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Cooney, Joan Ganz - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Joan Ganz Cooney

sesame street children television

(1929-)
Children’s Television
Workshop

Overview

Joan Ganz Cooney, president of Children’s Television Workshop for more than two decades, was instrumental in transforming children’s television and preschool education in the United States in the late twentieth century. As the originator of Sesame Street, Cooney conceived and developed an acclaimed educational television program that would eventually reach an estimated 235 million viewers each week in more than 85 countries.

Personal Life

Joan Ganz Cooney was born on November 30, 1929, in Phoenix, Arizona, the daughter of Sylvan C. Ganz, a banker, and Pauline R. Ganz. Her father was Jewish and her mother Catholic, and Cooney was raised in her mother’s faith. She attended parochial elementary schools and then continued her education at North Phoenix High School, where she played tennis and participated in dramatics. In 1970, she told a reporter for the Phoenix Arizona Republic that her life had been changed by a high school teacher whose class discussions on issues such as poverty and race relations awakened her to the importance of social activism. Another important influence was Father Kellogg’s Christophers, whose message, Cooney explained, was that “if right thinking people don’t get into mass communications the other kind will.”

Cooney attended the Dominican College of San Rafael in California before transferring to the University of Arizona. It was there she graduated cum laude in 1951 with a B.A. degree in education.

Cooney has faced many serious personal challenges in her life. When she was 26, her father committed suicide. She has suffered from anorexia, and, in 1975, underwent a radical mastectomy for breast cancer. Her first marriage to Timothy Cooney ended in divorce.

Since 1980, she has been married to Peter G. Peterson, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and former chairman of Lehman Brothers, a New York investment firm. Peterson, also chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, is chairman of the Blackstone Group, a highly successful investment company, he started in 1985.

Cooney and Peterson have homes in Manhattan and Long Island. Together they have established a foundation to support children’s programs.

Cooney has served on the board of trustees of many organizations, including Educational Broadcasting Corporation, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Metropolitan Life, and Johnson & Johnson. She has also been a member of several notable boards and commissions, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the President’s Commission on an Agenda for the 80s, and the Governors’ Commission on the Year of the Child.

In 1995, Cooney was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian order. In 1990, she was named to the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and in 1989 received an Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy. That same year, at the 40th anniversary of the Christopher Awards, Cooney received the James Keller Award. Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Georgetown, Brown, Boston College, Smith College, and Notre Dame are among the many colleges and universities that have awarded Cooney honorary degrees. She is also the recipient of more than 50 other distinguished honors and awards for Sesame Street.

Career Details

After 13 months as a reporter for the Arizona Republican, Cooney moved to New York to become a television publicity writer, first for NBC and later for the dramatic series, United States Steel Hour. She then became a producer of public affairs documentaries and in 1966 received a local Emmy award for her three-hour documentary, Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor.

In 1966, Cooney was asked by the Carnegie Corporation to prepare a report on how television could be better utilized in the education of the very young. Her report, “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education,” was the genesis of Sesame Street. According to The New York Times, Cooney later recalled that the children of America themselves showed her the way to proceed. “When I began to study the potential uses of television for preschool children,” she said, “I was aware of the fact that children all across the United States were singing advertising jingles. I wanted Sesame Street to do the same thing for reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

Cooney cofounded the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) in 1968 with $8 million in federal and private funds from the Carnegie, Markle, and Ford Foundations and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (She became president of CTW in 1970, chair and CEO, in 1988 and chair of the executive committee in 1990.) For several months, she directed teams of researchers, writers, teachers, animated cartoonists, and television producers in designing a program that would make learning the letters of the alphabet and the numbers from one to 10 as easy as learning the names of every box of cereal on the grocery shelf. Sesame Street, whose title is taken from the command “Open Sesame,” in Tales from the Arabian Nights went on the air November 10, 1969.

