Fred Rogers was a childhood staple in many American living rooms when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired from 1968 to 2001.
But few remember the moment he stood in front of the Supreme Court in defense of the VCR.
It all started in 1979 when Universal Studios and The Walt Disney Company sued Sony over its Betamax technology (anyone remember those?), the first piece of tech that let users record TV show direct to tape.
Users loved it, but studios didn’t. They claimed that TV and movie makers would lose millions of dollars thanks to the distribution of home-recorded tapes.
Sony won that one and was able to keep the Betamax alive for two years, until Universal Studios appealed the decision in 1981, reversing the verdict. The video copyright conversation had changed.
In 1983, the Betamax case made its way to the Supreme Court and now included the much more relevant and widely used VCR technology. Fred Rogers, who was himself as ingrained in many living rooms as VCRs themselves, believed fully in its right to exist. So much so that he decided to testify on the tech’s behalf, stating:
“I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the ‘Neighborhood’ off-the-air … they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been, ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’ … I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.”
This was not Mr. Rogers’ first trip to Washington. He’d already saved PBS with his 1969 testimony before the Senate to argue for $20 million to keep the service running. His earnest argument for the importance of programming that makes children feel important even won over Rhode Island’s cranky Senator John Pastore.
Listening to Mr. Rogers’ testimony, Senator Pastore declared, “Well, I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days. … Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars!”
He might have been mild-mannered, but Mr. Rogers wasn’t scared to speak truth to power.
Back to home taping: When it came to VHS, the Supreme Court ultimately sided with Sony and made clear how influential Rogers had been in that decision.
“He testified that he had absolutely no objection to home taping for noncommercial use and expressed the opinion that it is a real service to families to be able to record children’s programs and to show them at appropriate times,” the Court declared.
As technology has grown and shifted to include plenty of home streaming, on-demand services, TV consumers have America’s favorite neighbor to thank for ensuring that in-home recording was available and could continue to grow.
Why not take advantage and pay homage to Mr. Rogers by watching the documentary about his life through a streaming platform?