How Mr. Rogers Saved PBS
It’s May 1, 1969. As the war continues in Vietnam, people gather in the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in D.C. to fight for what they believe is critical to the American public. Proposed budget cuts to Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) threaten the programs that have become dear to so many, and $20 million is on the line. For a public television station, this is everything.
Over the course of two days, Senator John Pastore, chairperson of the subcommittee, has listened to speech after speech about why PBS should be awarded the funding. He’s tired of hearing the same bland data and is eager to have the ordeal over with.
Then Fred Rogers, host of the newly syndicated series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” steps up to the microphone.
Unlike his fellow speakers, Mr. Rogers doesn’t use numbers or research to persuade Senator Pastore. In the calm voice many of us associate with our childhoods, Fred Rogers shares with Senator Pastore the reasons why he’s concerned about what children see on television. Two minutes after Rogers has begun talking, Pastore’s demeanor changes — his face softens, and he can tell Rogers has something important to say.
From his work in child development, Rogers has come to empathize with and understand the worries and fears of children. He explains to Senator Pastore that he’s created a show for children, saying, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” He doesn’t speak from the piece of paper in front of him; he speaks from his heart.
Rogers shares with Pastore what he tells viewers at the end of each episode: “You’ve made this day a special day just by being you.”
“I’d like to see this program,” Pastore says. Five minutes into the speech, he is transformed, just like anyone who’s seen Rogers’ show. “I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days,” Pastore tells him.
How has Rogers swayed the senator? He hasn’t waved a magic wand or given a dramatic performance, but Rogers’ passion is so palpable, even Senator Pastore can’t help being won over.
After Rogers shares the words of one the songs he features in “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” Pastore has heard enough.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Pastore declares. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
If you’d like to see Mr. Rogers’ testimony for yourself, you can check it out at youtube.com/watch?v=fKy7ljRr0AA.