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Superhighway Plows Through Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

IN February and March, public television viewers with at least one foot on the telecommunications superhighway have been able to have a personal conversation, of sorts, with Mr. Rogers.

The highly acclaimed children's show host has answered questions about caring for latchkey children, why some teenagers lack self-esteem, and the inevitable - how many sweaters he owns.

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Mr. Rogers didn't reply directly in his gentle tones, but he and his staff prepared answers - some of them pages long - that were posted in a ``public area'' on the Public Broadcasting Service's computer-based Learning Link service. Not just the questioner, but anyone using the service could read the answers.

Viewers with a yen for ``talking'' with Fred Rogers had to have a computer at hand and be subscribers to Learning Link. They logged onto the service and found Mr. Rogers on the menu. Among various offerings - such as suggestions for children's activities related to current Mr. Rogers programs, lyrics for songs, or articles from the ``Around the Neighborhood'' newsletter - was one labeled ``Ask Mr. Rogers.''

This on-line debut of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was a first step toward a new world of ``interactivity,'' says Mollie Breeden, the associate director of marketing for the public broadcast service's computer-link arm, PBS On-line. Plans are well along for similar kinds of computer enhancements for other children's shows, as well as adult fare.

Ms. Breeden mentions, for instance, an on-line component for producer Ken Burns's upcoming multi-part special on baseball. The series will air this fall, and Learning Link subscribers may be treated to such add-ons as a chance to join in conversations with some Hall of Famers.

The two-month Mr. Rogers on-line experiment was ``really a pilot,'' says Breeden. ``It's certainly the way we'd like to see a lot of our programs and services go.'' PBS has plans, she says, to make Mr. Rogers a permanent part of its on-line offerings next September.

``This February premiere is something I certainly hope will be ongoing,'' says Sam Newbury, director of production at Family Communications, Inc., Fred Rogers's Pittsburgh-based company. ``I think it's potentially a great avenue for getting information out to people.''

The ``people'' Mr. Newbury is most interested in reaching are child-care providers. He notes that current Learning Link material is aimed primarily at K-12 schoolteachers. Mr. Rogers already communicates with care providers through Family Communications, publications; the on-line connection could bring his follow-up ideas much closer, at least for those who have access to a computer.

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One recent show, ``Alike and Different,'' was accompanied by on-line suggestions for activities such as showing children family pictures that illustrate growth and change.

Newbury repeats the Rogers axiom that ``the most valuable time in the neighborhood is after the TV is turned off.''

The foundation for the future expansion of PBS On-line offerings was laid last December with the launch of a new communications satellite that brought together a variety of educational services, says Breeden. She explains that the satellite allows local PBS stations to serve as distribution points for the on-line services. In most cases, viewers tapping into the PBS material through their computers won't have the expense of using long-distance telephone lines.

Currently, the only PBS On-line service in operation is Learning Link, which provides curriculum and professional-development information to 22,000 teacher-subscribers across the country. By 1995, says Breeden, the on-line service will have a ``graphical interface'' in place. That will allow the use of icons and other visual devices that should make the system even easier to use.

Planned services include: PBS Mathline, aimed at math instruction; PTV On-line, a computer adjunct to PBS's Ready to Learn service; Prime Time On-line, to provide new on-line materials for major programming like ``Nova;'' and Adult Learning Service On-line.