Interview: Fred Rogers Productions CCO Ellen Doherty Talks Furthering Mister Rogers’ Legacy for a New Generation

Fred Rogers Productions carries on the legacy of its namesake as a non-profit organization that specializes in children’s entertainment with an emphasis on building enthusiasm for learning and growth. As Chief Creative Officer, Ellen Doherty carries forward this mission through programs born out of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Donkey Hodie, in addition to finding new ways to inspire a future generation with shows like Alma’s Way. I had the chance to meet with Ellen Doherty at Annecy Festival where we talked about underserved areas of children’s media, opportunities to expand Fred Rogers Productions to inspire even more kids, and who could possibly be a future live-action equivalent to Mister Rogers (I nominate Dolly Parton).

(Desiree Deli/Fred Rogers Productions)

(Desiree Deli/Fred Rogers Productions)

Alex: As the CCO of Fred Rogers Productions, are you at Annecy Festival just to see what’s happening in the industry? Or are you actively looking for partnerships and acquisitions?

Ellen Doherty: All of the above. I think I had been to Annecy ten or twelve years ago and I really enjoyed it. I loved seeing all kinds of animation, some for kids, some not, and different styles from very different voices. This has become a really big market over the last ten or fifteen years, based on what people are telling me, and I haven't been to the market here before. This was a great way to be able to have meetings with potential partners, people that we know already, and also get to see stuff. So I've been going to screenings and a couple of sessions and had a ton of meetings. So it's really effective.

Alex: Are most of the animated series from Fred Rogers Productions animated internationally? I know that’s pretty standard for TV animation.

Ellen Doherty: Yes. On Alma's Way, we work with Pipeline in Hamilton, Ontario, and Pipeline also owns studios in Colombia and Chile. And then for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, we go with 9 Story Brown Bag, and that all happens in Toronto.

Alex: Currently, all of your shows are on PBS Kids, which aligns with Fred Rogers Productions’ vision as a nonprofit. Are you looking at expanding where FRP content goes?

Ellen Doherty: Yes. We pitch to streamers. We've had development deals and even had a green light at a streamer for a show that did not make it through COVID. Our mission is to reach families, to provide content for all children. And specifically, the way we describe our mission is to create content that models kindness, respect, and an enthusiasm for learning and earns the trust of parents and caregivers. That can be expressed in a multitude of ways, but I really think that there needs to be quality content everywhere. There are a lot of opportunities for us to reach audiences that have never watched PBS. There's an interview that Fred Rogers gave where he says, "Imagine being given an hour of television every day. I did the best I could. I wanted to create something of value." That idea of creating something of value, and value is very open to interpretation, there are a lot of things that are of value, I look [for] something that will spark ideas for kids, spark learning, spark a passion. LeVar Burton was recently talking about the power of media and has said what I know others have said, which is that “Television teaches no matter what, so what are we teaching?” And I don't always look at it as teaching, but kids learn from what we do and get inspiration. Esperanza Spalding, the Grammy-winning bassist, got inspired to try that instrument when she was a child. She wanted to know about it because she saw it on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. She saw Yo-Yo Ma on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. So we have this great potential and opportunity. That's what we think about.

Alex: Are there any gaps that you currently perceive in children's television? Such as a market that's underserved, be it a culture or specific types of families or things like that?

