Cooney, Joan Ganz (1929—)

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Cooney, Joan Ganz (1929—)

American television executive and president of Children's Television Workshop, who originated the revolutionary children's program "Sesame Street." Name variations: Joan Ganz. Born Joan Ganz in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 30, 1929; one of three children of Sylvan C. (a banker) and Pauline (Reardan) Ganz; attended Dominican College, San Rafael, California; B.A. cum laude, University of Arizona, 1951; married Timothy J. Cooney (treasurer of the Equal Employment Council), in February 1964 (divorced); married Peter G. Peterson (former U.S. secretary of commerce and former chair of Lehman Brothers), on April 26, 1980.

Joan Ganz Cooney, founder and director of the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) and the mastermind behind the revolutionary children's show "Sesame Street," was raised and educated in Phoenix, Arizona. Born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, Cooney and her brother and sister were raised in their mother's religion. She credits the message of Father Keller's Christopher movement, that if right-thinking people did not get into mass communications others would, as a major influence on her life. After graduating from the University of Arizona, she worked as a reporter for the Arizona Republic for a year before moving to New York, where Ganz broke into television as a publicist for NBC and the "U.S. Steel Hour." She later produced documentaries for public television and, in 1966, won an Emmy for her program "Poverty, Anti-poverty and the Poor." At age 34, well established in her career, she married Timothy J. Cooney, then treasurer of the Equal Employment Council.

Her journey to "Sesame Street" began during a dinner party at the Cooney home in February 1966, when the conversation turned to television's educational potential. One of Cooney's guests, Lloyd Morrisett, then vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, asked if she would be willing to undertake a study exploring public television's potential for preschool education. Intrigued by the idea, Cooney agreed. Her preliminary research proved that 96% of American homes had television sets and that youngsters sat in front of them some 60 hours a week. In perhaps her most meaningful discovery, she also found that children were definitely learning from the medium, though primarily through the fast-paced imaginative musical jingles of the commercial spots. In the report that Cooney submitted to the Carnegie Corporation the following November, she concluded that a well-designed television program would fulfill the National Education Association's recommendation that all children be given the opportunity to begin schooling at age four, while accomplishing this goal at a fraction of the $3 billion or more it would cost the federal government to provide the necessary classroom space.

After receiving initial funding of $8 million from foundations and federal agencies to establish the Children's Television Workshop, Cooney and her associates undertook three additional years of exhaustive planning, including extensive seminars with educational and entertainment experts to establish curriculum goals, which included raising the level of awareness of young, and particularly disadvantaged, as well as teaching numbers, the alphabet, and basic reasoning skills. After testing five pilot shows in the summer of 1969, the first hourlong "Sesame Street" (the title alluding to the "Open, Sesame!" command in the Arabian Nights story of Ali Baba) aired on November 10, 1969, over

the National Educational Television network, which consisted of some 190 stations.

Utilizing the fast-paced technique of commercials to "sell" the alphabet and numbers, the show employed animation, soft rock music, and the irrepressible Muppets of Jim Henson (who at first wanted nothing to do with children's shows), along with live actors. The basic set simulated an East Harlem neighborhood, with brownstones and an integrated population. The initial reviews were overwhelmingly positive.Barbara Delatiner wrote in Newsday (November 10, 1969): "Today's opening show is an exciting example of what can be accomplished when inventive attention is paid to the care and feeding of young minds." Les Brown of Variety (December 24, 1969) praised the program as "the most naturally integrated show on television," adding, "if racial peace and harmony ever visit this country, 'Sesame Street' may be one of the reasons why."

President of CTW until 1990, then chair of its executive committee, Cooney considered herself part hardheaded businesswoman, part crusader, as she struggled to develop a business acumen equal to her idealism. The show's success increased her workload with a products business (books, records, and toys), fundraising, and planning for a new show. She viewed the labor as simply part of the ebb and flow of life. "I think there are seasons of life," she stated in Particular Passions. "I've gone through very austere periods where I've just worked, and then less austere times when I felt I could let up and concentrate more on my personal life." Cooney credits a serious illness around the time of her separation and divorce with helping her realize the need to balance her work with personal relationships. She subsequently remarried into a large family and helped raise several of her younger stepchildren.

Through the years, "Sesame Street" has won numerous awards, including countless Emmies, and Cooney has received wide recognition as an innovator and outstanding executive. Under her watchful eye, the show continued to evolve and grow with the times. Within the first ten years, it slowed in pace and increased its curriculum, adding bilingual and bicultural education, and including children with developmental difficulties in the cast. While expanding health, safety, and nutrition topics, the program has not shied away from more serious concerns like sibling rivalry, divorce, and death. Throughout her tenure, Cooney continued to pioneer and set an example, although it was sometimes difficult to equal or top the success of "Sesame Street." In 1971, the Children's Television Workshop introduced The Electric Company for ages 7 to 10 and, in 1980, 3−2=1 Contact for ages 8 to 12. Square One TV and Ghostwriter were later productions, as well as a number of commercial television specials.


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

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

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1970. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1970.

"The 25 Most Powerful Women in America," in Biography Magazine. April 1999, p. 9.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts.