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Cooney, Joan Ganz

Joan Ganz Cooney

Born: November 30, 1929
Phoenix, Arizona Former president, Children's Television Workshop

Armed with a degree in education and a knowledge of the power of television, Joan Ganz Cooney changed how young children learn. Before she helped start Sesame Street, the few educational television shows available were usually boring. Cooney realized kids would be more likely to watch shows that used the best techniques of commercial programs, such as humor and music, along with the repetition featured in TV advertising. Along the way, kids watching these entertaining shows could also learn.

"TV is often the catalyst that drives us to read more about something we only learn in sketch from the tube. But even if TV isn't a back door into books, as we hope it can be, if you can only teach with television, isn't that better than not teaching at all?"

The success of Sesame Street helped its producer, Children's Television Workshop (CTW), create educational material in many forms. It also made Cooney one of the most respected educators in the United States. In 1995, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. government can give to a civilian. As President Bill Clinton (1946-) honored Cooney, he noted how she "has proven in living color that the powerful medium of television can be a tool to help build young lives up rather than tear them down."

Determined to Make a Difference

Joan Ganz was born on November 30,1929, in Phoenix, Arizona. She was the youngest of three children born to Sylvan and Pauline Ganz. Her father was a banker, and in 1970, Ganz told the Arizona Republic her family was not "social-worker-minded." Her interest in helping others, particularly the less fortunate, came mostly from a discussion class she took at North Phoenix High School. Another important influence on Ganz was the Christophers, a national Christian group founded by Father James Keller. The Christophers encouraged Catholics to share their values with society in general, especially through the media.

After high school, Ganz enrolled at a Catholic college in California, then transferred to the University of Arizona. She graduated in 1951 with a degree in education. Her first job was writing for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. In 1954, she headed east, taking a job in publicity in New York for the National Broadcasting Company. The next year, she began doing publicity for a popular dramatic series, The United States Steel Hour, a position she held for seven years.

In 1962, Ganz moved from TV publicity to production. Although unskilled in that area, she managed to land a job making documentaries for WNDT, the public television station in New York. During her five years at the station, she married Timothy Cooney. (They divorced in 1975, and she married Peter Peterson in 1980.) She also met Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Corporation, who shared her interest in using television to educate young, poor children. When Morrisett helped her get a grant to study educational TV, Cooney leapt at the chance. She told Working Woman in 1981, "I could make a thousand documentaries on poverty and poor people but I was never really going to have an influence on my times. I wanted to make a difference."

Paving the Way for Sesame Street

For her study, Cooney crisscrossed the United States, talking to child psychologists and educators. Her conclusion was that the time was right to use television to teach preschoolers, especially from poor families. Morrisett then worked to get the funding for the organization that became CTW, which was launched in 1968. At first Cooney was not sure what role she would play at CTW. She told Richard M. Polsky, author of Getting to Sesame Street, "I think initially I saw myself as a number two somewhere, but that was during the study. Once we got rolling, I don't think I would have accepted less than the top spot."

Jim Henson: The Muppet Man

Joan Ganz Cooney, a woman with a commitment to education, was responsible for creating Sesame Street. The show might never have succeeded, however, without the creative genius of puppeteer Jim Henson. His Muppets, including Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and the Cookie Monster, helped give the show humor and warmth. Whether working for the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) or with his own staff at Jim Henson Associates, Henson always sought a challenge. "Most people think of work as something to avoid," he told People in 1983. "I think of work as something to seek."

Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1936. His family later moved to Maryland. While he was still in high school, Henson began working with puppets on a Washington, D.C., television station. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, he was given his own five-minute show, Sam and Friends. One of Henson's first creations was a puppet with halves of a ping-pong ball for eyes. This creature eventually became one of the most famous Muppets, Kermit the Frog. Henson took the name "Muppet" from a combination of "marionette" and "puppet," since his characters used both strings and hands for their movement.

After graduating from college in 1960, Henson began taking his Muppets on national television shows and commercials. Henson's partners included his wife, Jane, and puppeteer Frank Oz, who helped bring some of the Sesame Street characters to life. As Henson worked with the Muppets, he began to explore filmmaking. That skill proved useful when he worked on Sesame Street. Henson also created new puppetry techniques. His puppeteers followed the Muppets' actions on television screens as they worked, helping them match their words with the movements of the characters' lips. Henson's methods let live actors interact with the Muppets in a convincing way.

