Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood has taken over my home. We watch the show. We play with the dolls. We read the books. And I love it. As I’ve discussed before, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is the perfect reimagining of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which is what I grew up watching. It’s amazing to share this show – and my fond memories of Mister Rogers – with my daughter.
Sometimes when we watch episodes, my wife and I have questions we can’t answer. Why does Daniel Tiger say “ugga mugga?” What happens when Daniel Tiger’s voice actor grows up? How many episodes is too many to binge at one time?
I decided to head straight to the source. A few weeks ago, I had the incredible opportunity to speak with Chris Loggins, the show’s producer, to ask him all my nagging questions. Let me repeat that for emphasis: I got to interview the person responsible for my family’s favorite show. I can’t figure out how describe the experience. It was like finally getting to ask Noah why he didn’t let unicorns on the ark.
Chris is the producer, which he describes as being the point guard. The show is very definition of “team-effort;” it’s a production of Fred Rogers Productions, written by 9 Story Media Group, advised by Out of the Blue Enterprises, and animated by Brown Bag Films. Chris is the person holding everything together. “I maintain production schedules, establish scope of work, develop budgets, and I’m involved in the writing and creative process of each episode,” he said, noting that he also delivers notes from the show’s advisory team, which has a few members who worked with Mister Rogers on the original show.
We had a great conversation, and in between my random fanboy outbursts, he provided me with some great insight into the show and how it’s made. Here are some things about Daniel Tiger that you probably didn’t know.
10. It takes 40 weeks to animate a single episode
I started off the interview by asking Chris about the show’s typical production schedule. “That’s really hard to answer,” he replied. “The easiest way to respond is to talk about animation, and the typical time it takes to animate a story from final script to final episode is 40 weeks.”
That’s right. It takes nearly a year to animate just a single episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. “But that’s just from the final script on,” he said. “The script goes through several drafts, which takes some time. Then after the episode is finished, it can take a long time before we’ve worked with PBS on an official air date.”
You might be wondering how they’re able to pump out so many episodes on a regular schedule when a single episode takes 40 weeks. The answer is pretty simple: Brown Bag Films has enough staff that they can animate several episodes concurrently.
9. There is a “most effective way” to watch the show (according to science)
We live in the age of binge-watching, a term that didn’t even exist until recently. I thought about what Fred Rogers might have thought about our obsession with entertainment, and more specifically, what he would have thought about the fact every episode of his show could have been available at the touch of the button. Would Mr. Rogers have approved of anyone binge-watching his show?
I asked Chris about this and asked if he had any opinions on how many episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was too many to watch in a row. “Really, that’s up to the child’s parent or guardian,” he said, saying that they’re the ones that need to make a decision based on what they feel is right. It was this point that led into a greater discussion about what’s the right way to watch the show. I mentioned that some parents use TV as a digital babysitter to keep the kids entertained while the parents do other things.
“That’s not really the way we’ve designed the show,” he said. “The show is most effective when a parent or guardian watches with their children. That way, they can talk about the show’s theme and reinforce the main points.” He then pointed me in the direction of a study by Texas Tech that found evidence that – even without discussing the themes – just the presence of a parent in the same room makes children more receptive to learning.
8. Each episode contains essential training for parents
When my wife and I watch the show, we always comment on how Daniel’s parents are ideal specimens. They’re patient and kind. They’re basically the 1 Corinthians version of parenting. Of course, that’s no accident. As Chris explained, “We put a lot of care into presenting model behaviors for the ways adults should relate to children, especially in their non-verbal communication. For example, we always have the adults kneel down to speak to the kids. An adult talking down to a child can be really intimidating, so something as simple as getting down on one knee can be really effective.”
I never noticed that before. I thought they kneeled because there wasn’t enough room in the frame. These little details are peppered throughout every episode, and it can be fun to spot them once you’re in the know. “We feature adults demonstrating things like comforting touches, nuzzles, and positive language; we don’t shy away from saying ‘I love you’ in the show.”
“We also try to show that adults have emotions too,” said Chris. He pointed to an episode that taught a strategy on dealing with anger. In that episode, Daniel tracks sand into the house, which really upset his mom. “In that moment, Daniel’s mom admits that she’s angry and uses the same strategy Daniel learned earlier to calm herself down.” He said that by doing this, kids can learn that their feelings are so universal, even adults experience them.
7. Nothing is ever off-limits for story ideas
As we talked about picking topics and lessons for the show, I asked if there were ever any ideas that got rejected by the advisory team. “That’s really rare,” Chris said. “There’s one thing that’s often quoted around our offices from Mister Rogers. He used to say, ‘What’s mentionable is manageable.’ If you take that quote, then we can really tackle anything.” He pointed out that it was with this mindset that they made episodes to address death or one about going to the bathroom.
