By Ellen Bari
Last week, at the Museum of the Moving Image, Leslie Stahl (60 Minutes) introduced Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street, by sharing some of the honors she has received: Presidential Medal of Freedom, 13 honorary degrees from America’s most elite schools, and of course, the unique distinction of being ‘Big Bird’s Mommy.’ Stahl quipped that although she and Joan are good friends, “you don’t really get to know about your best friends until you Google them.” Seeing these women together on stage, one could not help but think: what a lovely pairing of ground-breaking role models. But these two share another distinction: Sesame Street and 60 Minutes both debuted in 1968- 43 years ago! And both shows are still going strong.
Cooney described the 1960’s as a time of tremendous opportunity. “Change was in the air and you could do everything. Government and private business collaborated, and the world was ready to do something for kids.” (Head Start began 1965)
While working on a PBS documentary about poverty in the mid 60’s, Cooney found that the literacy divide between the rich and poor was staggering. She also noticed that “(first grade) teachers’ expectations of those children who knew their letters and numbers was different” than for those who did not. In effect, a vicious cycle was in place, even before children completed first grade. At the same time, Cooney said, “ I looked around and heard kids singing the lyrics to every beer commercial.” This made her wonder if it might be possible to harness the power of television in the service of learning- a somewhat radical idea at the time, as TV and education had been mutually exclusive. In 1966, Cooney embarked on a research project, interviewing leading cognitive psychologists and educators to see if they would abide the notion of teaching the alphabet and numbers on television. The response was a resounding: Yes, absolutely!
Cooney modeled the first Sesame Street programming after the extremely popular Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, creating small digestible chunks of content, using humor, song and fast-paced cutting to keep things moving. ”At the time we thought children had short attention spans- we have since learned differently and have changed the format of the show,” said Cooney.
With the hopes of reaching an inner city audience, she thought “if Mr. Rogers can live in the suburbs, and appeal to city kids, then Sesame Street can be urban, and still appeal to suburban kids.” The first tests of show had the ‘Street’ inhabited only by humans with the puppets in other segments, but Cooney said, “It was boring without the puppets.” So soon those lovable furry characters were interacting with the multicultural cast of black and white, men and women (a Hispanic character was added in the following year) and Sesame Street was an immediate hit. Cooney credits the success to her early collaborators, including writers and producers who had cut their teeth on Captain Kangaroo, and, of course, Jim Henson and his puppets. Cooney also said the show would never have come to be without the support of Lloyd Morriset of the Carnegie Institute who gave her $8 million to get started ($51 million in 2012 dollars), and additional support from the government and the private business community. Cooney fondly shared that Ernie was her favorite, “because that was Jim Henson,” and also Kermit, although she said, jokingly, that Kermit was “fired when he started moonlighting.”
Father James Keller of the Christophers was Cooney’s ultimate inspiration. He believed that “idealistic people should go into television so it’s used constructively.” And that she did, changing the face of children’s television forever. Cooney likened those early days of television to today’s vast opportunities with new technologies, in a sense throwing down the gauntlet. The time is NOW, to harness the power and allure of digital technologies, and to use them in constructive ways. Fifty years from now, we may be praising a ‘new technology’ classic, though it’s likely that Sesame Street will be there too, even if it is being ‘brought to you’ by holograms of letters A,B,C….