Ellen Doherty: Well, I think there's a long way to go in representation, and I think there's also a big gap with content for kids over six or eight that really celebrates being that age. There are some shows where kids get aged up. Being eight is awesome, being ten is awesome. You shouldn't be ten and being given content that's really for a thirteen-year-old. There are opportunities to make great stuff like Odd Squad. What I love about Odd Squad is that the kids are slightly older than their characters, but they act like the age of their characters, and they really are about the awesomeness of being a kid. The casting on Odd Squad and the performances, I think, are amazing for that reason. I was a fan of that show before I got to FRP. I think a lot about what makes Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood work really well is that it's designed for two to four-year-olds. It's really hard for grownups to remember what it was like to be three or four. That show is successful because the team is really focused and includes some amazing child development advisors as well as researchers who help us make sure that the content stays on the mark. My question is always, what is Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood for older kids? And I don't mean with little songs and strategies. I mean something that helps a child of whatever age navigate emotions, relationships, and figuring stuff out. I would argue that Heartstopper is a show that I would love to see as an FRP kind of show. Also Ted Lasso, because both shows actually took time in the storytelling for real emotions, to tackle issues, and not rush the storytelling past nonverbal moments where you see the reactions of characters. You see support, you see surprise, you see all of those moments that are real in life that a lot of times, when you're on a faster-paced show, get cut. You don't stick around for that. You don't give that extra two seconds to have somebody be thoughtful or to model a moment of kindness and to grow. That's the other thing that we really try to get into all of the series, into Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, into Donkey Hodie, into Alma's Way, in particular, because those are the social-emotional shows. You don't go from mad to happy in an instant. For small children and many adults, it's really important to show how this happens. That it is a transition, and it's okay. It's messy, but you can get through it.

Alex: How about curriculum elements? Are there academic elements that you think children’s media could improve on?

Ellen Doherty: Kids should have a full range of content to choose from. Some that's just really good storytelling and some that involve learning opportunities. I think the beauty of kids is that they're learning all the time about all kinds of things. Shows like Dinosaur Train show that you can really do a deep dive on something that kids are passionate about, like dinosaurs. Craig Bartlett was a genius with that idea but also talks about families and relationships as well. So that's an example of a learning show that maybe doesn't look as much like a learning show. In terms of curricular areas, I don't know that you can do enough good storytelling with math. Honestly, my mom was a math teacher, so I was trained early in the value of math… I do think that there have been trends for STEM and now in STEAM. Kids need support in all of these things, and just because there's one of something doesn't mean that there can't be two because kids learn differently. When you look at Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and Donkey Hodie, they both [feature] social-emotional learning. Donkey Hodie is for a little bit older kids, but not every child may want to watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and that's okay. They may vibe more with Donkey Hodie, and that's great. Maybe some kids will watch both, but it's about creating content. It's about creating many roads in so that there are many ways for a child to connect with the story. Maybe it's the story, maybe it is the content, maybe it's a child who really likes math or really likes the characters on the Odd Squad, for example. But whatever it is, whatever the initial hook is, then they get the other stuff too.

Alex: Yeah, that makes sense. Now, both Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and Donkey Hodie are in the wake of the legacy of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which inspired both shows. Do you ever feel restricted by that? Or is it far enough removed at this point that even parents don't realize they are offshoots of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood?

Ellen Doherty: A lot of people don't realize it, and that's pretty interesting. I see it on social media sometimes, the moment when somebody's like, "Wait, what? That's Mister Rogers?" Or with Donkey Hodie, they just get the pun, and that's pure Fred. That was his creation, and he took it. He had the windmill and the donkey, and that was kind of it. In 2016 when we were looking at a list of characters from the neighborhood to look back at, Donkey Hodie just jumped out as funny. I didn't know that character from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I didn’t remember him, and it just encapsulated from that first meeting the idea of a preschool show about overcoming obstacles and taking on big challenges. Everything is in the name. Taking the character that was grown up and making it a younger character, not exactly a child, in that SpongeBob/Patrick kind of situation and just working from there. A lot of people don't necessarily recognize it. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood has a ton of Easter eggs, but because Donkey Hodie is one more step less clear, people really can be surprised. But then it's like you've got a goldfish, you've got a trolley in the background, you've got a Museum-Go-Round there. There are all kinds of little things that the crew loves putting in. Sometimes we'll have suggestions, but mostly that comes from the art department, who are amazing.

