BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Eleven years ago last week the final original episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" debuted on PBS. The legacy of the late Fred Rogers continues with PBS's "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," premiering with back-to-back episodes at 11 a.m. Monday on WQED-TV.
In development since 2006, the animated series "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" tells the stories of the offspring of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe puppet characters from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Like its predecessor, "Daniel Tiger" will be aimed at children ages 2-4.
"The series is designed to meet the social emotional needs of today's kids building on the philosophy of love and respect for children that Fred Rogers pioneered," said Lesli Rotenberg, senior vice president of children's media at PBS, during July's Television Critics Association summer press tour.
Each half-hour episode of "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" contains two 11-minute animated segments that share a theme; there also are two short live-action segments in each episode. About 30 episodes will premiere during the 2012-13 TV season.
"A lot of the themes are inspired by Fred's music and Fred's songs, so you'll definitely be able to feel that presence," said Angela Santomero, who created and executive produces "DTN" with Kevin Morrison, chief operating officer of Oakland-based The Fred Rogers Company. "The Fred Rogers' approach to these themes is what's so signature and distinct from any other show that does pro-social curriculum. It's a very specific child-centered approach that really respects the child and elevates them to the next level in terms of communication and expressing their feelings."
Joanne Rogers, widow of Mr. Rogers and honorary chairwoman of the Fred Rogers Company board of directors, said when her husband made the decision to end "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in 2000, there was no formal plan for his company, then called Family Communications Inc., to create another TV show. Fred Rogers died in 2003 of stomach cancer.
"They had had meetings about it in the years before, but [Fred Rogers Company president Bill Isler] always called Fred 'the franchise,' and it was true," Mrs. Rogers said. "I think that Fred had hopes of finding someone that he worked with that might take over but ... I don't think he was replaceable."
Mrs. Rogers acknowledged the need for a new series and her apprehension about it.
"We were so completely blessed by having [veteran media executive] Kevin Morrison step in [in 2006] to get a view of the whole situation and make the decision that if we didn't do a program, we were not going to make it as we had been," Mrs. Rogers said in a July interview. "I had nervous feelings [about a new show] until I was able to see the first bits. I just couldn't imagine how they could do justice to Daniel, and when I saw it for the first time, I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I just thought that they had just nailed it, and I was so pleased."
She called it "a great blessing" that Ms. Santomero came aboard to spearhead writing the new program. Ms. Santomero grew up watching the original "Neighborhood" and credits Fred Rogers with her career in children's television.
"I was Fred's No. 1 fan," Ms. Santomero said. "I could not sit any closer to the television set when the show was on."
Ms. Santomero, who is co-founder of New York-based Out of the Blue Enterprises and creator of PBS's "Super WHY!" and co-creator of 1990s Nickelodeon hit "Blue's Clues," met Fred Rogers at a luncheon while the original "Neighborhood" was still in production. He invited her to the set at WQED in Pittsburgh.
"I got to visit and meet everyone at the Fred Rogers Company, and we kind of kept in touch after that," she said.
Early in the new program's development, the "DTN" creative team ruled out creating a next-generation version of "Mister Rogers."
"Fred was an architect of PBS," Mr. Morrison said. "We wanted to do something for 21st-century children that was something that Fred would have approved of. We developed a number of different ideas, and ['Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood'] was one of them, and it was the one that ultimately emerged as the one that everybody, including PBS, liked the most."
"Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" enjoys financial support from at least nine primary sources, Mr. Morrison said, including six local foundations. The Richard King Mellon Foundation is lead local funder; other local foundations helping to finance the venture include The Grable Foundation, The Hillman Foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation, PNC Foundation and Staunton Farm Foundation.
Production of the series takes place in Pittsburgh, New York and Toronto. Ms. Santomero is based in New York, but she often travels to Pittsburgh for brainstorming sessions with FRC employees, looking at scripts and coming up with new story ideas.
"We look at [stories] from the point of view of does it achieve child development objectives, is the strategy on message, does it work," Mr. Morrison said. "Is it 'Fred-ish,' for want of a better word."
Writers are based at Ms. Santomero's company in New York; the live-action interstitial segments are produced in Pittsburgh. The animation is produced in Toronto by 9 Story Entertainment.
"Nowadays television production, particularly animation production, ends up being done in a number of different places," Mr. Morrison said. "The Fred Rogers Company in Pittsburgh doesn't have access locally to the kind of heavyweight animation production you need to do 40 half-hours in a truncated timetable. There are certainly some very skilled people in town who could do 30 seconds of animation but not 40 half-hours. The right thing to do then is to look for the right location to do it both for the quality you want and the price you want, and the answer nowadays is always Canada."
"DTN" is created using an animation technique based on Flash animation but with photographs of real objects added.
"So the grass in 'Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood' is actually green carpet," Mr. Morrison said. "The sweater that [Daniel is] wearing is real chain stitch woolen sweater material, which has been reconstructed into animation and into the sweater. It actually creates a very rich and beautiful animated world."
The sound of the series draws from the old "Neighborhood" -- including its theme song -- with music an important component. One strategy song, tied to the episode's theme, gets played multiple times in the half-hour. Mr. Morrison said about 15 percent of the music used in "DTN" is from Mr. Rogers' library of songs with the rest created by the group Voodoo Highway.
"They spent a lot of time listening to Fred's music and steeping themselves in the way Fred approached topics in order to help them compose songs," Mr. Morrison said. "Sometimes the strategy song is an adaptation of a Fred song, so it can be 'What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?,' which is a Fred song in the 'Mad Feelings' episode."
For parents who grew up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," there's a natural curiosity about the characters in this new show. Developing backstories for the characters may have been Ms. Santomero's favorite part of the creative process.
"You have these great, signature character traits and really interesting characters I really like. So, the preschooler in me was playing with these characters in terms of who got married, what their kids would be like and what [personality] pieces they'd take from their parents," Ms. Santomero said. "The challenge with the entire series was to do it as elegantly as possible to pay tribute to somebody who meant so much to me. ... I feel a big responsibility that we're delivering what fans would want to see."
She's been surprised how the show's two 11-minute animated stories allow time for developing the characters and even planting seeds for stories to come.
"I've been joking that it's like 'Friends' for preschoolers," Ms. Santomero said, "because these are characters who really start to feel like they're developed and storylines you start to anticipate, maybe not as a 3-year-old but as an adult watching you can really immerse yourself into this world.
" 'Blue's Clues' was much more about the interactivity and the cognitive and kindergarten readiness, and 'Super WHY!' was really teaching kids to read," she continued, "but if we really want to teach kids to play well together and express their feelings, we need them to be in these stories. That's been a real pleasant surprise in terms of how much we're living in this world."
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published September 2, 2012 4:00 AM