The Daniel Tiger Doctrine

The creator of the beloved kids’ show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood talks about what makes great children’s TV—and reveals a significant plot development in the upcoming season.

Daniel Tiger makes noisemakers with Katerina Kittycat
Courtesy of The Fred Rogers Company

There’s a particular type of parent whom Angela Santomero, the creator of a number of children’s shows including Blue’s Clues, Super Why!, and PBS’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and author of Preschool Clues, encounters a lot: the guilty-feeling, screen time–loving parent. “Is it okay to let my child watch TV in general? Is that okay?” Santomero says she gets asked. “Is it okay that I need that break and I’m letting my child watch TV?”

Santomero believes that parents can and should be able to plop their kids down in front of a television screen when they need a moment, but in return it’s television’s responsibility to be a helpful babysitter. It’s a belief she shares with the creator of the show that inspired Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Fred Rogers, who hosted Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for the entirety of its 33-year run until it ended in 2001.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood follows Daniel Tiger—son of the beloved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood puppet Daniel Striped Tiger and his wife, known on the show only as Mom Tiger—as he navigates his preschool years. The PBS series is set in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where several of the original Mister Rogers supporting characters still live (such as Henrietta Pussycat and Mr. McFeely), but now with their spouses and children.

As the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? continues to delight moviegoers in cinemas, Santomero talked to The Atlantic about carrying on the Mister Rogers legacy in her own way, all the while tailoring Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to a generation of viewers who consume television differently from their parents. And she also revealed some big upcoming Daniel Tiger news: In the upcoming season, Mom Tiger is heading back to work.

An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

Ashley Fetters: It’s clear there were lots of elements that you wanted to keep from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when you mapped out Daniel Tiger. What did you want to do differently when you decided to make a spin-off for a modern audience?

Angela Santomero: I was that preschooler who couldn’t sit any closer to the TV when Mister Rogers was on. I was that crazy fan. So [with Daniel Tiger] I wanted to play with the characters in the Land of Make-Believe—because the live-action piece of it … well, you couldn’t find another Fred. So that already was something I knew that I didn’t want to do. And I wanted to have the characters grow up and all have kids of their own.

Fetters: The new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? points out that especially in his later years Fred Rogers was working to provide some counterprogramming to what he thought was either harmful or just unhelpful children’s TV. Is that a goal of yours as well?

Santomero: I think Fred and I both went into TV for the same reason: not loving what was on TV for kids at the time. Now, of course, with the onslaught of so many different kinds of screens, there’s so many ways that media is used. And I’m a little bit of a snob about it in terms of things that I don’t like. But we don’t necessarily think of it as counterprogramming. What we think of is preserving our Daniel audience. Now that it’s a hit, we know we have a responsibility—and an opportunity—to do some stories you might not be able to do on other shows because of the level of bonding that Daniel has with our audience and the fact that parents really trust us.

Fetters: How do you select those topics that you want to tackle?

Santomero: We select them with the Fred Rogers Productions team. We look at what kids really need.

And now because Daniel has been out on air, we can even ask on Facebook. Our fans are like, This is what I want, I want this episode! Then the team will talk about the “Fred-ish” way to do them.

Fetters: Which topics that the show has tackled came from a Facebook or social-media audience?

Santomero: There’s a lot—like the doctor’s-office visits, the dentist visits, the haircut. A lot of the “firsts,” which you wouldn’t necessarily think are socio-emotional, but we find a socio-emotional way of attacking and creating them, to get at the core, emotional resonance of preschoolers with regard to those kinds of stories. I think we did another potty episode because of what parents wanted, too.

Fetters: How did it differ from your first one? What more did parents want from it?

Santomero: I think that we kind of went full force in the second one. Not just a passing point of view with a strategy, but also had “number two” and we were wiping. This is a fun conversation. [laughs]

Fetters: Are there topics that you come across that you wanted to tackle but found were too tough, or outside the wheelhouse for a Daniel Tiger audience?