Alex: Fred Rogers was very progressive. The 2018 documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor, really highlighted how forward-thinking he was and how he listened to his heart in spite of public pressure. For example, the episode where he and Officer Clemmons, who was Black, washed their feet together in his backyard. Is that principal a North Star for Fred Rogers Productions?

Ellen Doherty: He was very clear on the symbolism of that. The interesting thing for me was when I got to FRP in 2016, the documentary had not come out yet. I had read some articles, and I had seen the content on social media. I would look for other Fredisms that really thrive on social. I signed up for the newsletter from Hedda Sharapan through the Fred Rogers Institute. Hedda worked on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and has worked with the organization for 50 years. When I got to FRP, I really started thinking about not just Mister Rogers, the nice man on TV when I was a child, but also Fred Rogers, this man who decided from a young age that he thought TV could be better and that he wanted to make content for children. That was an interesting turning point, thinking about who he was and what his choices were from a job point of view, from a vocation for him. I never had the opportunity to meet him. I don't know what choices he would make. I talked to our advisors who worked with him for decades. I got an understanding of the kinds of things that were important to him and some of the nuances of it. There's a photo in our office of Fred sitting on a plaid couch doing some work. He's got a pile of papers in front of him, he's got his reading glasses on, and he's going through line editing. I like to think it was a script, but I'm told by Hedda that it was actually the viewer's mail. Nonetheless, what struck me was that's a person who's working and the intentionality of that. So that's where I get my inspiration. I think everybody connects to different things that they've learned about him. But really be mindful of how you drill down to the clearest messages. Always be mindful of the audience and how hard it is for grownups to remember what it's like to be a young child, and the developmental side of things. My job as a producer or as an executive producer, as an executive, is to really make sure that I'm listening to our advisors. I don't take every note because not every note is good for the TV experience or the game experience, but listening and understanding the points of view of what we want to do. That is how I honor that legacy. Like with Alma's Way, sometimes the stories are more like an eight-year-old than a six or seven-year-old. And the advisors will say, "That's really not something that a four, five, or six-year-old will be able to relate to.” They may understand or follow the story, but it won't connect the same way. What Fred tried to do is connect in a way that is actually going to resonate and not just a story that they can follow or find interesting. That's a long answer, but it's all of that stuff.

Alex: No, it's got to be a long answer. It's a tough act to follow.

Ellen Doherty: It is. And also, no one at our organization thinks that we're Fred. I also really appreciate that his widow, Joanne, who passed away a few years ago, would say in interviews if asked what Fred would think, most of the time, she'd say, "I don't know. That was his work. I don't know what he might think." There were times that she did think that she would know, as one would. But also our advisors say, "We don't necessarily know what he would think today. He changed his mind on things, too." The closing of the show, “You Are Special,” changed over time. [It became] you are special, and so is everyone else. Because he saw that people were not fully understanding his intention and he needed to clarify. He could change and have different ideas. It’s always a very interesting question of where the inspiration comes from. We also did a retrospective special in 2018 called Mister Rogers: It's You I Like for public television, and part of what I got from watching many episodes is just the playfulness, [he could be] really funny and goofy. He was really good at playing with the camera and playing hide and seek. Or there's the clip when Tony Bennett is on the show. Fred is voicing Lady Elaine, who is flirting with Tony Bennett. It's amazing. The idea of Fred puppeteering and the improvisational nature. That's also what shows his creativity. It shows his movement as a creative person, that it wasn't just one thing. He was trying things, and that's also fun and inspirational. He was very intentional about how he talked about it being a TV show. He would pull back the camera sometimes and show the set. You would see Johnny Costa on the piano. The idea that he would say, “My TV house.” One time in the viewer mail, there was a question about where he went to the bathroom, and he said, "Well, this is my TV house, so it's not a real house, so it doesn't have a bathroom, but my real home does." And I just love that he was so intentional about the media literacy of it, that this is pretend.

Alex: Yeah, you wouldn't see Sesame Street do that.