As Sesame Street became more popular, the Muppets began appearing on many of the products licensed by CTW. Children around the world probably knew the faces of Oscar the Grouch, Elmo, and the rest of the gang as well as they knew their own families. Henson also created Muppets for his own TV program, The Muppet Show, and several Muppet movies. By the early 1980s, Henson was building new creatures not related to the Muppets, such as Fraggles, who appeared in their own show on the cable TV network HBO.

Henson was considered one of the true gentlemen of the entertainment world, a shy man who spoke through his puppets. Co-workers never heard him say a cross word. In 1990, Carroll Spinney, who played Big Bird for many years, told People, Henson "would never say he didn't like something. He would just go 'hmm.' And if he liked it he would say 'Lovely.'" Henson died in 1990 from bacterial pneumonia. At his funeral service, his daughter Cheryl read words he had written a few years before his death: "My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better than when I got here." Millions of Sesame Street fans would say he met his goal.

Cooney took the title of executive director (later president and chief executive officer) of CTW. She hoped to film a second program, a half-hour show for parents, but lack of funds killed this idea. Instead, Cooney and CTW focused on producing a one-hour children's show that would broadcast five days a week across the country. For creative assistance, she turned to Jon Stone, who served as head writer. He helped design the street scene used as the setting for the live parts of the show and created the program's overall look. Stone also introduced Cooney to puppeteer Jim Henson, who created the Muppets for the show.

Before the first episode of Sesame Street ran in November 1969, Cooney traveled to public television stations across the country, convincing them to run the program in the mid-morning, a "prime time" for preschoolers. She also talked to local school officials, telling them about the show and its purpose. Although Cooney believed in the show, no one knew how well Sesame Street would do since it was an experiment. Soon, however, Cooney and the staff at CTW saw it was a wildly successful experiment.

Shaping a Visionand a "Corporation"

Cooney wanted to give young children a solid foundation in numbers and letters, but she also felt that Sesame Street could address larger social issues. From the beginning, the show had African American and white actors working side-by-side; the first Hispanic Americans joined the cast in 1972. Les Brown, a noted television critic, wrote in Variety in 1969, "If racial peace and harmony ever visit this country, Sesame Street may be one of the reasons why."

Cooney also had the show's writers deal with such issues as adoption, anger, and family relations. The messages were always accompanied by music and visuals that stayed current with trends in popular culture. In one of the most memorable episodes ever, Big Bird and the rest of the cast confronted the death of Mr. Hooper, another character on the show, in 1982. The death of the actor who played Hooper led to this decision, and it created one of the most emotional Sesame Street programs ever.

Although Cooney was in charge of a nonprofit organization, she had to be concerned with making enough money to keep Sesame Street and other CTW shows up and running. Federal funds began to dry up in the early 1970s, leading Cooney to explore licensing deals with large corporations. Cooney also struggled with personal problems during the 1970sfirst her divorce and then a serious battle with breast cancer. Throughout these ordeals, she remained focused on improving CTW.

Moving on Down the Street

Even with the popular and educational success of Sesame Street, Cooney sometimes had to fight to convince others that TV could be useful for teaching children. In 1988, she called for putting a VCR in every elementary school classroom in the United States. The idea, however, met with resistance. Cooney told U.S. News & World Reports Parents and teachers are so convinced TV is a destructive force they won't even think about how to use it constructively."

In 1990, after more than twenty years as the head of CTW, Cooney resigned, but she remained on the workshop's executive committee. In that role, she still shaped new programs, such as the mystery Ghostwriter, while exploring new products for CTW. After stepping down as the head of CTW, Cooney devoted time to various charitable causes and served on the board of directors at several corporations. She also received honorary degrees from many leading U.S. universities, including Princeton and Harvard.

Cooney devoted her professional career to educating children, but the experience taught her something, too. In 1989 she told Changing Times, "We started out thinking that [television] might teach simple things. We learned you could do so much more."

