Letters to Mr. Rogers: Historicizing Critical Audience Studies in Broadcasting

Abstract: With the Peabody Awards’ mission to honor “stories that matter,” producers often include evidence of cultural successes with audiences in submissions. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood demonstrated the value of its fan engagement with a very different kind of package in 1984: a notebook of letters from parents of or children with disabilities. Using letters to Fred Rogers from the Peabody archive, this paper argues that fan mail to noncommercial broadcasters can provide us critical traces about television’s marginalized or devalued audiences that give new insights not only into TV’s past but also a collective cultural history. Because shows like Mr. Rogers operated under very different notions of audience value than commercial programming, their self-identification/branding strategies (primarily for fundraising or lobbying) consequently resulted in very different preservation practices that remain in the archive: They amplify voices of audiences that programs with strong commercial imperatives might effectively silence, and in the doing, they help us intervene in historiographic methods so as to illustrate how power makes some narratives possible while silencing others. These epistolary paratexts are historically significant then because they bring into focus qualitative aspects of the historical TV audience that the industry’s quantitative pursuits might otherwise miss, illuminating meanings penned by “lots and lots of people who sometimes feel like this.”