Ellen Doherty: Well, that's actually in this Mister Rogers: It's You I Like special. We interviewed Caroll Spinney, who played Big Bird, and there was a moment that we had heard about. Big Bird came on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Fred asked Caroll Spinney to take off the costume and show that he was inside of it. And Caroll Spinney, in the interview, said, "I'm sorry, Mister Rogers, but Mr. Henson won't let me do that," which is just an amazing sentence. That this was actually a really interesting divide that Jim Henson wanted the magic not to be lost. And Fred was like, "No, let's show that this is real, what's actually happening." There's a great clip when Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, was on the show. He deconstructs the character. You have Margaret Hamilton, who looks like someone's grandma, and he's talking to her about the role and talks to her about the laugh and does that scary Wicked Witch laugh. She does it, he does it, and he says, "It's fun to do that, isn't it? It's fun to play." And then he has her put on the costume. As a kid who was absolutely terrified of the Wicked Witch and the music and the laugh, the way that he deconstructed that was just genius. We did a nod to that in the Donkey Hodie Halloween Special. And on Donkey Hodie, we purposely show behind-the-scenes videos and photos on our social media because we think it's amazing to show how it's done. And truly, the puppeteers and the art department and every person on the crew do really spectacular work to make the illusion of being someplace else. It's really cool to see how that's done, and we like showing that this isn't real. I worked on a puppet show in the nineties, and if you take the puppets [off set], people talk to the puppets. If a puppet is having a conversation with you, most people are not looking at the human. So I feel like it's okay. We all feel really good about showing that, and that's also a nod to Fred. He never said he was a TV character, but he said it's my TV house.

Alex: There's the famous anecdote of Kermit the Frog being a guest on a late-night talk show, and they mic'd Kermit instead of the puppeteer. This is more of a compliment than a question, but I covered the purple carpet at the Children's and Family Emmys, and so I got to interview Donkey and Panda. It was so cute. Obviously, standing there, you could see the mechanics of the puppet, but they weren't answering the questions as performers. They were answering the questions as the character. So I was like, “There are other stars here. Who are you excited to see?" Their answer was something like, "I heard some other puppet character's going to be here. I'm hoping I get to meet them." It was really adorable, and they're both fantastic.

Ellen Doherty: Oh my gosh, they're so amazing. Interestingly, you do break in a puppet, so over time, they can do different things because it's just like breaking in a pair of jeans. It's a joy to work on all the shows, but it's fun to be able to go to a set, which is the thing that is different for Donkey Hodie and Odd Squad is that there's a place to go, and so I get to go to work in someplace else.

Alex: At Annecy, there are a lot of shows being pitched looking for a production company to back them. What kind of things are you looking for?

Ellen Doherty: Well, things that are just not like other things, that have a really true voice, that have a creator who knows not just the idea, but really has a vision for what the world is. Somebody who's interested in what we do at FRP and in listening to what child development advisors have to say. It's not about taking every note, but it's about really understanding and being open to understanding because I'm not an expert in this either. There's another way of thinking about things, and there are certain truisms about how children develop that you can use to improve your storytelling. So that's something that's really important. We are not looking for another Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. That's an amazing show that exists. I encourage people who want to make their own show that is like that, that's fantastic, but that's not for us. We're interested in stories for older kids, too. Right now, our shows cover a span of two to eight. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is for two to four-year-olds, Donkey Hodie, Peg + Cat, and Through the Woods are for three to five. Alma's Way is four to six, and Odd Squad is six to eight. But we do see a need for content for older kids, and so we have some things that are in development that are for older kids. One is music, one is friendships and relationships, and just a smattering of other things. I think the trick is that we're a small organization, so we don't have twenty projects in the pipeline. We rarely take on new things, but we are also interested in short films or digital-first as a nonprofit. We're fully mission-driven. What is something that feels like it needs to be in the world? What is the right format for that? Right now, we have four full series going on PBS, but also on PBS, the whole transmedia experience matters. So we do in-person engagement with Be My Neighbor Day for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. There's a museum exhibit popup with Donkey Hodie. [We’re] doing different kinds of events with Alma's Way. And there are summer camps for Odd Squad and Peg + Cat. So there's the real world, there's digital games and websites, and then there's video. We're also interested in a world that can start with any of those things. Can start with a game, can start with shorts, and expand. We optioned a book series last year that's going to be preschool-level. We’re not sure how young or which range that is yet. We try to find ways to support people who are new to the industry or students. Everybody on the team does a lot of informational meetings, and we try to do events working with the Children's Media Association, Women in Animation, Black Film and TV Collective, to get out there and talk about what the work is. B ecause when I was in college, I didn't really understand what a producer does. I was a communications major. I took TV production classes, but I don't think the jobs were really made clear. I knew what a writer was, and I knew I wanted to do that. But I discovered once I got into the workforce that my personality is naturally very much a producer. [I’m] an organizer, and a decider, and an idea person. So I think it's really important to do these events where we talk about the work so that someone might watch or listen and be like, "I'm interested in that too. I'm good at those things. I'm somebody who does those kinds of things. Maybe that's the kind of work that I would want to do.” Otherwise, you think there are four jobs when you're seventeen.