Joan Ganz Cooney's honors include induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and the Women's Hall of Fame.

For More Information

Books

Brown, Les. Les Brown's Encyclopedia of Television. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1992.

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

Periodicals

Baldwin, Kristin. "Keeping the Clouds Away." Entertainment Weekly (February 14, 1997): p. 50.

Bauder, David. "'Sesame Street' Getting Huge Makeover." AP Online (February 2, 2002).

Berlau, John. "Who Receives the Big Bucks from Big Bird and Barney?" Insight on the News (June 2, 1997): p. 13.

Byrne, Christopher. "Now Comes 'Baby Time!'" Playthings (October 1998): p. 88.

Conlin, Michelle. "Mass With Class." Forbes (January 11, 1999): p. 50. Greene, Michelle Y. "Children's Television Workshop Grows Up." Broadcasting & Cable (August 12, 1996): p. 44.

Katz, Michael. " The Mayor of 'Sesame Street.'" Broadcasting & Cable (April 8, 1996): p. 85.

Kramer, Michael. "A Presidential Message from Big Bird." U.S. News & World Report (June 13, 1988): p. 19.

Lystad, Mary. "20 Years on Sesame Street." Children Today (September-October 1989): p. 20.

McKurran, Kristin. "Muppet Master Jim Henson Has Another Brainchild." People (January 17, 1983): p. 39.

Moreau, Dan, and Jennifer Cliff. "Change Agents." Changing Times (July 1989): p. 88.

Schindehette, Susan. "Legacy of a Gentle Genius." People (June 18, 1990): p. 88.

Spreier, Jennifer. "Noggin Reads the Minds of Kids of All Ages with New Shows." The Dallas Morning News (March 31, 2002): p. 2.

Web Sites

The Jim Henson Company. [On-line] http://www.henson.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).

Noggin Network. [On-line] http://www.noggin.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).

Sesame Workshop. [On-line] http://www.sesameworkshop.org (accessed on August 16, 2002).

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Joan Ganz Cooney

Joan Ganz Cooney

Although few know her name, parents and children all over the world love the work of Joan Ganz Cooney (born 1929), who founded the Children's Television Workshop and created some of the most famous educational programming in television history, including "Sesame Street," and "The Electric Company."

Cooney, the youngest of three children, was born November 30, 1929, in Phoenix, Arizona, to Sylvan C. and Pauline Reardon Ganz. Her father killed himself when she was 26 years old, which, as Hilary Mills reported in Vanity Fair, sent Joan "into a long period of anorexia, which today she considers a form of passive suicide."

Early on, Cooney developed a strong sense of civic responsibility, which she credited to the influence of a priest named Father James Keller and his Christopher Movement, a 1950s Catholic group that encouraged Christians to work in communications. "Father Keller said that if idealists don't go into the media, nonidealists would," Cooney told Michele Morris of Working Woman.

Heeding Father Keller's directive, Cooney in 1951 graduated from the University of Arizona in Tucson with a degree in English, then spent a year working as a writer for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. Next, she moved to New York City and found work as a soap opera publicist for NBC and then CBS television networks, where she promoted a variety show called the U.S. Steel Hour from 1955 to 1962.

Within a few years, Cooney had bluffed her way into a job producing documentaries at Channel 13, Manhattan's public television station. "I've never been qualified for any job I've been hired for," she later told Ray Robinson of 50 Plus. Lack of experience notwithstanding, Cooney continually rose to the occasion. Within four years of her hire, she won her first Emmy in an award-studded television career, for "Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor," a three-hour documentary that traced a busload of poor people confronting officials of the government's War on poverty program.

Cooney's big break came when she received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to do a study on educational programming aimed at disadvantaged children. She jumped at the opportunity to figure out a concrete way to help children. "I saw in a flash that that was where the power and influence of the medium was going to be," Cooney told Working Woman. "I could do a thousand documentaries on poverty and poor people that would be watched by a handful of the convinced, but I was never really going to have an influence on my times. I wanted to make a difference."