The creative team behind the show works to take any topic and find the unique way to present it to children. With so many potential storylines, what filter do they use to choose their topics? Well…
6. Script ideas are based on universal needs, not individual stories
The writing team behind the hit show Everybody Loves Raymond once said their best ideas came from real stories of what was going on in their own lives. I assumed that’s what Daniel Tiger’s writing team did. I could imagine them sitting around the room, swapping stories of what their own kids were up to. Chris told me that’s not really the process. “We try not to make it too much about what’s going on in our own lives, but universal needs,” he said. “What could we all benefit from on a universal level? Times have changed, but the needs of children have stayed the same from an emotional- and social-learning standpoint.”
It’s this approach that helps the show remain timeless. You won’t find an episode where Daniel learns how to optimize the settings on his iPad to preserve battery life. Sure, it’s probably an issue for children today, but it isn’t universal and it has a limited shelf life. Instead, by beginning with a social or emotional need as a foundation, the writing team can craft stories that will always be relevant.
5. They’re not lessons or morals, they’re “strategies”
Every episode of Daniel Tiger repeats a unique little jingle. Throughout episode, Daniel and his friends encounter situations that call back to that phrase, and then each segment ends with a full song that expands and reinforces the idea conveyed in that phrase. I always called them the show’s lesson. Like when Daniel doesn’t get what he wants, adults around him sing, “When you don’t get what you want, stomp three times, to make yourself feel better.” Sounds like a lesson, doesn’t it?
According to Chris, these are called “strategies,” because they’re emotional and social tools kids can use to get through a situation. Once I learned that, it reframed the way I thought about each episode. Daniel Tiger is not some modern equivalent of Aesop’s Fables; these shows teach children the skills they need to relate, integrate and cope with the world around them.
4. The voice of Daniel Tiger changes more frequently than you realize
Daniel Tiger is voiced by an actual child. Mind Blowing, I know. But at a certain point in every boy’s life, he stops being mistaken for his mom on the phone to instead being mistaken for his dad. It’s an exciting moment, but it certainly ruins one’s credentials to voice a preschool-age cartoon tiger. The show is now in its fourth season and is on its third actor to voice Daniel.
“The show has been on the air for six years now, and we do use children in all the main roles, so we have had to recast,” said Chris. “[Finding a replacement actor] is a challenge. We want to keep a level of continuity, because that’s important for our fans.” The production team has been really successful in creating a seamless transition from one actor to the next. It can be interesting to jump around through different seasons of the show, because it’s only then you notice different voices at work.
3. Scripts are read to kids before animation begins
Education is a primary focus for the creative team behind Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. The strategies they teach must be easy to understand, but also entertaining and relevant. They put a lot of focus into ensuring the message is received well by the target audience. That process starts before they even draw a single whisker. The writing team works with 9 Story Media, who assists with pre-production research. “[9 Story will] take the scripts after the draft stage and read them in front of a group of preschool children. They’ll ask them questions afterwards about comprehension and engagement,” said Chris. “They’re also paying attention to the children while they’re listening to see how they’re receiving it.” The feedback and information they get from the kids gets incorporated back into the script, which then goes on to the animation team.
2. Scripts are reviewed and approved by child development experts
Behind-the-scenes, Fred Rogers Productions is equipped with child development experts at every stage of production. “You’d be surprised how exact we are about the words that end up in the strategies,” Chris said. “Every page and every word is analyzed to make sure we’re keeping our core audience in mind, modeling behavior that children and parents can identify with, and promoting the core social and emotional lessons that were such a hallmark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and that we hope continue on through Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”
1. Where the term “ugga mugga” comes from
My biggest question – the one that led me to contact Fred Rogers Productions – was one I saved until the end: Why does Daniel Tiger say “ugga mugga?” Chris laughed and said it was funny I asked because it came up while they were talking about a script that day. “Ugga Mugga was in the original Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Lady Aberlin would say it to Daniel Tiger in the Land of Make-Believe. A lot of people here also didn’t realize that.”
Phew. It feels good to finally solve the mystery.
I really appreciate Chris Loggins’ participation and his help with this article. You can catch the product of his hard work on PBS Kids. Check your local listings for the next episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
About Chris Loggins
Chris Loggins is the producer of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and production manager of Peg + Cat and Odd Squad. He is also the producer of Through the Woods, the Emmy Award-winning, original short-form series. Before joining Fred Rogers Productions, Chris worked at WQED, the PBS station in Pittsburgh. He was also volunteer coordinator and Storymobile driver at the Beginning with Books Center for Early Literacy and a librarian assistant in the Children’s Department of The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Chris is a graduate of Kenyon College with a BA in American Studies with a focus on African-American history.