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Rogers' death gets front-page headlines

Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mister Rogers' death, like his neighborhood, made news everywhere.

Most metropolitan newspapers in the United States started Fred Rogers' obituary on their front pages Friday. Virtually all the rest teased the story with a photo and caption, or a small item that guided readers to coverage inside the paper.

Fred Rogers


Friends, relatives mourn death of Mr. Rogers

Additional coverage


In that respect, the treatment of Rogers' life and death was typical of an era when obituaries about famous entertainers are displayed alongside coverage of war, politics and economics.

Celebrities from all walks -- everyone from rocker Jerry Garcia to slugger Mickey Mantle to actor Rock Hudson -- have received front-page obituaries.

But Rogers was different from almost all the rest. Because he lived a life devoid of controversy and filled with accomplishments, the stories about him contained no mentions of foible, failure or scandal.

"Mister Rogers, TV's friend for children, is dead at 74," said the headline in The New York Times.

The Detroit Free Press titled its story on Rogers' death "A sad day in the neighborhood."

The overriding tone of coverage about Rogers was summed up by a smaller newspaper, The Topeka Capital-Journal in Kansas. It said: "Goodbye, neighbor -- Mister Rogers was the real thing, on or off the air."

Even tabloids that favor lurid local stories gave a bit of front-page space to Rogers.

The New York Post led its Friday editions with a story of scandal. "Sizzling affair with drug wife sinks narc," the headline said. Then, a few column inches below, the Post teased a two-page "special tribute to Mister Rogers."

Geography influenced the coverage of Rogers only a little. Most stories about his death were anchored at the bottom of the front page.

The San Antonio Express-News used its page-one special focus to report on another famous entertainer, running back Emmitt Smith, who was cut by the Dallas Cowboys. But the paper also carried a front-page commentary on Rogers and his legacy, headlined, "Beautiful days in the neighborhood will live on."

The appetite for stories about Rogers extended to television. Viewers made a point of tuning in to public stations, where accounts of Rogers' life were plentiful.

Pittsburgh PBS station WQED aired programs devoted to him from 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Thursday. It repeated that programming block into the wee hours of the morning.

The prime-time airing garnered a 5.0 rating (percentage of TV households) and a 7 share (percentage of sets in use).

Some Ken Burns and Rick Sebak specials have received higher ratings, said Chris Fennimore, program director of WQED. But the Rogers program still drew three times more viewers than usual (WQED averages a 1.6 rating, 2 share in prime time).

"That's extraordinary for something that had so little advance publicity," Fennimore said. "I don't know how people got to know we were doing this."

The special coverage on Rogers was purposefully not announced on the air during WQED's children's programming. The first on-air mention was at 6 p.m.

WQED made part or all of its Thursday prime-time lineup available to other PBS stations. There was no final tally Friday, but station manager B.J. Leber said PBS stations in State College; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; and stations throughout Nebraska aired WQED's entire lineup.

ABC's "Nightline" devoted its Thursday broadcast to Rogers, airing a rerun of a recent Rogers interview.

In Pittsburgh, on ABC affiliate WTAE, the broadcast drew a larger-than-typical audience for the time slot. "Nightline" averaged third place in its period in February, but won the time slot Thursday.

That broadcast had higher ratings than the February average ratings of NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman."

Television people behind the camera were moved by Rogers' death and the way children reacted to it.

Jack Dominic, chief operating officer of PBS station WCET in Cincinnati, sent this message to executives at other PBS stations Thursday.

"A group of about 30 preschool kids marched about five blocks from their school to our studios with a banner expressing their love for Mr. Rogers.

"The faces of these kids, their innocence, their potential was such a fitting tribute to Fred Rogers, and more than enough for us to remember why we are in this business."

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen contributed to this report.

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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