A Legend was Launched

By 1967, reported Peter Hellman of New York magazine, Cooney and Carnegie Corporation Vice-President Lloyd Morrisett, who arranged funding for the study, "we're convinced that a fast-paced, entertaining hour of educational TV each weekday, modeled after Laugh-In, [a comic variety show popular in the 1960s] could reach and teach pre-schoolers-especially the disadvantaged." They discovered that while middle-class children started school with a basic knowledge of letters and numbers, disadvantaged children didn't. Their study, The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education found that those same children watched an average of 27 hours of television per week. The duo figured that they could harness some of that viewing time into educational growth, like learning the alphabet.

Cooney and Morrisett managed to raise the show's first-year budget of $7 million through the U.S. government's Office of Education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Ford Foundation. "We had decided from the first that we wouldn't go around begging for pennies," Cooney told Peter Hellman of New York magazine. "Either we would get full funding to do the show right or we would drop it."

Children's Television Workshop has since branched out into a products division, which funds the show and others through its licenses of products ranging from books and toys to sheets, towels, and Big Bird toothpaste. The company in 1986 raised about $14 million a year from such deals.

Even after she conceptualized and raised money for the program's inauguration, the Children's Television Workshop board wasn't sure Cooney, with her relative lack of experience, was the right person to head the project. She has always given credit to her husband, Timothy Cooney, for encouraging her to hold firm for leadership of the Children's Television Workshop. "Without him," Cooney told Vanity Fair's Hilary Mills, "I don't know if I would have gone as far as I went." Joan Ganz Cooney has called Timothy Cooney, who once worked for New York City mayor Robert Wagner but quit to become a full-time activist, a "militant feminist." Married in 1964, the couple divorced 11 years later, and Joan Ganz Cooney continues to support him through alimony payments.

Sunny Days

Sesame Street began many years of sunny days with its launch in November 1969. Filmed in Queens, New York, the show, with its urban tenement setting and multicultural cast of characters, reflects a world familiar to its target audience. Hispanic, black, and white actors share the stage with puppets like Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Kermit the Frog, and loveable furry old Grover. The show frequently welcomes guests, as well, including Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Rosie O'Donnell, Jay Leno, James Taylor, and Lena Horne. Even the Count von Count would have trouble tabulating the show's estimated 11 million weekly U.S. viewers.

Broadcast in 141 countries, Sesame Street had won a record 71 Emmys by 1998. One secret to its success is its constant evolution. "The first Sesame Street shows were aimed at two-to five-year olds, the curriculum a narrow five or six subjects," noted Dan Moreau in Changing Times. "Today the show examines more than 200, from geography to the color green." The show's writers particularly struggled over dealing with the death of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, in 1982. Norman Stiles, then the head writer, remarked in New York magazine: "In any adult show, the choice would have been obvious-replace the actor or write him out of the script." Instead, the staff chose to dedicate a segment to Big Bird and others talking about his death and remembering him with fond memories. "We felt we owed something to a man we respected and loved," Stiles said.

Cooney is a constant advocate for innovation, noted Michele Morris in Working Woman. "Because she encourages the creative team to deal with current issues, such as changing male and female roles, sibling rivalry, child abuse, and death, the show stays fresh and contemporary." Led by Cooney, the Children's Television Workshop, which employs about 250 people, has gone on to produce a number of other educational shows, including The Electric Company, a reading program aimed at grade-school kids, 3-2-1 Contact, a science show that Cooney especially hoped would lure girl viewers, and Square One TV, a program about math.

No Dress Rehearsal

Cooney's career has included serving on the boards of corporations including Johnson & Johnson, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Xerox. Although she's still active in Children's Television Workshop projects, Cooney stepped down as CEO in 1990. With her husband second husband, Peter G. Peterson, a former U.S. secretary of commerce and investment banker whom she married in 1980, Cooney works with her own foundation, which focuses on children. Unable to have children of her own, she became a stepmother to Peterson's five children.

Cooney's zest for life was reinvigorated in 1975, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy, the surgical removal of both breasts. Her friend Stephen Schwarzman told Hilary Mills of Vanity Fair that "to understand Joan, you have to understand the cancer. Because of the cancer she has a policy of no bullshit. 'Life is too short, I could have checked out, I'm going to check out. There is no dress rehearsal.' That's one of her constant lines. Because of that she demands authenticity."

