Angela Santomero is a bigger showrunner than Vince Gilligan, David Milch, and Judd Apatow combined — to a kid. The creator of Blue Clues, Super Why!, Creative Galaxy — and yes, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood — is the driving force behind the best educational programming for children. But her inspiration started with the guy who slipped off his shoes, put on a cardigan, and taught a generation that they’re “special just the way they are.”
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was Santomero’s muse all the way through her master’s degree, where she hoped to one day create a series on public television like her mentor. “I would always say, I’m Fred’s number one fan,” she says. “My goal was to go full-circle and create a show like [his].” And with Daniel Tiger, the show that incorporates characters and lessons from Rogers … goal accomplished.
Santomero has a knack for seeing a preschooler’s POV and points out creating children’s television is a chance to live and play in her these made-up worlds. “When we’re doing a mission that has a reason why we’re creating it, then I feel good that what we’re putting out there is empowering kids,” she says. “There has to be a why. If there isn’t a why then it’s not worth it.”
Here, Santomero talks to Fatherly about the importance of PBS programming for American children, how she hopes to continue Rogers’s legacy, and she previews the very special episode of Daniel Tiger that deals with death.
What was it about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that had you hooked?
I was that preschooler who couldn’t sit any closer to the TV when Mr. Rogers was on. I literally grew up with him, and I talked directly to the TV to him. Later, I learned he had a child developmental psychology background and I ended up getting my masters as well and really wanted to do what he did for kids. I loved this idea that you could use television as an educational tool and talk directly to kids. If you watched Blues Clues, the way we had Steve talk to the home viewer — that was my way of paying homage to Fred. From four-years-old to college, Fred had such an impact on me and my career.
They say don’t meet your heroes. What was it like meeting Fred Rogers?
It’s amazing because all the stories were true. He was that person. The first time, I met him as a complete fan waiting in line for hours after a symposium he did. When I got to meet him, colleague-to-colleague, we were at a table at a children’s television event and I said, “You’re the entire reason why I got into television!” And he said, “Take a breath. Tell me your name.” He really was that person.
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And then what happened?
The first few conversations after the initial meeting I got to meet his team and watch an episode filming. And the Fred Rogers Company asked me to continue the show. “What do you think could be the next step?” It was that broad. My thinking was, I would absolutely love to do this, but we have to animate the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I said, “I’m not going to try to find another Fred Rogers.” It wasn’t just going to be some person you could hire.
As a creator of children’s content, how important is PBS for American children?
PBS has no agenda other than educating kids. And that is a gift to a producer who has a lot to say. That’s not to say you can’t find those exact people who truly believe in that other networks because they do. But at PBS, we’re there to service kids who have never been serviced. Our mission is to talk to lower income children who do not have the resources that middle or upper incomes families have.
Have your shows helped bridged a gap for children?
When we were doing Super Why!, we learned there was this gap for kids on this lower income spectrum, who were having a hard time reading. They didn’t have enough books available for them in their homes. They were sophisticated in their television watching but they were lagging behind their peers in terms of skills required to read. So what do we do? We did a super hero show, and we’re proud we moved the needle for them. I don’t know where we could have done that if it wasn’t for PBS.
Sesame Street recently introduced Julia, a character with autism. Will this current season of Daniel Tiger take preschoolers through real life situations?
This season, we’re dealing with death and how to talk about it in a preschooler way. We were inspired by an old Fred episode where his goldfish died. Our story with Daniel will open up conversations and questions and he looks to his parents for emotional support.
We also just did a “King Daniel” episode, where Daniel gets to be king of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and it’s all about kindness. Daniel learns about the things you need to lead and I don’t think that episode could be more relevant. I always hear from parents, that they want Daniel to go up with their preschooler. Finding relevant topics like those are the kinds of things where I think, maybe we’ll never run out of episodes.