Alex: You forget about all the people that, if you turned the camera around, would be standing there.

Ellen Doherty: Yeah. I wish I had the idea to get involved in theater in high school because I would've probably enjoyed doing the crew stuff. Even though I had friends that did it, all I understood was the actor part of it. How do you organize and choose the play? How do you put it on? How do you choose the props? I didn't have a clue, and I probably would've liked that.

Alex: What panels are you looking forward to attending at Annecy today?

Ellen Doherty: I want to go to the Bluey session. I love hearing from other creatives, and other producers on how they do things, whether for kids or for general audiences, because I learn stuff from them, too. One of the things that has been interesting to me lately is the idea of how we learn as professionals. One of the things that the WGA talks about with the mini rooms is how people newer to the industry lose opportunities to learn. That really struck me. How do we learn in our industry? Focusing on film and television, children's media works differently than prime time general audience. Odd Squad has had writers' rooms, I think because [creators] Tim [McKeon] and Adam [Peltzman] came up in LA, but the other shows don't. Maybe Reading Rainbow did, but it was really different because it was unscripted, and everyone was on staff. So the whole world was in the writer's room, if you call it that. But we have a different agreement with public media. There's the public television agreement with the WGA, but we don't have writers' rooms and so our writer's program, The Writer's Neighborhood, is also designed for career development and learning two things. Learning how to be a freelancer, which is super hard, and the skills that you need to be a really good and effectiv freelancer are not the same as being a good writer or any other job. The other thing that the Writer's Neighborhood focuses on is developing your craft, which is the learning part of things. If you're a freelancer and you're not in the room, how do you learn how to take a note? It's been really interesting talking with our first cohort of fellows in the pilot phase, where one of the things that we talked about one day was that it was okay to ask questions. Some of them had freelanced and had done some scripts, and they didn't know it was okay to ask questions of the head writer. They thought it was bad to ask questions because you should know what to do. We had guest speakers who were head writers on various shows and executive producers or creators. [The students heard] multiple times, “We want you to ask questions.” So we're trying to have the conversations and help support people in their careers through the program. Right now, five of the eight in the initial cohort are writing on FRP shows.

Alex: Wow. That’s awesome. I know it can be tough when you think asking a question might cost you your job.