Further Reading

Who's Who of American Women, Reed Reference Publishing Company, 1993.

50 Plus, December 1987.

Changing Times, July 1989.

New York, November 23, 1987.

People, November 2, 1998.

Vanity Fair, August 1993.

Working Woman, April 1981; May 1986. □

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Cooney, Joan Ganz

Joan Ganz Cooney, 1929–, American television producer, b. Phoenix, Ariz. After graduating (1951) from the Univ. of Arizona, Cooney worked as a newspaper reporter and television publicist for ten years before becoming a producer at WNET, a public television station in New York City. There she developed the concepts for children's programming that led to the incorporation (1968) of the Children's Television Workshop (CTW; since 2000, Sesame Workshop); Cooney has been president since 1970. Through Sesame Street,Electric Company, and other innovative programs, CTW transformed children's television and learning. Cooney was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995.

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Cooney, Joan Ganz

Joan Ganz Cooney

BORN: November 30, 1929 • Phoenix, Arizona

American television producer

Joan Ganz Cooney is the founder of the Children's Television Workshop, an organization that has created educational programming for children's television for more than three decades. Her best-known work is Sesame Street, an original children's TV program that features such beloved characters as Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar, and Bert and Ernie. The show enjoyed such great popularity in the United States that a number of other countries developed their own versions. By the mid-2000s, Sesame Street reached more than 235 million people in 120 countries around the world.

"As an education device, television has important strengths: it is accessible, it is cost effective, and it works."

Using the media to help others

Joan Ganz Cooney was born on November 30, 1929, in Phoenix, Arizona. Her father, Sylvan Ganz, worked as a banker, and was born Jewish. Her mother, Pauline Ganz, was Roman Catholic. Joan was raised as a Catholic, and she went to parochial elementary schools as a child. She then attended North Phoenix High School, participating in tennis and drama productions. It was in high school that her life was changed by a teacher. Classroom discussions about such important social issues as poverty, race, and class inspired her to become involved in social activism.

Another early influence in Cooney's life was Father James Keller, a Roman Catholic priest who founded the Christopher movement in 1945. Father Keller used his position as a religious leader, writer, and radio and television personality to encourage Catholics to become involved in mass communication (media like television, radio, magazines, and newspapers) as a means to help people. In several interviews, Cooney noted that Father Keller's message motivated her to become involved with children's television in order to help deprived kids and make a difference in the world.

After graduating from high school, Cooney attended the Dominican College of San Rafael in California. She later transferred to the University of Arizona, where she earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1951. With little interest in becoming a teacher, she decided to pursue a career in journalism.

Cooney worked as a writer for the Arizona Republic newspaper for a year, then decided to move to New York City. Her first job in television came when she was hired as a publicist (someone who promotes a business or product in the news media) for a soap opera at the NBC television network. She then took a job at the CBS television network, where she served as a publicist for a variety show called the U.S. Steel Hour from 1955 to 1962.

During Cooney's first year at CBS, her father committed suicide. His death profoundly affected Cooney, who then suffered from a long and dangerous bout of anorexia (a type of eating disorder). She later told a reporter that she considered her struggle with anorexia to be a passive form of suicide. Fortunately, she was eventually able to get her eating disorder under control. In 1964, she married Timothy Cooney.

Becoming involved in children's programming

During the 1960s, animated cartoons started to dominate children's programming on the major television networks, particularly on Saturday mornings. This emphasis on cartoons led to increased concerns about the quality of children's TV programming. Critics complained that cartoons had no educational value and pointed out that they often included violence, stereotyped characters (generalized, usually negative portrayals of a group of people), and commercial tie-ins (products for sale which are linked to characters in the cartoons). Many people felt that the networks did not offer enough educational programming for children.

In 1967, the U.S. Congress responded to growing concerns about the quality of television programming by passing the Public Broadcasting Act, which provided government funding to create a national broadcasting service. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) focused on creating programs that would educate, inform, and enrich the television viewers. Cooney's strong interest in education and social issues helped her get a job as a producer of documentaries (fact-based films) for a public television station in New York City. Even though Cooney had no experience working on films, she soon received an Emmy Award (an annual honor presented for excellence in TV programming) for producing a highly praised documentary on poverty in America.

