“Television came on stream in my early adult life, and I saw right away what an incredibly powerful tool it was going to be,” says Joan Ganz Cooney, the cofounder and chairman and chief executive officer of Children’s Television Workshop (CTW). Since CTW's founding in 1968, the nonprofit corporation has produced Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact, Square One TV, Encyclopedia, and other educational material for children as young as three.
”I very much wanted to do something that was going to be constructive with that medium,” Cooney says. “The idea of working in television and doing good things with it just utterly fascinated me.”
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Cooney served as a publicist for NBC and then The U.S. Steel Hour after graduating from the University of Arizona in 1951 and reporting for The Arizona Republic in 1952 and 1953.
“What really got me involved in television,” Cooney says, “was the presidential election campaign in 1952 and the Joe McCarthy hearings. I became a television viewer to watch politics and public affairs.”
In 1962, Cooney became an Emmy-winning news and public affairs producer at WNET, the National Educational Television station in New York City and, in her words, “became obsessed with the idea of television as teacher.”
“Over the years. I’ve had this tremendous passion for getting wider acceptance for television as a teacher,” she says. “Adults watch the news every night. That’s education. They form their opinions on who to vote for based on what they’re watching on the television news. Yet most adults don’t think it’s the right way to teach children. They have this kind of prejudice against it. That’s hypocritical.”
At a dinner party in Cooney’s Manhattan apartment one night in 1966, Lloyd Morrisett, a vice-president of the Carnegie Corporation, talked to her about writing a study on developing television programming for preschool youngsters that would be radically different from the traditional treasure house, cartoon, and circus fare.
“In the report I wrote for him,” says Cooney, “I suggested that a daily show and an institution, something like Children’s Television Workshop, be created. I further suggested we use commercials to teach letters and numbers. Hearing every child in America singing beer commercials certainly suggested to me that television was teaching willy-nilly. Kids are just like little sponges. They pick up everything.
“I suggested we have a format of different things interrupted with these commercials to teach letters and numbers. For example, we would have a commercial just for the letter A. What was different was that we used commercial techniques — such as puppets, animation, live action, and music — for our own purposes, which were educational. I guess I will be remembered most for showing that television can be used as a medium for serious educational purposes and still be popular.”
Jim Henson, who worked on Sesame Street with Cooney from its beginning, says, “Back in the early sixties, a report came out saying children were going to end up spending more time in front of the television than sitting in a classroom. I think Joan was really the first person to use that report in a positive way, creating television that teaches as well as entertains.”
"After I’d done the study,” Cooney says, “Lloyd and I were talking about forming this CTW and who would run it. The issue was, did I really have the background to run [a program with] what was a lot of money at the time — much more than I'd ever been in charge of — namely $8 million? I said, ‘Lloyd, this is the job I was born to do.’ I absolutely knew it.
“I wanted something that would significantly affect the lives of the poor, that would use the medium I cared about and thought could be constructive, and would put me in the center of public-policy issues. So the great satisfaction for me was that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. Not many people get that kind of satisfaction — knowing they were born to do a particular job and then having that job come their way.”
Cooney recruited veteran children's television producer Dave Connell to help develop the program that would become Sesame Street.
“I was terribly impressed with her as a leader and as a human being," says Connell, now a vice-president and executive producer at CTW. “She is a grown-up, and that is the highest praise I can give anyone. You can argue with her. You can say, ‘Joan, I think you are absolutely wrong.’ And she will listen to you. If you make a strong argument and she agrees with you, she’ll say, ‘You’re right.’
“She doesn’t want to be the czar. She brings out the best in people because of the way she deals with them. That has less to do with specific skills than with Joan as a leader. She is rational, logical, and practical.”
From the word go, Sesame Street drew remarkably high ratings and attracted a broad audience. “Our goal,” Cooney says, was to get all children comfortable with the world of symbols. Middle-class children are brought up in a world in which they’re being read to. They know their alphabet when they go to school. We wanted to see that all children got off to about the same start in terms of comfort level with symbols.”
Today CTW has an annual budget of $88 million and sells its programming to more than 300 stations and cable outlets, as well as more than 80 countries.
“What’s been the challenge," says Cooney, “is to try to create an institution that would last way beyond me, and that meant helping set up licensing businesses and finding brilliant people to run those businesses and international sales.”
Henson says, “The children are always first and foremost in Joan’s mind. When one form of funding for Sesame Street would dry up, Joan would be out finding more funds so the show could continue.”
Cooney sees CTW in the forefront of children's television. “Education is one of the biggest issues in America today,” Cooney says, “I feel we’re in the center of a great historical period. It’s hard to be bored when you feel that you’re right in the center of what’s happening, and you can make a difference — maybe not a decisive difference, but a little difference. In a way I think the future is more interesting than the past. That keeps me tremendously involved. There always seems to be a new and interesting challenge.
“Many people believe there’s something sort of evil about television, that it gets in the way of education. But there’s a saying, ‘Who says the devil ought to have all the fine tunes?’ That really has been our motto. If children like it — and they do — and if you can teach things with it — and you can — why not use it to show what you want to show and teach what you want to teach?"
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Joan Ganz Cooney's induction in 1989.