Co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett on the difficult birth of the longest running, most honored children's program and what it has taken to keep it on course for half a century
Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson's Muppet's celebrating Sesame Street
Forty-eight years ago Sesame Street changed children’s television forever by presenting the first program for preschoolers that integrated education and entertainment with a culturally diverse cast, innovative puppetry and animation. Today, it is a beloved institution broadcast on HBO, on over 300 public TV stations and through co-productions in about 120 countries.
It has come a long way from its birth in the boiling caldron of social change in the late 1960s when Carnegie Foundation Vice President Lloyd Morrisett first asked public TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney during a 1966 dinner party in her New York City apartment if she thought that television could be used to teach young children?
Cooney said she didn’t know the answer but it started a discussion and sent her on a mission that would change her life, American television and ultimately the lives of hundreds of millions of children and their parents around the world.
For their achievements, the Los Angeles Press Club is presenting the Inaugural Distinguished Storyteller Award to Cooney and Morrisett as the co-creators of Sesame Street at the 2017 National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
“Sesame Street,” said LA Press Club President Robert Kovacik, “has educated and entertained generations of children and set a high standard for storytelling well worth celebrating.”
Over the years Sesame Street has evolved with changes in society, survived political upheaval, the emergence of cable TV and the Internet. Throughout, it has maintained the core mission first stated in 1968 to “promote the intellectual and culture growth of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged preschoolers.”
“Simply put,” says Jeffrey D. Dunn, now the CEO of Sesame Workshop (successor to the Children’s Television Workshop), Cooney and Morrissett “transformed children’s television. Since 1969 their commitment to education, their courage in addressing tough issues, and their appreciation of humor have made Sesame Street a beloved institution.”
Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morissett: he was Chairman of the Board and she was CEO.
It wasn’t always easy. At first there was stiff resistance to having Cooney head the new organization, even though she had spent months researching and writing the proposal which had helped raise the initial $8 million (about $67 million in 2017 dollars) from foundations and the U.S. government to fund the first 130 episodes.
“I had a lot of confidence in Joan,” recalled Morrisett, “but two other representatives from the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education thought somebody else should do it.”
They were concerned Cooney had never run a big business, lacked educational credentials beyond a college degree, and had never run a broadcasting company.
“A woman at the Ford Foundation questioned whether the project could be taken seriously with a woman head,” recalled Cooney, “if you can imagine that being a question from a woman.”
At the time, however, it was rare for a woman to run a multimillion dollar business, especially a young woman with more ambition than experience.
“I was not an expert in children exactly,” said Cooney, “but by the time this came up, I had done the study, and it was that study the backers were backing…There were questions raised but there wasn’t anybody else as qualified.”
That was proven from the first broadcast on November 10, 1969, which brought rave reviews from the New York Times and every other media outlet, highly favorable audience reaction, and ratings exceeding the most optimistic expectations.
There were detractors. In Mississippi, for instance, the state’s educational office refused to carry the show because it was too culturally diverse for their taste, meaning it had too many African Americans mixed with Hispanics, and a mix of rich and poor children and adults of all ages.
“We made the show set in an urban set so we got criticism from various quarters,” said Morrisett. “They said it didn’t represent people in Boise, Idaho, for example, but gradually that faded away.”
Lloyd Morissett leads a Children's Television Workshop board meeting in the 1970s.
Sesame Street happened because of the huge social change in the 60’s and the rise of the civil rights movement, and new laws passed along with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. For the first time, there was funding for non-commercial TV through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helped fund Sesame Street.
Still, when the Republicans took over under President Nixon, and later under President Reagan, money for public TV and Sesame Street began to disappear.
For a while, Cooney came to the rescue thanks to a family connection. She had grown up in Phoenix and attended the University of Arizona, where her family was friends with the owners of a big department store, Goldwater’s.
When conservatives were cutting public TV funding, Cooney appealed to “Mr. Conservative,” her neighbor’s son, Senator Barry Goldwater, who surprisingly became her white knight.
“He did not love public television but he loved education,” recalled Cooney, “so he seemed happy to support a television show that was going to teach children.”
The ultimate financial salvation came from the key hire of Jim Henson, whose puppets known as The Muppets delighted kids. His creations were innovative, clever and amusing, with dialogue that worked for the kids and parents on different levels.
When the government money dried up. Sesame was able to turn to licensing the Muppets. First a talking Big Bird and then Tickle Me Elmo became huge sellers, along with albums, live shows and more - earning millions that kept the organization growing.
Joan Ganz Cooney with Muppet creator Jim Henson
“(Henson, who passed away suddenly in 1990) was crucial to the great success we had,” said Cooney. “Henson’s importance cannot be underestimated.”
Lloyd Morissett with his trophy and flowers right after he was honored at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday evening (Dec. 3). Photo by Alex Ben Block.
Morrisett continued his foundation work and was chairman of the CTW board for the first 30 years of Sesame Street. He brought an interest in education learned growing up in Los Angeles where his father was a professor at UCLA.
When he was 11, he met Julian Ganz, who became a lifelong friend and introduced Morrisett to his cousin Joan, beginning their long relationship.
Morrisett attended UCLA and then graduate school at Yale; after which he taught at Berkeley before moving to New York, where he joined the Carnegie Foundation.
“Lloyd was the one who got the idea (for Sesame Street) in the first place,” said Cooney.
Early one morning Morrisett had found his pre-school age daughter in the living room watching a TV station sign on logo, waiting for cartoons to air.
He later told Cooney that showed him how fascinated kids found TV. “He said, ‘Why not give them something good?’” recalled Cooney. “’Why not try education?’”
Out of that Sesame Street was born. Over the years Morrisett, Cooney and their talented team dealt with many issues – business and creative - and fought battles laying the groundwork for an enduring institution that their endless research showed really worked.
“We demonstrated,” said Morrisett, “that media can be used for social purposes and that it proved to be of greater longevity than was originally expected.”
“I once said,” Cooney said with a laugh, “that my talent – I didn’t play piano or the violin – was to be a good conductor. You get up with your stick and conduct them. “
And they played a tune that really did change the world.