A short time later, Cooney received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to study the impact of educational programming on disadvantaged children. Her study, titled The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education, found significant differences in what middle-class and lower-class children knew by the time they started preschool. Most middle-class children were already familiar with letters and numbers by the time they started school, for instance, while the majority of poorer children were not. The study concluded that television could be used as a tool to teach disadvantaged children basic skills, such as counting and the alphabet, through programs that were both educational and entertaining.

In an editorial for Electronic Learning, Cooney expressed her belief that television can serve as a valuable tool for teachers in the classroom:

As an education device, television has important strengths: it is accessible, it is cost effective, and it works. Fifty years ago, a teacher could only point to a map and say, "Here's Africa." Today, with broadcast channels devoted to schools, television can bring Africa itself into the classroom. And VCRs can make rich video libraries available to teachers when they want it, for as long as they need it…. Research has found that carefully designed educational programming can help children learn—motivate them to read and write, improve their mathematical problem-solving skills, or encourage them to get involved in science-related activities—even after the set is turned off.

Along with Lloyd Morrisett from the Carnegie Corporation, Cooney founded the Children's Television Workshop to create this kind of children's programming. She recruited educators, psychologists, child development experts, and creative personnel to develop a fast-paced and enjoyable TV show that would add to existing educational programs in schools. The result of this work was Sesame Street.

Sunny days on Sesame Street

Sesame Street made its debut in November 1969. It aired on about 190 public television stations nationwide and was watched by an estimated 11 million weekly viewers in the United States. Filmed in Queens, New York, the show featured a racially and ethnically diverse cast of characters living in an urban setting. It also included the imaginative puppets of Jim Henson (1936–1990), as well as songs, skits, guest stars, cartoons, and instruction in such topics as the alphabet, counting, colors, and geography. Based on Cooney's research into the way children learn, the show was divided into short segments, and the key concepts were repeated in various segments.

As Sesame Street evolved, it also began to address current social issues, such as changing gender roles, child abuse, illness, aging, sibling rivalry, race relations, and death. When Will Lee (1908–1982), the actor who played the beloved character Mr. Hooper, died, the show not only paid tribute to the character but discussed how his death affected the other characters. Many television critics praised the show for its sensitive handling of the issue, pointing out that the character's death gave parents a valuable opportunity to discuss a difficult topic with their children.

Studies on the impact of Sesame Street have demonstrated that children who watch the program show improvement in their skills and level of school readiness. As Cooney predicted in her study, the show benefits poor children by teaching them the alphabet, counting, and reasoning skills at a crucial time in their lives. This knowledge allows them to start school without a distinct disadvantage compared to middle-class children.

Sesame Street has remained popular for more than three decades. As of 2006, approximately 8 million people tuned in to watch the show each week in the United States, and versions appeared in over 120 countries around the world. In fact, Sesame Street was the most widely viewed children's television program in the world. The show received 97 Emmy Awards (annual honors recognizing excellence in television)—more than any other show in television history—as well as numerous other honors.

Growing the Children's Television Workshop

Spurred by the overwhelming success of Sesame Street, the Children's Television Workshop went on to produce several other popular educational programs for children, including The Electric Company, a show for grade-school children; 3-2-1 Contact, a science show targeted at young girls; Ghostwriter, a detective show featuring a multicultural cast; and Square One TV, a program about math.

In 1975, Cooney and her husband divorced. That same year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a radical mastectomy (the surgical removal of both breasts) and emerged from a series of treatments cancer-free. In 1980, she married Peter G. Peterson, the former U.S. secretary of commerce and chairman of the New York investment firm Lehman Brothers. The couple established a foundation to support children's television programming.

With the rise of cable television in the 1990s, the Children's Television Workshop teamed up with the Nickelodeon cable network to launch an educational channel for children called NOGGIN. Cooney's organization also published books and magazines; produced computer software, toys, and films; and sponsored community outreach programs.