Reviewers were enthusiastic from the start. Newsday reviewer Barbara Delatiner commented that the program "is an exciting example of what can be accomplished when inventive attention is paid to the care and feeding of young minds . . . And the reviewer for Time found that “What Sesame Street does, blatantly and unashamedly is take full advantage of what children like best about TV . . . .” By December 1969, the program was seen in more than 2 million homes nationwide.

Social and Economic Impact

At the outset, the target audience for Sesame Street was disadvantaged three-to five-year-olds; the program’s acknowledged goal was to narrow the cognitive gap between children living in impoverished circumstances and their middle-class peers. Middle-class children, however, loved the program as well. With its mix of live action, animation, and puppets, it was the first educational program to reach ratings as high as those on commercial networks.

Cooney understood that Sesame Street had to be as fast-paced as Saturday-morning cartoons and as easy to remember as commercials. And, while the program was teaching concepts like the letter “B” and basic number skills, it was also making a statement about racial, social, and ethnic diversity. The show’s setting—a crowded Harlem alley—was familiar to inner city children, and presented as a positive environment. Strong African-American characters were featured from the beginning; Hispanics Luis and Maria joined the cast in 1972. Variety reviewer Les Brown praised the program’s emphasis on racial integration, and educators appreciated the show’s positive tone. Some areas of the country, though, were not prepared for the program’s liberal message. The state of Mississippi banned Sesame Street at first because of its “highly integrated cast of children.”

Chronology: Joan Ganz Cooney

1929: Born.

1953: Became reporter for the Arizona Republic.

1955: Publicist, U.S. Steel Hour.

1966: Won local Emmy award for documentary, Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor.

1968: Cofounded the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW).

1969: Debut of Sesame Street.

1970: Became President of CTW.

1979: Won “Women of the Decade” award.

1988: Named Chair and CEO of CTW.

1995: Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But Sesame Street went on to become one of the most well-known and loved programs on television. Actor Robert Redford claimed it was one of his favorite shows, and football hero Joe Namath was eager to appear on the program. Lena Horne, Billy Crystal, and numerous other celebrities regularly guest starred in skits that emphasized humor and problem-solving.

Arguably the most memorable characters on the show were the Muppets created by Jim Henson. It would be hard to find many Americans today who are not familiar with Big Bird, Kermit the Frog, Oscar the Grouch, Ernie and Bert, and Cookie Monster, all regular cast members on Sesame Street. Big Bird was even invited to a Christmas party at the White House by First Lady Betty Ford! As the show progressed through the years, it adapted to what children knew from popular culture. Several Muppet skits, for example, spoofed such artists as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, punk rockers, and rap singers to teach about letters or numbers. William Honan, in The New York Times , wrote, "What was unique about “Sesame Street” was the way it weaved puppets, animation and live actors into an interracial tapestry that delivered educational messages."

Soon after launching Sesame Street , Cooney and the Children’s Television Workshop introduced The Electric Company for older children. Later, CTW produced the popular Ghostwriter series, which featured a multiracial cast of young teens involved in solving mysteries. Another popular program for older children was Square One, a show that focused on math. Like Sesame Street, it used brief skits, music, and humor to teach math concepts like problem solving, pattern recognition, estimation, and even such seemingly difficult concepts as set theory and negative numbers.

Over the years, the scope of programming on Sesame Street broadened beyond reading and arithmetic to ethics, emotions, and human relations. During one season, for example, the characters Luis and Maria fell in love and got married. In another season, they had a baby. The show has also featured material on adoption, sibling rivalry, managing anger and fear, personal hygiene and health care, and respect for the environment.

Studies done since 1970 showed marked improvement in cognitive skills between children who watched Sesame Street and those who did not. It has been documented that poor children, especially, have benefited from watching the show. According to CTW, poverty-level three-to five-year-olds who watched Sesame Street made more than twice the gains in knowledge of the alphabet, counting, and reasoning skills than poor children who were not exposed to the program. Clearly, Cooney’s vision of a “wall-less nursery school” has had a tremendous impact on American society.

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