Mr. Rogers' Lessons For A New Generation

Examining the concept of "residual value" of content from the past.

After the atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut, earlier this month, many found solace, comfort, and guidance in a voice from the past—a voice many of us grew up with: Fred Rogers. The group 170 Million for Public Broadcasting posted the following words from Mr. Rogers in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.

The quote came from a video from Mr. Rogers to parents about how to talk with children about scary events in the news. In his career, Rogers (who was also a Presbyterian minister), had been called on to talk to parents about dealing with tragedies from the Robert Kennedy assassination to the 2001 U.S. terrorist attacks.

So, perhaps it isn't surprising that parents, children, online communities, and news organizations all seemed to quickly seek out—and spread—Rogers' words. On Dec. 18, PBS NewsHour reported that Mr. Rogers had "gone viral," with that post having been shared more than 90,000 times across the Internet. As Mackenzie Carpenter reported in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, these words from Mr. Rogers were picked up by Meet the Press, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.

PBS might describe this as Mr. Rogers "going viral," but it wasn't the content forcing parents, friends, and journalists to share it. Rather, it was the collective action of thousands of individuals and communities, action from people who read in Mr. Rogers' words a meaning that spoke to them today, and that—through sharing it—felt they could connect to others dealing with a tragedy that has impacted the whole nation.

But Carpenter's piece also pointed toward an issue Rogers' legacy now faces. While PBS still has web resources dedicated to Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, the program is no longer in their regular lineup.

It's a problem I've encountered as a parent. Back in 2010, I wrote an article called "5 Marketing Lessons from Mr. Rogers" after rediscovering my nostalgia for the program. At the time, I didn't see it in the television lineup. I couldn't find it in video-on-demand. I wrote that I hadn't gotten my 1-year-old DVDs of the show because little content was available in commercial circulation, and I linked to a petition that was circulating at that time with 2,000 signatures to get more DVDs released. And I was afraid Mr. Rogers' work might eventually disappear into historical footnotes.

My daughter's now 3. Some months back, we stumbled on some Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood clips people had circulated via YouTube. And his ability to talk frankly and respectfully to kids spoke to her. Eventually, we even found that the local PBS affiliate does air Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood at 5 a.m. on Saturday mornings. I was interested in finding more but didn't really know where to look.

In my forthcoming book with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green called Spreadable Media, we borrow from Raymond Williams' writings to talk about the "residual value" of content from the past—and the public's ability to rediscover and apply new meanings to that content, pushing it back to a more central place in the culture.

It was the unofficial circulation of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood content on YouTube that reconnected me to my desire for my daughters to experience lessons from Mr. Rogers—lessons I felt would resonate, even if some of his decor and some of the technology featured in the show is dated. Further, it was only after this widespread grassroots circulation of Mr. Rogers' words in the past couple of weeks that I discovered—since I last checked in 2010—that quite a few DVDs are now available of his show, and they are also now accessible through Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

Here, we have a perfect example of how "retro" content finds new meanings. A generation who grew up with and have great nostalgia for Mr. Rogers are now reconnecting with the program as parents, realizing how the show might enrich our children's lives. After hearing Mr. Rogers' advice regarding how to cope with tragedy, there is likely renewed interest on his insights on other timely issues.

It remains to be seen if PBS and The Fred Rogers Company find new ways to make audiences aware of how to connect with Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood via online platforms, or to get the content back in more widespread distribution (and into airing times when we actually want our kids to be awake). But it will be interesting to see if they are able to listen to, and capitalize on, this moment when the grassroots circulation and interest in Rogers' work has renewed interest in the program's decades of material.

Sam Ford is director of digital strategy for Peppercomm and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. He is also a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. Sam was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. He is also co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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  • Sam Ford

    Thanks for the thoughts, NWJH. I do think there's way too much fear-based selling throughout society/this country. There are many, many media-makers, media executives, and marketers who don't think this way or work this way...but it's nevertheless the sort of shortcut many have used in the absence of quality programming, marketing, or discussion. In the piece, I link to things marketers can learn from Mr. Rogers (a former Fast Company piece I wrote). And behind that is the presumption that commercial culture or commercial media can also be responsive to audiences, and companies can be responsive to their customers and respect them as human beings. This is the work I am heavily focused on at the moment...the goal to help companies more deeply connect to human processes like empathy and listening at an organizational level...After all, these are organizations comprised of human beings, and I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that companies can't be deeply connected to these way of thinking (and also be profitable). And that's where I think your point is true...that we all have to be able to connect to the sorts of ways of viewing the world and other people that Mr. Rogers espoused, in ways that we can do in all the small ways, in our everyday life and work.

  • Nwjh

    Older media was often created for different reasons than it is today. Today it's mainly about ratings, so that the material is the foundation upon which advertising can ride. Money is the only driver, the only measure of value.

    Many years ago, the Australian Broadcasting Commission ran a children's radio program for very many years (ending in 1972), which included The Argonauts' Club. As Atholl Fleming, one of the presenters for many years, often said, the philosophy of the program was to bring the very best of the prevailing culture to the next generation: music, art, literature, science, nature. A very wide range of experts were brought in to talk about their work, although usually under pseudonyms: the work mattered more than the individual. Ratings didn't matter, but the show was hugely popular.

    Perhaps the issue is content that will last in the hearts and minds of the audience, after the sales figures have been forgotten. What is the best that you can pass on to the audience? What stands out in both the quotes from Mr. Rogers is the need to broaden perceptions: don't focus solely on the tragedy, find the good, either in the helpers or in a parent's unconditional support. What message does the child come away with?

    If I live in continual fear, I am easy to manipulate: economically, politically, personally; it's the cornerstone of modern American life. To rise above my fear, without ignoring it or pretending it's not there, requires something far deeper within my humanity, something money can't buy or manipulate. Mr. Rogers understood the spiritual side of humanity, and was able to make media that has an ecumenical appeal to our spiritual side. It's only when we broaden our perceptions and realize that this side is missing in our culture, and that no amount of money can buy it, that we start the journey to find and explore our own spirituality, and therefore our own humanity.