Cooney has served as a member of several notable boards and commissions, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the President's Commission on an Agenda for the 1980s, and the Governors' Commission on the Year of the Child. She has also received a number of respected awards for her work in children's television programming. In 1990, she was named to the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and she also received an Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy. In 1995, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian (non-military) honor. In 2003 she received the National Humanities Award.

For More Information

PERIODICALS

Cooney, Joan Ganz. "Not a Moment to Waste: The Power of Television in Education." Electronic Learning, March 1993.

WEB SITES

"Joan Ganz Cooney." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/C/htmlC/cooneyjoan/cooneyjoan.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).

"Sesame Street Facts." Sesame Street Workshop. http://www.sesameworkshop.org/press_kit/facts.php (accessed on May 22, 2006).

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Cooney, Joan Ganz

Cooney, Joan Ganz

(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.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Children's Television Workshop
1 Lincoln Plz.
New York City, NY 10023-7129

Bibliography

"Children's Television Workshop." New York, CTW. Available from http://www.ctw.org/.

The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Current Biography. H.C. Wilson, New York, 1970.

Honan, William. "How Big Bird Came to Count, Education Life." The New York Times, 2 November 1997.

Lystad, Mary, "20 Years on Sesame Street." Children Today, September-October, 1989.

Mills, Hillary. "Pete and Joan." Vanity Fair, August 1993.

Moreau, D., Cliff, J. "Change Agents." Changing Times, July 1989.

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Cooney, Joan Ganz

COONEY, Joan Ganz

(b. 30 November 1929 in Phoenix, Arizona), producer of children's television programs who co-founded and headed the Children's Television Workshop, the company responsible for creating and producing Sesame Street, The Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact, Square One TV, and other series aired on the Public Broadcasting System, and a pioneer in the licensing of products based on television characters.

Cooney was the youngest of three children born to Sylvan C. Ganz, a banker, and Pauline (Reardan) Ganz, a homemaker. Cooney's father was Jewish, but her mother was a practicing Roman Catholic who raised her children in that faith. Cooney attended both parochial and public schools, graduating from North Phoenix High School in 1947. She attended the Dominican College of San Rafael in California before transferring to and graduating from the University of Arizona in Tucson, cum laude, with a B.A. in education in 1951.

After briefly working as a reporter for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Cooney decided to work in the television industry, partly owing to the influence of Father James Keller, founder of the Christopher movement, whom she greatly admired. "Father Keller encouraged idealistic people—people who wanted to do good—to go into media … I … took that … seriously and came to New York in 1954 to get into … television." Using her family connections, Cooney was introduced to David Sarnoff, chair of the Radio Corporation of America, who arranged a job for her in the National Broadcasting Company's publicity department. A year later she became a publicist for the prestigious Columbia Broadcasting System drama series the United States Steel Hour.

By the early 1960s, however, most of the high-quality programs that are remembered as making up "the golden age of television" had been cancelled in favor of more profitable, formulaic dramas and situation comedies. Cooney concluded that there was little room in commercial television for the kind of work she hoped to do, and in 1962 she went to work for the nonprofit Educational Broadcasting Corporation, which had just been awarded the license to operate New York City's Channel Thirteen. Taking a 25 percent pay cut, she became the producer of Court of Reason, a weekly series that pitted teams of experts debating each other on the day's issues.

In 1964 she met Timothy J. Cooney, a civil rights activist, whom she married later that year; they were divorced in 1975 and had no children. At his urging she produced a documentary, "A Chance at the Beginning," concerning the pilot program being conducted at a Harlem school for what would eventually become Headstart. The film was later bought by Project Headstart and used for promotional and recruiting purposes. In 1966 Cooney produced a three-hour television documentary, Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor, for which she won her first Emmy Award. A bright career as a producer of public affairs documentaries beckoned.