Ellen Doherty: Yeah. And I can relate to that. You don't want to say something wrong. Also, you don't want to make a mistake, and I feel like the trajectory of a career, of my career, of any career, is being careful not to make a mistake or ask a dumb question. And then, at some point, because everyone else knows things that I don't know, at some point, I will know all the things that they know, too. And then, eventually, what I realized not even all that long ago was they don't know everything. They just know how to figure things out. And that is where the power and confidence comes from. Because I don't know how to do that, but I know who to ask, and the earlier you can learn it and then feel it and know it, the better. Because truly, I know a lot of stuff. I don't know everything, and I try to make sure that I model that for our staff and when I talk to people. You figure stuff out. That's the most important thing is to be able to figure stuff out, which includes figuring out who to call. It means figuring out a budget, figuring out a story, figuring out how to do research, and figuring out whatever it is. Have a problem and make a solution happen.

Alex: That makes sense. Speaking of Bluey, the show recently came under fire in Australia for a scene in an episode that dealt with body weight. The creators had to apologize, and when that episode comes to the US, that scene will have been modified based on that feedback. As CCO, how do you navigate what can and can't be talked about in shows? How can we talk about something like healthy lifestyles in a way that won’t cause upset? Or right now, there’s a whole movement in America that claims that including LGBTQ+ representation in children’s media is “grooming” when it's just trying to make sure that kids who may one day feel a part of that population don't feel afraid or ashamed or have suicidal thoughts. So how do you balance that in the seat that you’re in?

Ellen Doherty: One day at a time. I think that we try to build worlds that are inclusive and tell stories that will resonate. It can be complicated, for sure.

Alex: I remember watching Barney on PBS as a kid, and each episode included snack time, where they modeled healthy eating habits. They weren’t eating cookies, they had apples and carrot sticks.

Ellen Doherty: Definitely, when it comes to healthy eating, there's always a conversation about what we are choosing to show or not. And as Cookie Monster has said, “These are a sometimes food.” I thought was a great way to put it. We show sweet snacks, we show healthy snacks. We make sure that we're designing characters with different body types on Alma's Way, in particular, and also in casting on Odd Squad with humans, as opposed to drawing them. With Alma's Way, there has been a different level of opportunity because it's New York City, it's the Bronx. So in the pilot, the sidewalks were largely empty because it was a pilot with a budget. I was like, okay, when we get to series, these sidewalks have to be full because you do not have empty sidewalks in New York City. That's weird/ And so in filling out this world, we have all kinds of people, all colors, all sizes, all shapes, quirkiness, everything that you see, having lived in New York City for twenty-five years. You see everything in New York, and so everyone is in Alma's Way in that way, and I do think that all of these things matter. We have cousin Eddie Mambo, who has cerebral palsy and uses crutches and wears braces, and he's inspired by two people from Sonia Manzano's life, a boy in her neighborhood who had polio and her cousin who's a musician. In creating the character of Eddie Mambo, the idea was there, but during development, we talked about it, we worked with some doctors, and when we got to series, we worked further on that. We couldn't have a character with polio because that was not something that a young child at the time would have. So we talked to doctors to figure out what else might be right and landed on cerebral palsy, and the doctors actually did a full chart, full workup for the character in full doctor speak for each other. There were three doctors that we worked with initially so that they could answer our questions about it. I think this comes back to the intentionality that we were talking about earlier with Fred Rogers. If you're going to do something, do it well and look into it and be really mindful of that… It can be a little overwhelming to try to reflect everything because we have only so many choices, and it always comes from character. Who are the real people? How do we make real choices rather than having some kind of checklist? It comes from everybody knowing people in the world and wanting to have some representation, and then figuring out where or when there are challenges. In animation, having a character with a walk cycle that is distinctly slower than everybody else's walk cycle turned out to be incredibly complicated. We worked through a lot in the first season to try to figure out how to do it that in a way that was manageable within our budget range and true. And there were layers to that… If it was live-action, you would cast appropriately and it would just happen. But the team at Pipeline has done an amazing job and have been so thoughtful. Our medical advisor looks at every episode and is giving guidance on what kind of movements Eddie might need in a particular circumstance.

