22 years after the final episode of ‘Mister Rogers' Neighborhood’ aired, Fred Rogers Productions continues its mission to create quality kid’s content with a slate of award-winning series and its innovative, eight-week program for emerging BIPOC writers that focuses on how to build and sustain a career as a freelance writer in children's media.
In 1968, kids across the United States were introduced to a kind-hearted, soft-spoken man wearing a zip-up sweater and sneakers who brought to life a world of make-believe, with kings and talking tigers, where puppets and a red trolley gave emotional support and personal affirmations. Fred Rogers’ ground-breaking series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ran for over 30 years, and in each of its 912 episodes, he taught audiences that everyone deserves love and a chance to follow their dreams.
22 years after the final episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired in 2001, Fred Rogers Productions (FRP), formerly Family Communications Inc., the company Rogers founded in 1971, continues to further its mission - of creating quality children’s media that models an enthusiasm for learning and earns the trust of parents and caregivers - with half-a-dozen kids’ TV programs and Writers’ Neighborhood, an eight-week program for emerging BIPOC writers that focuses on how to build and sustain a career as a freelance writer in children's media. The five-year initiative is currently in its second year.
Widely known for the 2012 series that re-vitalized the non-profit production company, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, FRP has worked with partners like PBS Kids, Brown Bag Films, Spiffy Pictures to produce 2D series like Peg + Cat, Through the Woods, Alma’s Way, and Daniel Tiger, as well as puppet series like Donkey Hodie and live-action programs like Odd Squad.
FRP itself has won two Peabody Awards, and five of its series have won multiple Daytime Emmy Awards and Annie Awards. It’s an impressive legacy for a non-profit in an extremely for-profit industry, building not only off a revered TV icon’s work but its own celebrated episodic efforts. And it’s even more impressive for a production company to use that legacy to help open doors for struggling creatives hoping to get their foot in the industry door.
Take a few minutes to enjoy some of their programs' trailers:
FRP’s Chief Creative Officer Ellen Doherty serves as executive producer for the company’s current series on PBS KIDS - Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Odd Squad, Donkey Hodie, and Alma’s Way. She also developed Donkey Hodie and Alma’s Way, and is the creator, head writer, and executive producer of Through the Woods. In 2023, Ellen was named on The Hollywood Reporter’s first-ever list of the 75 Most Powerful People in Kids’ Entertainment. AWN chatted with Doherty about FRP’s beginnings, the development of their most popular series, what the company looks for in a pitch, and how their Writers’ Neighborhood could change the entertainment industry permanently and for the better.
Victoria Davis: Daniel Tiger, Donkey Hodie, Alma’s Way, and Through the Woods are Fred Rogers Productions’ currently running animated projects. Daniel Tiger is FRP’s longest-running series, with six seasons and counting. Peg + Cat is also still on the air, and you’ve got projects in development that I know you’re not allowed to talk about. What does FRP look for in a TV show? When you’re sitting together, mulling over a pitch, what are the features that make it a good fit for the studio?
Ellen Doherty: As a non-profit, we're really mission-driven. And we have a mission statement, which I reflect on, that we “build on the legacy of Fred Rogers by creating quality children’s media that models kindness, respect, and an enthusiasm for learning and earns the trust of parents and caregivers.”
We like having a wide swath of content for strong social-emotional learning - like with Daniel Tiger, Donkey Hodie, and Alma’s Way - as well as for more curricular subjects, with Through the Woods and Peg + Cat. And, with either, it’s important to have that human connection. Through the Woods is a preschool nature show, but we wanted the family to look and interact as people who truly love each other. So, mom and dad will give Rider a kiss on the top of his head when he goes to visit Grammy. In an early animatic, there was a scene where the family was all on the couch together, and the way they sat made it looked like they were waiting for a bus. I’m like, “No, they should be leaning into each other.”