In 1966, Cooney hosted a dinner party at her apartment that included Lloyd Morrisette, the head of the Carnegie Foundation. At this party a conversation took place that led to the creation of Sesame Street. "[We were] talking about the great educational potential of television and how it was untapped. Something clicked in Lloyd's mind. Carnegie … was doing research on child development—cognitive acquisition in children." Impressed by Cooney's degree in education, the documentary on preschool education she had done, and her twelve years of experience in television, Morrisette hired her to conduct a study. Her report, "The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education," which was submitted later that year, was among the first to catalog basic facts about the influence that television had exerted on family life in America during its two decades of existence. More than 96 percent of American homes had television sets, and they were in operation for approximately sixty hours per week, thus, on a cumulative basis, stimulating children's cognitive abilities for an entire year before they entered school. The report expressed the hope that with the expert development of educational programs, television might function positively for preschoolers as a "classroom without walls."

The Children's Television Workshop (CTW) was founded in 1968 as a direct result of the report, with an $8 million budget that came from the Carnegie Foundation, other private foundations, and federal funds. Cooney, as head of CTW, initiated a series of seminars, bringing together experts in education and television to gather input for programming ideas. The result was a consensus on five curriculum goals for a program aimed at preschoolers. Three were simple: recognition of the letters of the alphabet, recognition of the numbers one through ten, and the introduction of new vocabulary words. Two goals were more complex: exercise of the child's early reasoning skills and, as Cooney put it, "increased awareness of self and world." Cooney served as president of CTW in 1970, chair and chief executive officer in 1988, and chair of the executive committee in 1990.

While content goals are basic for all educational television programs, Cooney and her team of collaborators departed from previous attempts by never losing sight of the medium in which they were working. Studies were conducted for CTW that involved observing children while they watched television in order to learn what attracted them. "[We] found that kids were fascinated by commercials with fast actions, catchy music, and cartoons. We wanted our show to jump and move," she told Reader's Digest.

Sesame Street, whose title was taken from the "Open Sesame" phrase in Tales from the Arabian Nights, premiered on 10 November 1969. It was indeed unlike any previous children's television program, with an accelerated pace that resembled Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, then the most popular show on prime-time television. Sesame Street also made full use of children's familiarity with television convention, with letters and numbers "sponsoring" the program and presenting "commercials" for themselves. Most critics loved it, praising Cooney for her bold innovations and for the show's urban setting, racially integrated cast, and multicultural emphasis. (Mississippi Public Television dropped Sesame Street temporarily because of its racial integration.) Others criticized her for capitulating to the medium's fast-cutting format, which they thought was destroying the attention span of children and thus their ability to learn, regardless of content. Cooney underwent a radical double mastectomy for breast cancer in 1975. In 1980 she married Peter G. Peterson, chairman of the Bell and Howell Company, and together they established a foundation to support children's television programs.

Sesame Street is one of the most successful television programs of any type in terms of longevity and worldwide popularity, reaching an estimated 235 million viewers each week. Seventeen licensed foreign productions make the show available in more than 140 countries around the world. After the success of Sesame Street, CTW went on to expand programming to reach older children with The Electric Company (1971) and Feelin' Good (1974). More CTW shows focused on science, in 3-2-1 Contact (1980); mathematics, in Square One TV (1987); and teenage writing, in Ghostwriter (1992).

Sesame Street survived to become an institution of American culture, something that few noncommercial television series have achieved. Cooney has won numerous honors as a television producer, including several Emmy, Peabody, and Christopher Awards, and she has emerged as a dominant figure in children's television. In 1989 she won an Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1995 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest national award given to a civilian. In 1999, after three decades on public television, Cooney brought CTW into a joint broadcasting venture with the commercial cable channel Nickelodeon, known as Noggin, a digital cable channel aimed at fast learners. She also initiated CTW's educational Web site and CTW's continuing production of magazines, software, toys, films, and community outreach programs for children.

There is no autobiography or biography of Cooney, but biographical information is in Cary O'Dell, Women Pioneers in Television (1996), and David Stewart, The PBS Companion: A History of Public Television (1999). Articles about Cooney include "The First Lady of Sesame Street," Broadcasting (7 June 1971); "Growing Up with Joan Ganz Cooney," Public Telecommunications Review (Nov.–Dec. 1978); "Cooney Casts Light on a Vision," Variety (13 Dec. 1989); and "Street Smart," People Weekly (2 Nov. 1998). Cooney also wrote the foreword for David Borgenicht, Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs (1998), which is an insider's guide for adults that includes interviews and photographs of the Sesame Street family.

David Marc

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