Given his present-day reputation as pop culture’s moral compass, the origins of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood are shockingly controversial.

While television had been around for a while when the show first launched, as historian Cynthia Greenlee wrote, the idea of “public television” — TV funded by the taxpayer — was new and still pretty radical. Teachers in particular objected to the idea that television could be a teaching tool. And though it was released in 1967, by 1969 Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was already in peril, prompting creator Fred Rogers to appear before Congress to challenge proposed cuts to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting’s funding.

“When the money ran out, people in Boston, and Pittsburg, and Chicago all came to the fore and said ‘we’ve got to have more of this neighborhood expression of care,’” Rogers, who wrote, starred in, designed the sets, and composed the music for his show, explained to lawmakers. “This is what I give.”

Mr. Rogers testifying before Congress in 1969 to protest proposed cuts to public television funding. 

Why Shows Like Mr. Rogers Are So Important

We know, ultimately, how the story goes: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood became quickly beloved by children, and research quickly showed that it helped them learn. Even more than Sesame Street, children of all stripes who watched Mr. Rogers were found to be significantly more pro-social in their interactions with adults and other children after a week spent watching the program. It ran for four decades until Rogers eventually retired in 2001. From Segregation and the Vietnam war to the new millennium, Mr. Rogers was there.

TV’s come a long way since then, and in a lot of ways, the changes are good. All these options for programming mean television can be much more diverse, children have a much easier time now finding shows with characters who look like them.

But at the same time, it’s hard to see how a such a profoundly low-tech, “let’s talk about our feelings” kind of show is supposed to compete with Fortnite, YouTube, Instagram, and Netflix. The combination of media fragmentation, advancing technology, and imperiled funding for initiatives like public television makes it easy to wonder whether we’ll ever see something like Mr. Rogers again.

Fred Rogers.
Fred Rogers.

The closest thing children now have to Mr. Rogers is Sesame Street, which is still making new episodes despite being on the air for nearly as long. Like Mr. Rogers, it also has a notable legacy. A 2015 study found that pre-schoolers exposed to Sesame Street demonstrated greater school readiness, particularly boys and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those researchers described Sesame Street as the largest and least costly early-childhood educational intervention, perhaps ever.

But without strong public support, entities like Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street simply aren’t surviving, which means today’s kids are losing out on the opportunity to have some kind of shared vocabulary that endures beyond the latest trend. And while Sesame Street may still be on the air, it’s also safe to say that rich children and poor children don’t experience it in the same way. Ever since 2016, new seasons of Sesame Street appear first on premium network HBO, before being distributed on public broadcasting nine months later.

It’s easy to make the case that we don’t need low-tech TV shows in order to achieve the dual-objective of educating kids while also making something they actually want to watch (or play). iPads are distributed in schools, and educational technology holds a lot of promise to pick up where efforts like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers left off.

But in the meanwhile, a kid who’s home alone because his parents are at work, and a kid who’s home alone because his parents are summering in the Hamptons simply aren’t going to be watching the same things anymore. And maybe it’s just that I spent way too much time watching TV as a kid, but I can’t help but wonder if, assuming those two kids happened to run into each other somewhere, what they’d have to talk about.

Photos via PBS