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IFallsRon

PBS kicks Mr. Rogers in the junk

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'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' won't be shown on many PBS channels starting Monday

Fans are upset, but the show's declining ratings and stations' desire for new programming win out

By Steve Schmadeke

Chicago Tribune reporter

9:14 PM CDT, August 31, 2008

Seven years have passed since new episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" were taped and five since the show's iconic, sweater-clad host died.

But news that, starting Monday, "Mister Rogers" will disappear from the schedules of many PBS stations—including WTTW-Ch. 11 in Chicago, as well as stations in Los Angeles and apparently New York—has legions of parents and other fans lamenting what they see as a timeless show's end.

They are wondering, as Mr. Rogers himself might say: What do you do with the mad that you feel?

"It sucks, man," said Brian Linder, a South Carolina writer who grew up watching the show on a wood-paneled television and now watches it on a flat-screen TV with his twin daughters. "That's not a Mr. Rogers thing to say. But maybe in this case he'd even say it."

Linder has launched a Web site, savemisterrogers.com, and a Facebook group that has about 4,000 members. Among the letters Linder has posted is one from Oak Park-based artist Chris Ware, a well-known illustrator whose work has appeared on New Yorker covers.

Ware wants his daughter Clara, 3, to be able to watch the show because, while it may seem peculiar to adults, it was a carefully calibrated work of art that taught children about real life, he said.

"The show is fundamentally about clumsy, awkward, uncomfortable real life, and it's one of the last places on television where children can see it honestly reflected (regardless of the 1980s clothing and 1970s cars, which young kids don't notice, anyway)," he wrote. "With very little camera editing on the program, it also 'feels' more real."

PBS said its decision is a reaction to the show's declining ratings and the desire of many local stations, which set their own schedules, for new programming. Episodes eventually may be available online, PBS said.

About 60 percent of PBS' 355 member stations carry "Mister Rogers." After Monday, that will shrink to a handful showing it daily, estimated an executive at Family Communications, a non-profit launched by Fred Rogers that produced and still owns the show.

The change means it's no longer feasible for PBS to keep "Mister Rogers" on the air, said Dan Soles, senior vice president of television content at WTTW. It showed "Mister Rogers" at 6 a.m. as part of 12 hours of children's programming a day.

"We respect the fact that many viewers are passionate and loyal to the show," Soles said. "I grew up watching 'Mister Rogers,' so I can understand their feelings. It's admirable. The spirit of Mister Rogers is going to continue. There are plans to really ramp up and build up the Mister Rogers Web site."

Soles and a PBS spokeswoman said talks are ongoing with Family Communications about a new series, but an executive there said nothing has happened yet. And there's a "strong possibility" that "Mister Rogers" might be carried by one of the PBS-partnered digital channels, Soles said.

While some fans interviewed seemed resigned to the fact that they may have seen Mr. Rogers zip up his cardigan for the last time on local TV Friday, they are heartened by at least one possible success: A PBS station in Milwaukee apparently changed course and decided to keep the show on the air. Calls for comment to MPTV were not returned.

Kevin Morrison, Family Communications' chief operating officer, said the show had a remarkable run, especially considering there were no new episodes for seven years.

"You just have to recognize inevitably the fact that this is an old program and appeals less and less to the market," Morrison said.

Danny LaBrecque, programs coordinator for the Field Museum's Crown Family PlayLab, said that while he admires some of the new children's programming on PBS, it focuses almost exclusively on cognitive development and not as much on children's social and emotional growth. He has written WTTW in hopes of keeping "Mister Rogers" on the air.

"Young children really need that face time with a real human being," LaBrecque said. "That's what's really great about Mister Rogers. He was talking about getting a haircut and separation anxiety. In our city, there's certainly a lot of kids who don't get those really personal conversations. The fact that that's not going to be there is pretty sad."

Fans respect that Fred Rogers didn't sell out.

"You've never seen Mr. Rogers' face on a diaper," Linder said. But that also means that only a handful of episodes are available on DVD, and just a few clips—like an episode where Mr. Rogers learns about break dancing—are on YouTube.

Morrison said DVD demand has never been very strong, but the company may release episodes in smaller production numbers on a private label.

One actor, David Newell, who played the Speedy Delivery carrier Mr. McFeely, said he's touched that people still want to see a show that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

"It's a wonderful tribute to the program," said Newell, who promotes the show for Family Communications, sometimes in character at events. "So many people who grew up with the show . . . have warm feelings about it and it's really meant something to them. It was more than just an average television program."

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