COONEY, JOAN GANZ

U.S. Producer/Media Executive

Joan Ganz Cooney is the one of the visionaries and the chief moving force behind the creation of Children's Television Workshop (CTW) and the most successful children's television show in the history of either commercial or educational television, Sesame Street. Before Sesame Street, successful children's programs were entertainment oriented and appeared on commercial television; educational programs were thought to be boring and pedantic and appeared on public television which garnered a small, more affluent audience. Cooney recognized that television could do more than entertain; it could provide supplementary education at a fraction of the cost of classroom instruction. She demonstrated that quality educational programming could attract and hold a mass audience and established an organization which continues to produce innovative programming for all ages. And, via Sesame Street a larger, more diverse audience discovered public television, bringing it to the forefront of the national consciousness.

Cooney had an early interest in education, earning a B.A. degree in education from the University of Arizona in 1951, but she gravitated toward the mass media in part as a result of the influence of The Christophers, a religious group who emphasize utilizing communication technologies for humanitarian goals. Although she began her career as a reporter for the Arizona Republic in 1952, she moved into television in 1954, joining the NBC publicity department in New York, and by 1955 was handling publicity for the prestigious U.S. Steel Hour. However, public television offered greater opportunity to do in-depth analyses of major issues, and she moved to the non-commercial WNDT-TV (now WNET-TV) in 1962, where she produced a number of documentaries, including A Chance at the Beginning on a Harlem precursor of Project Head Start and the Emmy-award-winning Poverty, Anti-Poverty and the Poor

. At a 1966 dinner party at her apartment Lloyd N. Morrisett, Vice President of the Carnegie Corporation, wondered aloud whether television could be a more effective educator. Realizing that she could continue to produce documentaries without having a lasting effect on the disadvantaged, Cooney undertook a study called "The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education." This vision was the genesis of a proposal she submitted to Carnegie in February 1968, a proposal which resulted in the establishment of CTW and the creation of Sesame Street. Morrisett was particularly active in developing the proposal and raising the initial funds, and he remains a guiding force of CTW, as Chairman of the Board of Directors. But it was Cooney who articulated the creative vision and established the organization which brought it to reality.

Cooney proposed taking advantage of commercial production techniques, such as the fast pacing and repetition of advertisements and the multiple formats of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In to give life to the curriculum. Although she hoped the program would educate all preschool children, she stated that if the needs of disadvantaged children were not met then the program would be a failure.

Cooney also recognized that educational programs often fail because they are planned by educators and implemented by production personnel. Shortly after the creation of CTW in March 1968, therefore, she established a series of seminars in collaboration with Gerald S. Lesser (a Harvard educational psychologist who became Chairman of the Board of Advisors). Production personnel (under David D. Connell, Executive Producer) worked with educators, child development experts, and research personnel (under Edward L. Palmer, Director of Research) to plan the show. Cooney, as Executive Director of CTW, established the guidelines, stressing the importance of exploiting the unique features of television to present a well defined curriculum designed to supplement rather than replace classroom activity. She indicated that there was to be no star but rather a multiracial cast including both sexes and that the primary goal was to produce an excellent program not more academic research. The working environment she established was one that fostered mutual confidence and participation among its diverse members.

Once her vision was articulated, Cooney developed an organization that guaranteed the production team the freedom to focus upon the creative task. Although required by funding agencies to establish an affiliation with National Educational Television (NET), CTW remained semi-autonomous and self-contained, utilizing some administrative functions of NET but retaining all rights to the program. Cooney traveled the country, insuring morning air time for the new show. CTW also utilized unprecedented means of informing the potential audience, enlisting commercial networks in promotional efforts. These efforts were coupled with more personal means of reaching disadvantaged families, using sound trucks and door-to-door representatives, for example, in Harlem.

Sesame Street first aired in November 1969, on nearly 190 public and commercial stations, and by all measures has been a continuing success. In large scale studies, the Educational Testing Service of Princeton concluded that Sesame Street generally reached its educational goals. The show also rapidly gained a mass audience, which it currently maintains. And, there have been numerous critical measures of success, including a Peabody Award and three Emmys after the first year and fifty-eight Emmys to date.

After the first successful season, CTW dissolved its relationship with NET, and Cooney became its President. The impetus was there to develop other projects, so Cooney guided the fund raising and creative vision for a second show airing in 1971 called The Electric Company. This program providing basic reading instruction for eight to twelve year olds. Although by 1973 Cooney described her work as mostly administrative, her vision of utilizing the unique features of television coupled with methodical planning and research to produce programming to address identified needs was evident in other innovative CTW productions, including Feelin' Good (1974), The Best of Families (1977), 3-2-1 Contact (1980), and Square One TV (1987).

