The premiere of "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" from PBS Kids on Labor Day marks the first television series produced by the Fred Rogers Company since the death of its iconic founder in 2003.
The new animated series carries on the tradition established over 33 seasons by the critically acclaimed "Mister Rogers Neighborhood." Daniel Tiger inhabits an updated Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where characters are sons or daughters of Mr. Rogers' original puppet characters.
Daniel Tiger is the 4-year-old son of Daniel Striped Tiger, Rogers' curious but shy friend in the original program. In true Rogers style, Daniel wears a red sweater and sneakers, and he talks directly to the camera about his feelings on issues like potty training and backyard camping.
"Animation allows us to see what Daniel is imagining when he's thinking through a problem," said Angela C. Santomero, executive co-producer. "But the first 10 seconds and the last 10 seconds are exactly the way Fred did it. It is very purposeful."
Santomero, who in the 1990s conceived Nickelodeon's "Blues Clues," worked with Rogers' company and two Toronto companies - 9 Story Entertainment, which created the animation, and Voodoo Highway Music, which composed the score - for the initial batch of 40 half-hour episodes.
When the first episode airs at 11 a.m. Monday on WNED-TV, viewers will witness a milestone in children's television, according to Joanne Rogers, Fred Rogers' widow.
"I had wondered what this little tiger was going to be like," said Mrs. Rogers during a phone interview from Pittsburgh. "And would he be able to get that same feeling that Fred was able to give his father Daniel? All the puppets were some part of Fred, but Daniel the most.
"I was thrilled and I was relieved," said Mrs. Rogers. "It moved me very much."
Media executives and academics also will be watching to see if an animated tiger can fill the sneakers of a public broadcasting legend.
Tough act to follow
"Mister Rogers Neighborhood" originated in Canada, where it broadcast from 1963 to 1967. It premiered on PBS in 1967, produced out of the Pittsburgh affiliate WQED-TV. The show's final episode aired Aug. 31, 2001, but it continued in reruns until 2008.
Fred McFeely Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who saw his mission as educating children, according to Kevin Morrison, who heads the Rogers company.
"The more you learn about him from the people who were around him, the more you think, What an extraordinary character!," said Morrison. "The depth of his learning on these subjects, the fact that he had been at masters' level on the whole business of child development, the fact that quite separately he was an accomplished musician."
"I did not meet him, but I live in his shadow now," said Morrison. "You feel him around here all the time. There was no question of finding somebody else to replace him. He was one-of-a-kind, so either we turn off the lights and go home or we redefine our purpose."
A new neighborhood
Before making the pitch for an animated Daniel Tiger to PBS, Morrison recalled, multiple formats were considered.
"We looked at puppets, live action, animation, and we looked at combinations of all of those," said Morrison. "They were all basically aimed at the same area, the social-emotional development of preschoolers. Animation is the one we loved the most, and without a doubt, it's the one that PBS wanted."
Santomero has a master's degree in child developmental psychology, instructional technology and media. In fact, Santomero said her thesis evolved into the PBS Kids program "Super Why." She makes no secret of her admiration for Fred Rogers, whom she met at a children's television symposium at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.
"I told him the only reason I went into children's television was because of him," Santomero recalled. "After he died, they reached out to me and asked what would I do to honor his legacy with a new show," she recalled. "I was floored."
At Voodoo Highway Music in Toronto, composer and co-owner Brian Pickett was asked to contemporize "Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," Mister Rogers' original theme song, as well as create new music for the series.
"The tricky thing about the old version is it's very catchy in the beginning, but the melody goes in some places that kids would never remember," said Pickett. "We kept true to a lot of the song, but we simplified it and made it catchier."
The new theme song is played while viewers watch Daniel riding through town on a trolley.
"There are a couple of old Fred Rogers' songs that we are keeping note for note," Pickett said. "Fred and the fellow who played piano with him were hard-core jazzers. We used their general template, which is a light jazz band, and a celesta, which is kind of a percussive metal instrument that sounds like a gentle metal xylophone."
Each episode has a strategy, or problem-solving lesson. School-readiness skills, the kind that help a small child socialize with others his age, are vocalized by Daniel Tiger and his friends.
"Music sends the message home to little kids," said Santomero.
Consider this jingle that helped Daniel Tiger learn to handle anger: "When you feel so mad you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four."
"Through song, we'll show things that might make you angry, and what you can do to calm down," said Santomero.
"I'm hoping that parents and kids or grandparents and kids will watch the show together, and they'll both get something from it," she said. "It's written for kids specifically, but because of little nostalgia moments, you'll get that warm and fuzzy feeling when you watch it."