HE speaks slowly, but he's not patronizing. He speaks sweetly, but he's not cloying. He's acts like a kid's friend, but doesn't pretend he's a kid - even at heart.
He's Mister Rogers, the most enduring and possibly the most valuable single asset in the whole troubled history of children's TV. This month marks a notable anniversary for the well-loved host of PBS's `Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." Developed in its present form on Pittsburgh's public TV station, WQED, the show began airing on PBS in 1968, featuring a young, black-haired version of today's avuncular - even grandfatherly - Fred.
But he already had that spiritual equanimity and reassuring calmness that goes quietly to the heart of small viewers. And today it's hard to imagine TV - much less kids' TV - without his decent, humane, and stabilizing presence. He has the longest-running national program in the history of public television, now reaching more than 8 million households on some 318 public stations. This is true partly because Fred Rogers was and still is an alternative to the blitz of cartoons on the commercial networks, a nd even to the brilliantly produced but somewhat hyper "Sesame Street."
Rogers himself doesn't make many new shows these days. But from Feb. 22-26, he'll offer five new programs dealing with love - a simple and profound theme typical of the Rogers style. Kids come away from such shows feeling good about being a kid and also about growing up - not because tough subjects have been bypassed or sugar-coated, but because Rogers's presence suggests there are adults out there like him who understand and want to help.
Yet I can recall a time when someone had to straighten me out about Mr. Rogers. It was when he first started in PBS. I came across this gentle fellow on the tube, speaking to young TV viewers in what I found to be strangely measured tones. I wondered what he was all about. Were kids really listening to this unprecedented on-camera style, or was it a stunt?
A straight-talking young mother I knew clarified it for me: "He's fantastic," she said. "He speaks to kids." And he does speak to them - individually. It's an old trick but much less common - possibly unique - on children's TV. When he asks questions of the famous guests who appear on his show, they are about things that tots really want to know, not the cute questions adults think kids ask.
During a special Disney Channel broadcast a couple of days before the recent inauguration, Rogers interviewed the president-elect. The questions he put to Mr. Clinton were classic Rogers: "When you were a boy did you ever get angry, and what did you do about it?" (Clinton's answer: He counted to 10 to give himself a chance to think about it - although some things, Clinton added, are worth getting angry about.)
In his famous opening routine - once ludicrously satirized by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live - Rogers takes off his sports coat and shoes ever so slowly, making it a ritual that captures the inner rhythm of his little viewers, who also take a long time tending to the small business of life.
His songs especially - with words and music by Rogers himself - have been a kid's guide through emotional development - songs like "What do you do with the mad that you feel?" Answer: "I can stop, stop, stop any time." He says numbers like those give kids control and let them know they have choices. Peggy Charren, founder of the now-defunct Action for Children's Television and visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told me she calls Rogers "a singing psychiatrist."
His effectiveness, musical and otherwise, wipes out any notion that the medium itself is the reason that TV has now failed three generations of children. Used right - as Rogers does - the medium serves a role unfillable by books or school. The emphasis of his show is on emotional growth, but he's the only major figure approaching kids' TV in this way. His value lies not merely in the things he chooses to say - they aren't so novel. It's the fact that, because Mister Rogers is saying them, kids accept the m. On TV, as the saying goes, the medium is the message, and the medium here - the wonderfully affirmative medium - is Rogers himself.