With Alma’s Way, one of the reasons I wanted to work with Pipeline Animation on that show is because they have really good software, and their understanding of how to use it to get the most human expression possible was so important. We’re always trying to capture humanity in our characters, whether they’re humans, or tigers, or donkeys, or pandas, or whatever.
VD: What is the process for pitching a show to FRP? Are these shows usually coming from outside partners, or are they developed in-house first?
ED: It's a mix. And that's one of the things I love about working here. As a non-profit, we have a lot of flexibility in what we make. We do work right now with PBS, which means big episode orders on first seasons traditionally. But we are open to making short-form series and other things. It doesn't have to fit into one particular genre of TV show. It's about making meaningful content on a variety of platforms.
In terms of how content is developed, our existing shows demonstrate the variety of how things come together. Daniel Tiger and Donkey Hodie are both legacy characters who are inspired by the work of Fred Rogers, and we started the idea here, then went to outside creative collaborators on both shows: 9 Story Media Group and Brown Bag Films for Daniel Tiger, and Spiffy Pictures for Donkey Hodie. Daniel Tiger began with the idea to animate the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and we had a mini-bible for Donkey Hodie that was about overcoming obstacles and dreaming big. Peg + Cat was an external project that needed a production partner. And, when I arrived at FRP in 2016, I created Through the Woods in response to a Request for Proposal (RFP) from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for a preschool nature show. And they had a crazy deadline. We had nine months, from greenlight to delivery.
For Alma’s Way, PBS reached out to us and said, “Hey, Sonia Manzano is working on a show about a Puerto Rican girl living in New York, she's looking for partners, would you want to talk to her?” And I was like, “Uh, yeah. Obviously.” When I asked Sonia what his goal was for the show, she told me, “I want kids to know they have a mind and can use it.” It was a clear pitch, and I could immediately see the vision.
VD: It’s a risky endeavor to operate as a non-profit in the entertainment industry. Of course, Fred Rogers has such a huge legacy. But was it surprising to see such success with these series and how much love was poured into this person early on and how much that carries over?
ED: This organization was founded by Fred Rogers and, when he started it, the company was called Family Communications. After he passed away, the company rebranded to the Fred Rogers Company and, eventually, Fred Rogers Productions. Really smart choices were made for Daniel Tiger, Peg + Cat, and Odd Squad to reestablish this organization as a modern entity.
This used to be a 50-year-old startup that had done one thing - Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood - and had done it very well. And Fred Rogers is truly an icon and very inspirational. He was a person with a personal mission and vocation, who wanted to make great stuff. And we lean into that. We're not answering to shareholders. We're answering to a board of directors who want to know how we’re delivering on the mission. That's what matters. You have to really believe in and love, truly love, the projects that you're making, because it's so much work and it takes so much time. We don't spin our wheels on things that we're not committed to.
VD: Your shows range a lot in style, but are there some design principles you hold to based on the imaginative puppetry of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, even with the 2D animation? There was so much to the visuals on that show that would assist kids with emotional awareness, learning, and engagement. What all did you borrow from that?
ED: First and foremost, you want a distinct look and feel. You want something that's going to stand out without the style reminding you of something else you watched. We want things to stay fresh. And then it is really the intention of the visuals, which is something that gets expressed differently in the different shows.
For example, with Alma’s Way, one of the things that Sonia talked a lot about before we had art was that she wanted to show a Puerto Rican family with very specific physical traits, and to not go the route of abstract cartoon, where the physical traits are not evident because of the design style. We did concept art with four different artists on that show, making sure we were intentional about the visuals and thoughtful about what we were showing.
With Donkey Hodie, we were very intentional about designing the characters in a way where they all fill the frame. They're all different sizes. But they fill the frame. Something that can happen in puppet shows is, if they're not differentiated enough in size, you end up with a lot of headroom. But we're able to shoot Donkey Hodie in a way that doesn't make it feel like other puppet shows.
