As the saying goes, Sesame Street might just be the longest street in the world. The children’s TV show is now seen in 140 countries around the world. Big Bird speaks mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish, and a number of other languages as he and Muppets Elmo, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Oscar, and Cookie Monster, among others, teach little kids around the world their numbers and their letters. The program was started more than 40 years ago by a woman who thought television for children could do more than just entertain them. When Joan Ganz Cooney proposed the show in 1968, there were plenty of cartoons on TV, like Tom and Jerry, The Flintstones, and Bugs Bunny, and shows like The Mickey Mouse Club, Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, and Captain Kangaroo. Entertainment, yes, but the question was, what were kids learning, especially the inner-city kids who were a concern of Cooney, an education school graduate turned television producer. Poor children, studies showed, generally lagged a year or more behind their middle-class peers by the time they started first grade.
Cooney’s idea was to reach this audience of preschoolers and give them a head start, helping them get ready for school. The whole thing was an experiment, and Cooney, even with the backing and funding of the Carnegie Foundation, knew it. She did extensive research and put the proposed program through assiduous testing beforehand. She wanted to use some of television’s distinctive qualities like its rapid-fire transitions, repetition, and arresting visuals to capture the attention of little viewers. Borrowing some of the techniques then in use by a popular television show, Laugh-In, and using the creative talents of puppeteer Jim Henson, she came up with a winning format for teaching and entertaining a television audience of little kids. The Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was just getting started, joined in with funding.
Sesame Street debuted on November 10, 1969, and has become one of the longest-running shows in television history, reaching an estimated 80 million preschoolers and winning more than 100 Emmy Awards. A 1996 survey showed that 95 percent of American preschoolers had watched the show by the time they were three years old. In its fourth decade, Sesame Street has now won 118 Emmy Awards and eight Grammy Awards. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) is well established, and the Children’s Television Workshop, now called the Sesame Workshop, begun by Cooney in tandem with Sesame Street, has researched, funded, and launched many other educational television programs. Currently, it is conducting research into digital education.
Sesame Street was named “Sesame” as in the command, “Open, sesame” from The Arabian Knights, giving the idea of opening a door to the wonder and adventure of learning. The “street” part of the name was meant to reference the urban environment of the target audience. Even though Sesame Street was shaped by educational goals, the program used many of commercial television’s strategies to engage its audience. It maintained a consistent routine and repetition that preschoolers found reassuring. Each program started with the theme song, “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?,” followed by short lessons about a letter of the alphabet or a number, interspersed with fast-changing videos, games, and stories. The addition of Jim Henson and his puppets, the Muppets, to Sesame Street gave it an extra dimension of interest, narrative, and entertainment. While the Muppets had already established a reputation before their appearance on Sesame Street, they became much more widely known by their association with that show. Sesame Street products and puppets generated profits as well—books, toys, even Big Bird toothpaste—and became a major source of funding for the Sesame Workshop.
For Joan Ganz Cooney, Sesame Street’s success confirmed her belief that television could be a teaching medium for the United States’small children. Her career had led in an entirely different direction beforehand. Graduating with a BA in education from the University of Arizona, she had first found a job with the Foreign Student Exchange program at the State Department in Washington, then returned to Phoenix and worked as a reporter on the women’s page for the Arizona Republic newspaper. But Cooney had her sights set on living in New York City and used the newspaper job as a stepping stone to becoming part of the press team at RCA in New York. Eventually she moved to doing publicity for NBC and then for CBS, promoting The US Steel Hour.
When she heard about a new educational television station, WNET on Channel 13, Cooney said it was “like St. Paul on the highway,” a revelation about finding her niche. She applied for a job to publicize the station and wound up as one of its producers, a launchpad for the programs she would eventually propose. She produced several shows for WNET including a documentary about adult literacy and teenage programs, which coincided with the beginning of Head Start, a U.S. Health Department program meant to be a summer school for low-income children about to begin kindergarten. Started in 1966, Head Start is another long-running program that has helped some 22 million preschool children living in poverty to improve skills for school. The launch of Sesame Street in 1968 was a happy coincidence and contributed to the success of both programs.
Earlier, in 1966, Joan and her husband Timothy Cooney got into conversation about the value of educational television for children—and the lack of it—with one of their dinner party guests, Lloyd Morrisett, vice president of the Carnegie Foundation. He proposed a project to investigate the subject, and Joan Ganz Cooney jumped at the chance to work on it, touring the country to talk to teachers and TV producers, and writing a formal paper, The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education. This set the stage, both for the eventual Sesame Street program and for starting the Children’s Television Workshop.