Santomero: We did a death episode that we waited for a while to do. We would bring it up almost in every brainstorm we would have, and then we would put it off and put it off. Finally, we decided to do it, and what we did was tackle it in a very similar way that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood did, when a goldfish died literally on set. Fred saw that happen and decided to embrace that moment. So we did it in that same way, with a goldfish. But we imparted the same strategies that you would use with a preschooler in any of those situations: following their lead, answering just the questions that they’re asking of you, acknowledging the feelings that they have about it, and creating some coping skills for them.

But it took a lot of time for us to research that and come at the right way in which we wanted to portray it. Definitely that one was years in the making.

Fetters: One thing Won’t You Be My Neighbor? brought back into focus is that Mister Rogers did episodes about current events, like the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination. Do you think about that at all when you’re in the writers’ room, whether or how to touch on current events?

Santomero: Our audience is 2 to 5, and I think for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood he was speaking to an audience a little older than preschoolers. But what we do is draw from things that affect little ones and disrupt their day-to-day—like, unfortunately, the storms that have been happening, Hurricane Sandy, things like that. We did a two-part special about that, that we could air anytime. “You have grown-ups here to keep you safe,” and those kinds of mantras. We did a “look for the helpers” approach to those types of situations.

So we’ve done that, and we’ve done voting, where you really have to be informed and make your choice. Do your research, get your information, and make your choice. We’ve done it on the preschool level, in terms of voting for swing or slide [on the playground], or voting for the class pet. We’ve adjusted it in that way.

But we’ve never called out anything completely, the way that Fred has done. It’s easier to do that and address that so quickly in live action. It takes a year for us. We’ll have an idea, and then it takes almost nine months per show. And of course we’re doing about, I don’t know, 10 to 14 shows at the same time. But yeah, it’ll take nine months, so we kind of have to do more universal themes.

Fetters: When I think back to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I remember Daniel Striped Tiger on Mister Rogers as … kind of a sad little guy. Sometimes he even seemed a little bit traumatized. But as Dad Tiger, he seems like a well-adjusted, caring adult and parent. How do you imagine the years between Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood played out for him?

Santomero: Dad Tiger went to therapy, is that what we’re thinking? [laughs]

Fetters: He seems to have figured a lot of things out!

Santomero: I think that the empathy we see [in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s Daniel Striped Tiger] is the level of empathy that he still has. When you’re little and the world is so big, you might not verbalize it, but you definitely are trying to figure the world out. And so when we look at the character, that’s how we portray him—that he’s articulating a lot of questions that preschoolers have. It was daunting to him, things that were going on, or misinterpreting, or not understanding some things.

And then for us, being able to articulate and ask those questions leads to somebody who can be really empathetic, get on the floor with their kids, respect their kids’ point of view, those kinds of things that we try to emulate with Dad and Mom Tiger.

Fetters: One last question, and … it’s kind of a silly one. Why does Mom Tiger wear pants, while Daniel Tiger and Dad Tiger—

Santomero: I knew it. I was waiting! I wish I had made a bet. [laughs] Why don’t Daniel Tiger and his dad wear pants, even though other characters wear pants? There’s a couple things. For Daniel Tiger, we love how plushy and tiger-y he is, and we didn't want to hide that by completely covering him up. But we really wanted to create that signature red sweater and sneakers, which of course is a nod to Fred. And then because Dad Tiger’s based on the original Daniel Striped Tiger, it made sense to us to emulate that same look.

And when it came to Mom, we didn’t want her to be necessarily in a dress, just because we wanted to show her active and real, and not necessarily in pearls all the time or whatever. And so this was the kind of outfit we landed on.

Fetters: Is she wearing scrubs? I thought maybe she was a doctor or a nurse.

Santomero: She’s in a little tunic. But I will tell you, she has a change of outfit for the new season because Mom goes back to work in the new season. We give Mom a job.

Fetters: What does Mom Tiger do? Can I know?

Santomero: She’s a builder. She builds things, and she helps fix things all around the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, so we can visually see what she does. As a preschooler, it’s so cool to see Mom fix something, or build something, and you can see it before and after. She has overalls, with tools and a tool belt, things like that. It’s very cute.