VD: There’s a bit of inclusive messaging to that too; that these characters of all different sizes and colors can still exist and thrive together in this world and include each other in their day-to-day. We saw things like that on older shows like Bear in the Big Blue House, where massive characters and tiny characters are including each other in games and conversation.
ED: Exactly. That was such a good show. And inclusivity is also part of that intention. We look for worlds that are well developed and really rich in terms of the depth of the characters and who they are.
VD: In addition to all your TV productions, FRP has also started a five-year initiative, the Writers’ Neighborhood, now in its second year. How did that begin? What’s it all about?
ED: The idea of the Writers’ Neighborhood is that children who watch media should be able to see themselves and their worlds reflected in what they watch. The best way to do that is to have show creators who are diverse, in all kinds of ways, making the shows, and to get show writers who are diverse, so that they can gain the experience to create shows and run a show. The Writers’ Neighborhood is a way to help move the industry forward.
There are a lot of really great programs for writers now at Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop. But it seemed to me that there was also an opportunity to help people build their careers as freelancers, since so much work in children's media for writers, especially in animation, is likely to be freelance. It's really hard to have a career as a freelancer, number one, because you're constantly looking for work. Number two, how do you learn in that environment if you are, especially now, just at the end of an email? The Writers’ Neighborhood is designed for these reasons to focus on helping new and emerging writers build their careers, and manage their careers, from networking to deepening their craft and understanding the nuance of what goes into producing a show.
We also teach them how to be confident when asking questions. Because people in this industry feel like they shouldn't ask questions, especially when they’re new.
VD: Which is so backwards. That’s when you should be asking the most questions.
ED: There's something about professional workplaces that makes you feel like you should automatically know how to do this. And so, we're here to say, ‘Ask questions!’ So, we connect them with a lot of writers through virtual programs and weekly webinars. And then, because we also want to build community, we bring them to Pittsburgh, all eight writers, for a kickoff and a closing to the program, because we also want these eight people to build community amongst themselves and with those of us who work at FRP, so that they feel like they can ask those questions.
VD: So how does the cycle work each year for this program? When should people look to sign up?
ED: Well, because we want these people to all write for us, we tried to line it up with when our shows were in scripting, which proved very complicated. So, the way it works right now is that we announce the opening of the next cohort in the spring and applications are due late spring or early summer. We do interviews and review materials over the summer and then notify the fellows who have been accepted in August. And then we start in September, and the program runs through early November. We’re still figuring out the timeframe for all this, which is why I can’t say the exact dates of 2024’s cohort.
But, after the program itself, there are six months of after-support, which consists of monthly check-ins and meetings with our fellows to help them along in the industry. We’re trying to provide environments where people can learn as well as do the more directional teaching stuff.
VD: Learning with perseverance and teaching with patience were big things Fred Rogers stood for and I think it's wonderful that FRP is now also helping adults learn with the writers’ room, as well as kids with their TV programs. Did you have writers from the pilot program come on as writers for FRP?
ED: Yes, we have. Five of the original eight are currently or have written for our current series. And next year, as new series hopefully get greenlit, we will be inviting all those writers to pitch for us again. It's really exciting to see them grow.
VD: And, I imagine, get launched into an industry that wouldn’t have otherwise had a door open for them.
ED: I encourage our folks to think a lot about how people can get on their radar. One of the fellows last year asked us, “How do we find work when jobs are never posted?” I was like, “Great question.” So, I emailed about 30 colleagues and did a survey asking “How do you hire people? Where do you find people?” And the most common answer was, “I ask people I know.” So, in that case, how do you find the right people when you don't know them? It's time-consuming. But the thing is that this is how people who are not connected, can get in. The doors have to be open. You have to make opportunities for growth, for fresh voices, and making sure people who don’t know anybody in this business have a way in.
Those interested in applying to the Writers’ Neighborhood at Fred Rogers Productions can do so here: writersneighborhood.fredrogers.org/. And stay up-to-date on cohort announcements via FRP’s social media channels (below).
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