Alex: Yeah, nothing in animation is an accident. Everything was placed in the frame on purpose. In a panel I went to yesterday, Bruce W. Smith, creator of The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder, answered a question about a fan-favorite Disney show called The Owl House, which offered a lot of LGBTQ+ representation and was canceled. To paraphrase, he suggested that people should support shows that feature the types of characters they want to see, regardless of if the representation is perfect. He likened it to Blaxploitation films of the ‘70s and said that if Black people didn’t support those films, their representation in media wouldn’t have been given a starting point to improve on because producers would’ve said that type of film doesn’t have an audience. It's interesting to be at this time where we're starting to include so many specific types of people in media, and yet there is still that pressure to do it perfectly because it hasn’t been done before.

Ellen Doherty: Yeah. I worked on a show in the nineties called The Puzzle Place, which was puppets, and it was about multiculturalism. Every character was from a different culture, and they hung out in this place called The Puzzle Place. But it was really complicated because I produced the live-action interstitials, so I didn't work on the puppet stories except occasionally when we took puppets on location. It was really interesting because watching it from the sidelines, they tried to have this full representation, and there was a pretty diverse staff and crew. But trying to make everything perfect was somewhat the undoing because it made the storytelling less resonant. Because if everyone has to not do anything that could be perceived as negative, that's really hard. Sonia Manzano talks about this too in her history. Her answer is you need a lot more than representation. Part of the choices that we make on Alma's Way is to make sure to show the wide range of people who are Latino or Hispanic. Alma and her family are Puerto Rican, but she has an uncle who's Cuban, and we have neighbors who are Mexican. There are Dominicans in the neighborhood, and if you know you will hear the accents are right, you will hear the idioms they might use, and we have that as a story point when Alma meets her new neighbor, who is Mexican American. He says, "Que padre," for how cool, and she says, "Que chévere," and they're like, "Hey. We say the same thing but in different ways." And that's just a moment, it's not the whole story.

Alex: It's not just adding “mijo” here and there.

Ellen Doherty: No. And being thoughtful about how we add. The writers are really diverse. We have a strongly diverse group of writers, some of whom are Latino, some of whom are not. Jorge Aguirre, who's the head writer and co-executive producer, is Colombian American, so he had to learn Puerto Rican slang. We have a running list of that from Sonia, also from Fabiola Mendez, who is one of the composers working on the show and is from Puerto Rico, from the island herself. So we have all of these tools that we use to help people. And then also, in producing the Spanish secondary audio program, a Spanish language track for the US, often, those Spanish tracks are [typically] Spanish that will make everyone happy. Sometimes called neutral Spanish, I guess, but done in Colombia or Venezuela, and I knew we couldn't do that for Alma's Way. So we were working with a company out of New York, and most of the actors are in Miami, but we have someone on the FRP staff who's overseeing that to make sure that we're getting good representation in the voice acting. And reflecting not just that they're Puerto Rican New Yorkers, except for Papi, who's from the island, but trying to make sure that that's right, too. [We’re] trying to make sure that we're being thoughtful about what's happening and what we're showing. If it's your community, you will know if it's right or not, and I want everyone who is part of whatever community who's watching something on Alma's Way to go, "Wow, they got it right. That's it."

Alex: For my last question, I grew up with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I’m also a big fan of Dolly Parton, who is often discussed with a similar level of reverence. She does a lot of work to give children access to books and tells stories about bullying. Is she a partnership you’d be interested in establishing at Fred Rogers Productions?

Ellen Doherty: Maybe. I'm happy to talk to Dolly. She's done a lot of really amazing community work over the years and continues to do so, and that's really impressive… I love that she's done a lot with giving away children's books so that kids can have books in their homes. That's a really powerful thing. You can't read books if you don't have them, and if you don't go to the library, that's huge. You're not going to be reading as much.

Alex: And if your parents can't afford a preschool program that has a good rotating library in the classroom, your options are very limited.

Ellen Doherty: And children's books are quite expensive. So having quality content and making content available, all of that really matters. So I’d be happy to talk to Dolly.

Alex: It would be neat to see. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).