Since the role of foundations is usually to provide start-up money, and since government support of public television has declined, Cooney has extended the influence of CTW productions and insured the organization's survival by guiding the licensing of an array of commercial products and developing foreign distribution and production agreements. Product and international revenues have often provided as much as two-thirds of the budget, helping to sustain CTW and provide money for new projects. Cooney has also led CTW down the narrow road between commercial and public television, developing tax-paying subsidiaries which operate in commercial broadcasting, such as Distinguished Productions which produced Encyclopedia in 1988 in collaboration with HBO.

In 1990 Cooney stepped down as President to become Chair of the CTW Executive Committee, thus allowing her more time for creative development. Still actively involved in the creation of Sesame Street, she also focuses upon strategic planning, with more recent projects involving interactive software and a multimedia project entitled Ghostwriter which debuted in 1992.

Joan Ganz Cooney has enriched children's television with her vision, has altered the public perception of and introduced record-setting audiences to public television, and has raised the level of expectation for children entering school. Fittingly, among the many honors that she and CTW have received was a 1970 Christopher Award.

-Suzanne Williams-Rautiolla

 


Joan Ganz Cooney
Photo courtesy of the children's Television Workshop

JOAN GANZ COONEY. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A., 30 November 1929. Educated at the University of Arizona, B.A. 1951. Married 1) Timothy J. Cooney, 1964 (divorced, 1975); 2) Peter G. Peterson, 1980. Reporter, Arizona Republic, Phoenix, 1953-54; publicist, NBC, 1954-55; publicist,U.S. Steel Hour, 1955-62; producer, Channel 13, New York City, 1962-67; TV consultant Carnegie Corporation, New York City, 1967-68; executive director, Children's Television Workshop (producers of Sesame Street, Electric Company, 321 Contact, Square One TV, and Ghostwriter), New York City, 1968-70, president and trustee, 1970-88, chair and chief executive officer, 1988-90, chair, executive committee, since 1990; director, Johnson & Johnson, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Trustee: Channel 13/Educational Broadcasting Corporation; Museum of Television & Radio; Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Member: President's Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, 1971-73; National News Council, 1973-81; Council Foreign Relations, since 1974; Advance Committee for Trade Negotiations, 1978-80; Governor's Commission on International Year of the Child, 1979; President's Commission for Agenda for the 1980s, 1980-81; Carnegie Foundation National Panel on High Schools, 1980-82; National Organization of Women (NOW), National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, National Institute Social Sciences, International Radio and TV Society, American Women in Radio and TV. Honorary degrees: Boston College, 1970; Hofstra University, Oberlin College, Ohio Wesleyan University, 1971; Princeton University, 1973; Russell Sage College, 1974; University of Arizona, and Harvard University, 1975; Allegheny College, 1976; Georgetown University, 1978; University of Notre Dame, 1982; Smith College, 1986; Brown University, 1987; Columbia University, and New York University, 1991. Recipient: National Institute for Social Sciences Gold Medal, 1971; Frederick Douglass Award, New York Urban League, 1972; Silver Satellite Award, American Women in Radio and TV; Woman of the Decade Award, 1979; National Endowment for the Arts, Friends of Education Award; Kiwanis Decency Award; National Association of Educational Broadcasters Distinguished Service Award; Stephen S. Wise Award, 1981; Harris Foundation Award, 1982; Emmy Award, for Lifetime Achievement, 1989; named to Hall of Fame Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1989; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1995. Address: Children's Television Workshop, One Lincoln Plaza, New York, New York 10023, U.S.

TELEVISION (publicist)

1955-62 U.S. Steel Hour

TELEVISION DOCUMENTARIES (producer)

1962-67 Court of Reason A Chance at the Beginning              Poverty, Anti-Poverty and the Poor
1968-90 Children's Television Workshop (executive)

FURTHER READING

"The First Lady of Sesame Street." Joan Ganz Cooney." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 7 June 1971.

Gilbert, Lynn, and Gaylen Moore. Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1981.

Gratz, Roberta Brandes. "Sesame: An Open-End Play Street." New York Post, 8 November 1969.

Heuton, Cheryl. "TV Learns How to Teach...." Channels: The Business of Communication (New York), 22 October 1990.

Kramer, Michael. "A Presidential Message from Big Bird." U.S. News and World Report (Washington, D.C.), 13 June 1988.

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

Moreau, Dan. "Joan Ganz Cooney Created Sesame Street 20 Years Ago. Now It's an Institution." Changing Times (Washington, D.C.), July 1989.

O'Dell, Cary. Women Pioneers in Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1996.

Polsky, Richard M. Getting to Sesame Street: Origins of the Children's Television Workshop. New York: Praeger, 1974.

Sheldon, Alan. "Tuning In with Joan Cooney." Public Telecommunications Review (Washington, D.C.), November-December, 1978.

Sklar, Robert. "Growing Up with Joan Ganz Cooney." American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1977.

"TV's Switched-on School." Newsweek (New York), 1 June 1970.

Tyler, Ralph. "Cooney Cast Light on a Vision." Variety (Los Angeles, California), 13 December 1989.

 

See also Children and Television; Children's Television Workshop