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.
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 on Joan Ganz Cooney
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.