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TV Critics Tour: Fred Rogers' neighborhood is growing

Joanne Rogers, chairman of the Fred Rogers Company,

Joanne Rogers, chairman of the Fred Rogers Company, and Angela Santomero, producer of “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" Credit: Newsday/Verne Gay

Beverly Hills — With the exception of "Sesame Street" there is no more powerful a name in the public TV realm than "Fred Rogers." He helped define the institution and, in the bargain, helped it to define a purpose as well. Yet nearly 10 years after his death (Rogers died in 2003), his legacy remains firmly embedded in but one program ("Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," but you already knew that.)

After his death, role of seer and protector of the realm fell to his wife, Joanne Rogers, who carefully directed Family Communications Inc. (since renamed the Fred Rogers Company) in the area of education and various other activities  — with the exception of the production of another TV show.

Now, that's all about to change: "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," the first program out of FRC since that other "Neighborhood," will launch Sept. 3 on WNET. Basic facts: It's based on 4-year-old Daniel Tiger, son of Daniel Striped Tiger (who appeared long and happily on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"); it's avowedly educational and pro-social; and it will incorporate live-action with animated. Think "Blue's Clues" (which also famously did so). And in fact, FRC has enlisted Angela Santomero to produce this new-comer as well; Santomero was a co-creator of Nick Jr.'s "Blue's Clues," itself a landmark program in pre-school programming after launch in the early '90s.

"The company branched out into a lot of other areas (such as) producing materials for parents of infant children, but it did get to the point where it had to say, what is the future now that Fred is gone? And the answer is that we have to reenter public television," said Kevin Morrison, the company's chief operating officer in an interview here at the Beverly Hilton during PBS' portion of the press tour. "He was one of the architects of public TV in this country and we all just knew he would approve."

But  — perhaps more to the point  — would Joanne? She did, and does: "They wanted me to be involved and it saved my life probably to get involved," she says of the Fred Rogers Company.

The show will have perhaps echoes of "Mister Rogers" but they will be distant ones. No one wants to call this a "spin-off," but rather say it is "inspired by..." There will be no Fred Rogers lookalike  — as if  — though Joanne Rogers notes rather wistfully that Sam Waterston does bear a close resemblance.

Each episode will focus on a problem and its happy resolution. Says Santomero, "we do a lot of formative research and are constantly working with 3- or 5-year-olds and working with the curriculum [and] what we're finding is that kids are dying for this information...We think if you tell a good story that's age appropriate they'll be with you."

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