CHILDREN'S TELEVISION WORKSHOP

U.S. Production Company

Children's Television Workshop (CTW) is a nonprofit organization created in 1967 for the purpose of producing the educational program Sesame Street. CTW was headed by Joan Ganz Cooney, a television producer who, with Lloyd Morrisett of the Markle Foundation, attracted funding from federal and private sources, including the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the National Institutes of Mental Health, the Carnegie and Ford foundations, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Sesame Street, designed to promote the intellectual and cultural growth of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged preschoolers, revolutionized children's educational television when it premiered in 1969 and established the Workshop's model for program development and research regarding children and television.

The CTW model refers to the unique process of educational program development at its workshop. It evolved under the direction of Cooney, Dr. Edward L. Palmer, director of research, and Dr. Gerald S. Lesser, Chairman of the CTW Board of Advisors. Each CTW series begins with extensive initial planning sessions involving producers, researchers, content experts, and advisors. The concepts developed in these sessions are then translated into program segments and pretested with the target audience. Frequently the testing extends for lengthy periods prior to actual production, so that producers can see how receptive the audience is to the educational messages embedded in the programs. In preparing for Sesame Street, for example, the research and design focused on demonstrable ability to attract attention, to appeal to the audience, and to be comprehensible. Researchers assessed the attention holding power of material by presenting content in competition with potential distractions. The tactics which elicited most interactivity among viewers were explored further. The research concluded with tests for recall by appropriate audiences. As a result of these procedures Sesame Street went on air with very specific attention holding tactics such as fast movement, humor, slapstick, and animation. It was packaged in a magazine format, and presented a carefully planned curriculum that focused on teaching letters and number skills.

But program development at CTW does not stop when programs are broadcast. In addition to the unusual attention to formative research, the CTW model also includes a strong commitment to summative research and as part of the summative research plan, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) was commissioned to evaluate the program. In a series of studies published by ETS in 1970 and 1972, researchers Ball and Bogatz found significant program-viewing impact and the development of a positive attitude toward school. Cook and Connor in a 1976 summary discovered that parental encouragement was vital to learning and that advantaged families were more likely to watch, thus ironically arguing that the gap between that group and the disadvantaged was not narrowed.

Sesame Street is clearly CTW's outstanding success, broadcast continuously since 1969. From its beginning as a weekday show designed to teach thinking skills and factual knowledge such as letters and number skills, the curriculum has been broadened to include goals such as reasoning, bilingual skills, acceptance of special needs, ecology, and health. The program is viewed by almost half of all U.S. preschoolers on a weekly basis. Internationally it has been broadcast in more than 40 countries and there are at least ten foreign-language versions.

Following the success of Sesame Street CTW went on to produce a number of other major educational programs including The Electric Company, which premiered in 1971 and was in production for a decade. The Electric Company emphasized symbol and sound analysis and meaning in a half-hour program designed to help slower readers catch up and good readers reinforce their skills. The Electric Company used the CTW model, a magazine format, and a variety of entertaining and attention-grabbing production techniques. Formative research for the program included innovative eye movement and eye contact measures of appeal and attention. ETS evaluation found that The Electric Company fostered significant positive effects, particularly for the youngest target viewers. Feeling Good, a 24-episode experimental series, was programmed in 1974, designed to examine health issues and targeted particularly for young parents and low-income families. Funding difficulties and low ratings forced the program to be produced in stages with considerable format changes. Low public awareness of the program seemed to contribute to lack of demonstrable effects.

3-2-1 Contact, a 65-program series for 8- to 12-year olds, premiered in 1980 and focused on science and technology. The goals were to promote scientific thinking, participation in science activities, and awareness of science as a career, particularly for women and minority children. It used a magazine format with continuing features such as a mystery adventure dramatic component. Research by Mielke and Chen in 1980 and 1983 found 3-2-1 Contact attractive to children, with particularly positive responses to the drama format used in the Bloodhound Gang segments.

Square One TV premiered in 1987 with the goal of increasing problem solving ability and positive attitude toward mathematics for 8- to 12-year olds. Format features include Mathnet, game show parodies, and commercials. The program covers mathematical concepts from estimation through graphics, probabilities, and geometry and CTW research shows increases in problem solving ability and more positive attitudes toward mathematics in the target age group. Ghostwriter, a series focusing on writing skills, premiered in 1992. The series' appeal was built around a computer that provided "ghostlike" clues which enabled a group of young people to solve problems. Of all the CTW programs, only Sesame Street is still in production, but because there is always a new audience of children available, most of the programs can still be seen. And these are only a sampling of major CTW projects. The Workshop continues with many other projects on the air and in development.

By the 1980s, many of the funds for CTW were generated from Sesame Street product sales, the Sesame Place amusement Park, and from Sesame Street Live, a touring company. CTW became an unhappy participant in the struggles over PBS funding in the mid-1990s when the financial success of Sesame Street was used as an example of why public funding was not needed to support educational children's programming. In spite of such difficulties the Children's Television Workshop--and Sesame Street in particular--remain a hallmark of children's programming in the U.S.

-Alison Alexander

FURTHER READING

Bryant, J., A. Alexander, and D. Brown. "Learning from Educational Television Programming." In Howe, M., editor. Learning from Television, London: Academic Press, 1983.

"Children's Learning from Television: Research and Development at the Children's Television Workshop." Special Issue of Educational Technology Research and Development (Washington, D.C.), 1990.

Clifford, B.R., B. Gunter, and J. McAleer. Television and Children: Program Evaluation, Comprehension, and Impact. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1995.

Lesser, Gerald S. Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street. New York: Random House, 1974.

 

See also Children and Television; Cooney, Joan Ganz