Fred Rogers used to say that the space between the television screen and the viewer is holy ground. Imagine if all media producers felt that way.
As the news spreads about the psychological tactics used by Facebook and other social media companies to hook users and mine their personal data, it may be time to rethink what media technology is and what it’s for.
Just beneath Mr. Rogers’ simple humility and gentleness was a profound philosophy of media that is worth paying attention to.
It has been 50 years since “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired. His approach was remarkable for its unremarkability. There were no animations, quick cuts, spastic characters or laugh tracks.
Mr. Rogers walked into his living room, and by extension ours, and said hello. Because that’s what you do when walk into someone’s living room.
He valued presence.
Despite the screen separating them, Mr. Rogers was more present to some children in the 1970s and 80s than their own parents. Divorce rates were skyrocketing and more households sent both mom and dad off to work. Mr. Rogers wasn’t there to babysit kids for half an hour; he was there to remind children that they were loved and capable of loving.
Mr. Rogers had small rituals that young viewers came to cherish. Every episode, he would take off his blazer and put on a cardigan while singing, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” He would sit down and change his shoes, letting the camera focus on the very simple act of tying his blue sneakers.
There weren’t goofy stunts or sight gags to get the kids’ adrenaline flowing. The show was a celebration of slowness and “everydayness,” elevated by the power of television. Each little ritual and repetition provided a moment of recognition for children, and that kind of recognition is calming. Mr. Rogers ties his shoes just like me.
Each episode was an opportunity to learn something new, or better, to see something old in a new way. Mr. Rogers would bring in a simple object like a shoebox and ask the children what they might do with it. How would they use their imagination to see more than a shoebox?
His relationship to creation was imbued with a deep sacramentality.
Mr. Rogers showed children that the average and the everyday can be signs of something much more. What better catechism for a child who will one day be shown that this very small piece of bread becomes God in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
It’s hard to have a relationship through a screen. Or over the phone or by email for that matter. Something always gets lost in the translation from human presence to electronic reproduction. Fred Rogers knew that TV was not the same as the real thing, but his genius was letting his young viewers in on that fact from the very beginning.
There was no manipulation with Mr. Rogers. He was on TV and he let you know he was on TV.
When the trolley went to the land of make-believe, it was his way of teaching children that the real world and the TV world are two different places. While the puppets in King Friday’s castle can teach us something about friendship, there is no substitute for turning off the TV and being a real friend to someone.
As a media professor at a Catholic university, I am often asked if I think Christ would have appeared on television if he had been on earth today. I always say, “No, that’s why he didn’t come today.”
Our Lord didn’t need the television. He sent an emissary who understood the value of real presence, ritual, sacramentality and friendship. Every morning, before he entered his office, Mr. Rogers would pray, “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.”
Maybe it’s naive to think that the internet will produce a Fred Rogers figure for the digital age, but maybe that’s OK. In the digital world, we’re all neighbors now. So let’s act like it. For Fred.
Teachers and media producers who care about early childhood education should check out the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where Fred’s philosophy of media is being applied in new and creative ways so that his legacy of caring and wisdom can be carried forward.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.
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