powerful man in the world who wants to end his show and makes his case. He brings this committee to a halt. To a halt! His defense is stirring and conclusive and his dedication is real. You can't just open up an artist like this to commercial companies and ask them to fund it for profit. You've got to give this guy license. And it worked.

Now, let's look at Blues Clues.I'm not against this show, but I think it worth mentioning that this is a kids show that borrows many of the tactics of Mr. Rogers. Only, instead of being calm and personal and emotionally dramatic like Fred's show, it's hyper and stimulating and animated. Steve, the host of the show, is certainly charismatic and he talks to kids and makes them feel like he's their friend. Check out this very short clip as an example:


This is what Mr. Roger's calls bombardment. It's stimulating and distracting and kids can't look away. It's carefully planned by child psychologists and anthropologists to harness a kid's attentions. This way, when they see a Blues Clues product in the store, they feel like it's a part of them already.

Was Steve some kind of Fred Rogers? In his words, no. He was an actor. He was a tool of the machine. Let's look at this video from 8 years after he left the show. It's 17 minutes long, but if you're a fan of Blues Clues or Storytelling in general, I promise you that every minute is worth watching:
See? Mr. Rogers didn't have to wonder who he was. He didn't have this kind of crisis. He wasn't using his show to date Playboy models. Steve had a job. He did his job well. But he wasn't the right person for that job. He knew this and we probably should too.

When thinking about the programming that your kids watch, it's worth asking what is authentic. Authenticity rings through with people Fred Rogers was--for lack of a better term--a saint. A genius and a passionate man who spent his entire life trying to instill self-confidence in children.He's someone worth watching. Blues Clues, while a fun show, doesn't share those values. It's values are profit, plain and simple. Each member of that show was a cog in a machine, helping to make MTV money.

Look at what they're watching. Watch art. Watch expression and emotion. Don't watch products.

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