Tuned In: 'Peg + Cat'

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- A year after the launch of "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," South Side's The Fred Rogers Company is ready to launch another animated, children's series on PBS. But TFRC's relationship to "Peg + Cat" is different.

The company that the late Fred Rogers built did not create or develop "Peg + Cat" (9 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays beginning Monday, WQED-TV). Instead, it partnered with the show's creators to help shepherd the production from pilot to series.

TFRC is the producer of the show, whose copyright is essentially a 50-50 split between TFRC and the show's creators, Billy Aronson ("Rent," "Postcards from Buster") and Jennifer Oxley ("Little Bill," "The Wonder Pets!").

'Peg + Cat' debuts on PBS

The PG's TV Critic Rob Owen talks with creators Billy Aronson and Jennifer Oxley about ???Peg + Cat??? from The Fred Rogers Company. (Video by Rob Owen; 10/6/2013)

'Peg + Cat'

When: 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays starting Monday, WQED-TV.

"Peg + Cat" also takes TFRC into new territory as a math and problem-solving show. And it's the company's first series without an on-air tie to the original "Mister Rogers Neighborhood."

"Peg + Cat" focuses on spirited, sometimes frustrated Peg and her sidekick Cat, who find themselves in the midst of a problem -- messy room, a need to feed a horde of pirates with just one banana -- and use math skills to save the day while modeling resilience, collaboration and perseverance through original songs.

"Every show ends with a big music video that features a math principle," Mr. Aronson said during an August PBS press conference. "There's so much math in music. So much of it's about beats, it's about patterns. But also just because a lot of what we're teaching needs to be repeated over and over again. Counting to 100 by 10s or to 50 by 5s, you can't just watch one 12-minute episode and get that right away. So we have songs in there that we think you're going to want to hear over and over and over again."

Each half-hour episode features two stories. In "The Farm," Peg and Cat have to get 100 chickens back into a coop (primary content: size correspondence; secondary content: the number 100). In "Peg's Room," Peg and Cat have to clean her messy room before company arrives to see Peg's art masterpiece, "The Circles" (primary content: sorting; secondary content: shapes).

"As much as it's a math show, we feel like more it's a problem-solving show," said Paul Siefken, TFRC vice president of broadcast and digital media. "And, of course, the Fred Rogers Company's been known for social-emotional development with children. And when you think about problem-solving, I dare anybody to come up with a problem, no matter how academic, that didn't involve emotions. Peg and Cat come up with problems that they have to solve, and the emotions that come with it, and then they persevere. ... There's always a celebration; they give a musical high five at the end. And that's something that I think really fits with the Fred Rogers philosophy."

Ms. Oxley and Mr. Aronson both were good at math in school, but "Peg + Cat" is "not a hardcore math show," he said. "It's foundational and sets up to pave the way to all kinds of advanced stuff."

The pair, who are based in New York (the show's animation work is completed in Toronto), met while working on "Wonder Pets" where Mr. Aronson was head writer and Ms. Oxley was creative director. They joined forces when PBS asked for a math show. When PBS ordered "Peg + Cat" to series, Ms. Oxley called up TFRC's chief operating officer, Kevin Morrison, for advice on financing and how best to gear up for series production.

"He took an hour of his day and walked us through every part of the process," Ms Oxley said. "Then he got curious and searched online to find the pilot and he talked with [TFRC president] Bill Isler about it and called me late on a Friday and said, 'Jennifer, I have a proposal for you. The Fred Rogers Company loves what you're doing and we would love to be a part of it. We'll let you guys do [what you do creatively] and we'll handle all the financials,' and that was a dream come true for us."

A "Peg + Cat" book, "The Chicken Problem," was published in 2012. It features Peg, Cat and the same story as found in an early "Peg + Cat" episode.

"Our editors really didn't want to tag it as a TV tie-in book," Ms. Oxley said. "They wanted it to stand alone as a picture book."

With the TV show hitting the air, that approach is likely to change just as TFRC's approach to television production has evolved.

With "Peg + Cat," TFRC is taking on more of a facilitator role. Unlike on "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," the company is not giving notes on "Peg + Cat" scripts.

"We're working with PBS to make sure it's delivered on time," Mr. Siefken said. "We liaison with PBS to make sure once the creative is done that we're getting it on the air and on the Web through mobile apps in the best ways possible. As we've been working on 'Peg + Cat,' and before that on 'Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood,' the philosophy we're taking on now is partnering with the best."

For "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" that meant working with Angela Santomero, an experienced, successful children's TV producer ("Super Why!" and "Blue's Clues").

"Moving forward, I think that we'd like to continue to look for opportunities to partner with brilliant creatives who believe in the Fred Rogers philosophy of putting kids first and what's best for them," Mr. Siefken said, "but also in putting innovation first and figuring out how to use the medium in the best way to innovate and do groundbreaking educational content."

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Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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