Joan Cooney left WNET and went to the Carnegie Foundation where she began implementing funding efforts and establishing the workshop. By March 1968, she and her cocreator Morrisett could announce that the workshop and the children’s program were becoming a reality. The goal was to “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them,” according to Matthew Gladwell’s account in The Tipping Point. In her proposal, Cooney had suggested a curriculum for Sesame Street that would supplement classroom study and emphasized the need for a multiracial cast. She became CEO of Sesame Workshop, with Lloyd Morrisett as chairman of the board of directors. “We decided that we wanted children of 2, 3, 4, 5 to be able to recite their ABC’s, recognize letters and learn the sounds of letters,” Cooney said.
They enlisted the help of Gerald S. Lesser, a professor of education and developmental psychology at Harvard University, and one of the first to research the effects of watching television on children, to help with their research for Sesame Street. Professor Lesser also planned a series of curriculum seminars for the Children’s Television Workshop’s television production people to acquaint them with what preschool education was all about. He became chairman of the board of advisers for the workshop. In his 1974 book, Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street, Lesser said that to keep the attention of children, certain elements were essential: characters, both live adults and children and Muppets, animation, and live-action film.
For example, “Oscar the Grouch was designed to help children understand different perspectives,” Charlotte F. Cole, senior vice president for global education at Sesame Workshop, told the New York Times. “He likes noise, where other people would like quiet. He likes trash. By having this character, it was a vehicle for children to see that other people look at different situations in different ways.” Previous attempts to educate children with special television programs were short-lived, perhaps because the visuals were uninspiring: a professor writing algebraic equations on a blackboard, she said.
By the end of its first year, Sesame Street had won a Peabody Award, the prestigious prize for electronic media, and three Emmy Awards, considered the Academy Award for television. An evaluation by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, found that the program was reaching its educational goals. And Cooney eventually received several Emmys for it (she had already won an Emmy for her earlier production, Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor). She would receive an Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 for her role in creating the program. Cooney went on to launch a show in 1971 to help elementary schoolchildren learn to read, The Electric Company, modeled on the Sesame Street format but using actors like Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, and Rita Moreno to give the lessons. Cooney also had a hand in creating the PBS science show 3–2-1 Contact in 1980 and the math program Square One TV in 1988.
She stepped down as president and CEO of the Sesame Workshop in 1990, but remained on the board of trustees. Cooney has also served on the boards of Johnson and Johnson, Chase Manhattan Bank, Xerox, and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. In 2007, she founded the Joan Ganz Cooney Center through the Sesame Workshop to study digital technology in relation to childhood literacy, with a mission “to advance children’s literacy skills and foster innovation in children’s learning through digital media.”
She was born Joan Ganz on November 30, 1929, in Phoenix, Arizona, where her grandfather, Emil Ganz, had been elected mayor three times. She was the youngest of the three children of Sylvan Ganz, president of the First National Bank in Phoenix, and Pauline Redden Ganz. Joan Ganz grew up in Phoenix and went to St. Francis Xavier School and North Phoenix High. She graduated from the University of Arizona in 1951 with a degree in education, but her career in television began when she moved to New York City. At the public television network, WNET, she met Timothy Cooney whom she married in 1964. They were divorced 11 years later in 1975. She continues to pay him alimony, meanwhile marrying investment banker Peter G. Peterson in 1980 and becoming stepmother to his five children.
Joan Ganz Cooney had, with Sesame Street, essentially revolutionized children’s television. It is one of those “break-the-mold hybrids in education,” as Milton Chen, senior fellow at Star Wars director George Lucas’s Educational Foundation (GLEF), says in his book, Education Nation. Critics thought it was foolhardy to use television to teach, Chen says. Yet Sesame Street “presented an entirely new design,” combining “humor, puppets, animation, songs, a diverse cast, and a comprehensive preschool curriculum,” along with “a TV format that relied on detailed ‘message design,’ high production values and repetition—the TV commercial—and applied it to sell numbers, letters, and learning.” Sesame Street is “a quintessentially American production,” a TV vehicle that “fundamentally changed the future of media in education.” The show has been the subject of an Arts & Entertainment biography and has inspired parodies of the Broadway show, Avenue Q, and episodes on television shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy. Some Public Broadcasting stations have even renamed the streets where their studios are Sesame Street. A new Muppets movie, the first in 12 years, made its debut at Christmas in 2011.
Joan Ganz Cooney has been awarded more than a dozen honorary degrees and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award for a U.S. citizen, in 1995 from President Bill Clinton in recognition of her pioneering work in children’s educational television. She has received numerous honorary degrees from American colleges and universities. Cooney was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1990 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998.
Chen, Michael. Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in Our Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
Davis, Michael. Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. New York: Viking Press, 2008.
Fox, Margalit. “Gerald S. Lesser, Shaper of ‘Sesame Street,’ Dies at 84.” The New York Times, October 4, 2010, D9. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/04/arts/television/04lesser.html
Lesser, Gerald S. Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street. New York: Random House 1974.