She invented entertaining, educational television for kids. She created an innovative, American media institution four decades ago that continues to positively impact millions of children all over the world today. She changed the public perception of public television and introduced record-setting audiences to it. She told us “how to get, how to get to Sesame Street“.
Her name is Joan Ganz Cooney and today, November 30, is her 82nd birthday. We celebrate this visionary woman you should know for being the primary force behind the creation of Children’s Television Workshop and Sesame Street, the single largest informal educator in the world and the most successful children’s television show in the history of both commercial and educational television.
Born in 1929, Joan began her media career as a newspaper reporter in her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona after graduating from the University of Arizona with a B.A. in education. From 1954 to 1962 she worked as a television publicist for NBC in New York and for the U.S. Steel Hour, a highly acclaimed CBS drama series. Joan went on to produce documentaries at New York City’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) station, WNET/Channel 13, winning her first Emmy for Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor, a documentary on the U.S. government’s War on Poverty program.
In the mid-1960s, at a time when television was growing by leaps and bounds, Joan saw a need for children’s programming. In 1966, she came up with a plan to satisfy that need and later detailed it in a study she called The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education. It offered the rationale for using the medium of television as a tool to help disadvantaged preschool children learn through programs that were both educational and entertaining. Joan’s study was supported by Lloyd Morrisett, then a Vice President at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, who went on to finance her project. Morrisett also helped Joan secure additional financing from the U.S. Office of Education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Ford Foundation. They raised a total of $8 million and in 1968 Children’s Television Workshop was born, establishing the organization which would bring Joan’s vision to reality.
As Executive Director of Children’s Television Workshop, Joan established the guidelines for the creations of CTW’s first show, Sesame Street. One of her most important Sesame Street show guidelines was that there was to be no single star, but rather a multiracial cast including both sexes. As noted on the PBS They Made America series site, Joan based the style of Sesame Street – fast pace, repetition of segments, and multiple formats – on 1960s commercial television shows like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, in an effort to bring her educational curriculum to life. Although Joan hoped the show would educate all preschool children, she believed that if the needs of disadvantaged children were not met then the program would be a failure.
To articulate her vision, Joan assembled a stellar creative team to plan the show, a collaborative group of pioneering educators, researchers, psychologists, child development experts, artists, writers and musicians, including Jim Henson, who created the show’s legendary Muppet characters. Soon, creations like Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster and math whiz Count von Count (along with a cast of human characters like Maria and Mr. Hooper) came to life.
Sesame Street debuted in 1969 on nearly 190 public and commercial stations and had an immediate and revolutionary impact on children’s educational television. Within two months, more than 6 million children were watching.
For the last forty-two years, Sesame Street has been broadcast daily in the U.S. Today it can be seen on more than 300 PBS stations and has been watched by hundreds of millions of children in more than 140 foreign countries. Indigenous co-productions reflecting local languages, customs and educational needs have since been produced for audiences in the Arab world, Israel, India, Indonesia, Bosnia, Portugal, Turkey, Germany, France, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Russia, China, South Africa, Egypt, the Philippines, Canada, Spain, and Latin America.
Throughout the life of the show, Sesame Street has earned numerous critical accolades and high profile awards including a Peabody Award, 8 Grammy Awards and, as of 2009, 118 Emmy Awards (three Emmys after its first year on the air) – more than any other children’s show.
After Sesame Street’s first successful season, Joan guided the fund raising and creative vision for a second Children’s Television Workshop show airing in 1971 called The Electric Company, which provided basic reading instruction for eight to twelve year olds. Her other innovative CTW productions included Feelin’ Good (1974), The Best of Families (1977), 3-2-1 Contact (1980), and Square One TV (1987).
Almost forty years after Joan’s pioneering study that led to the creation of Sesame Street, Children’s Television Workshop, which was renamed Sesame Workshop in 2000, established a new center in 2007 to carry out its founder’s vision in a rapidly changing world. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center supports research, development, and investment in digital media technologies to advance children’s learning. It focuses new resources on the challenges children face today, asking the 21st century equivalent of her original question, “How can emerging media help children learn?”