Joan Ganz Cooney

National Humanities Medal


For Joan Ganz Cooney, the business of children's television is a serious one. While the creator of the Children's Television Workshop and Sesame Street is quick to call the show "a collaborative effort," she is the driving force behind this innovative and hugely successful children's program.

After nearly thirty-five years on the air, the influence of Big Bird, Grover, and Oscar the Grouch on preschool children is immeasurable. The show is broadcast in eighty languages around the world. "I thought it was very American," says Cooney, "and was shocked when other countries wanted it."

To Cooney, the most important message of Sesame Street is not teaching the alphabet or how to count. "The aim of the show is really to foster mutual respect for one another," says Cooney. "The show is about warmth and human understanding."

Cooney graduated from the University of Arizona in 1951 with a degree in education. She began her career as a reporter for the Arizona Republic but soon moved to television in New York City. By the early 1960s she was producing documentaries for WNDT-TV--now WNET-TV-- including A Chance at the Beginning, about a Harlem poverty program for preschoolers that predated Head Start, and the Emmy-winning Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor. She became interested in how television could help educate poor children. At that time children's shows consisted of Captain Kangaroo on commercial TV and Mister Rogers on public television. The rest was cartoons.

She met Lloyd Morrisett, vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, who also wondered if television could be used to educate small children. Morrisett and Cooney soon undertook a study funded by the Carnegie Foundation called "The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education." She spent three months traveling across the country and interviewing teachers, children's television producers, child psychologists, and child development experts. In the end, she proposed a new kind of children's program and formed the Children's Television Workshop to produce it. The show would be fast-paced, repetitive, and use different formats. Television commercials and the hit show Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In influenced the format. The premise was that it would hold children's interest, its characters would become their friends, and it would teach. The first show aired in November 1969, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the U.S. Office of Education.

"The show was intended to help children get ready for school," says Cooney. "Initially, it was geared for four-year-olds to six-year-olds. But we have one- and two-year-olds watching--children learn so much younger now." The show includes segments for children of different ages. Cooney and the workshop have also developed shows geared toward older children, including The Electric Company, Square One TV, and 3-2-1 Contact.

Sesame Street, together with the Children's Television Workshop, has won ninety-one Emmys. "We change it all the time to keep it current," says Cooney, who is still involved with the show as chair of its executive committee. "We're doing the hard work of history. In South Africa, for example, we have a Muppet character who is HIV-positive, to teach children not to shun children who have the disease."

While developing the show, Cooney brought in Jim Hensen to create puppets. "Jim was already famous in his field," says Cooney. "He didn't want to do just children's shows. But he went ahead and created Muppets just for Sesame Street."

To avoid being dependent on corporate or foundation funding, Cooney has ploughed all the profits from commercial sales of Sesame Street brand products back into the show's production.

For her work, Cooney has received honorary degrees from fifteen institutions, among them Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, and Georgetown. In 1989 she was awarded a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award. She was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1995 President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation.

"Now there are some excellent programs for children not only on public television but on commercial TV," she says. "I'm happy the show has had an impact. We--I'm just one of a team--made a contribution."

By Maggie Riechers

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.