Reflections of TV Pioneer Joan Ganz Cooney as WNET Prepares for 50th Anniversary

Joan Ganz Cooney may not be a household name. But Joan Ganz Cooney revolutionized viewing habits from toddlers to teens. Cooney is co-founder of the Children’s Television Workshop, a mainstay on Channel 13 since its launch in 1969. It is a perfect inclusion to FishbowlNY’s special series of interviews and posts dedicated to WNET’s 50th anniversary.

The CTW was producing programming solely for public television. Like national syndication today, it was made available for public TV stations across the country. The first show that Cooney and her CTW employees created was Sesame Street.

While each station made the decision when to air Sesame Street, Cooney had strong views for the start time.

“I didn’t want it in competition with Captain Kangaroo [8 a.m. on CBS], the only other quality children’s show at the time,” Cooney says.

To avoid the “Captain’s wrath,” CTW was encouraging PBS stations to air Sesame Street at either 7 a.m. or 9 a.m.

WNDT, (the original call letters of WNET), was not as accommodating. In a rarely remembered tibdit, Sesame Street actually had its debut on WPIX/Channel 11.

“It started in New York on a commercial station because Jack Kiermaier [Channel 13 president] would not give a timeslot that was desirable to us. He wouldn’t put it on until 11:30 in the morning.”

How do you get to Sesame Street? In 1969, it was the Channel 11 or Channel 13 “shuttle.” Cooney recalls the local PBS station had a second repeat later in the afternoon that debut season. The only other program for children on Channel 13, pre-Sesame Street, was Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, which ran each day.

CTW finally got its preferred WNDT airing for its second season in 1970, as Kiermaier capitulated. And the rest is history. Sesame Street, and in turn the CTW, (now Sesame Workshop) gave the medium an educational voice, teaching tens of millions of youngsters to count to 10, or learn their A-B-C’s, before ever opening a book.

“It was by far the most viewed program, I believe, that’s ever been on public television,” Cooney says. “It also was one of the earliest interconnected shows, so it’s very hard to compare it to previous years of programming.”

Cooney’s origins with Channel 13 go back to the station’s infancy. It was while working in NBC’s press department that she first learned that an education television push was started. Someone from The US Steel Hour, which she helped promote, transferred to the public TV station (WGBH) in Boston.

Cooney contacted Thirteen about a publicist position. Since it was already filled, she was hired as news/public affairs producer.

She produced thought-provoking shows, including a program on poverty that won her an Emmy, the first of many awards she would earn in her soon-to-be illustrious career.

Thereafter, to trim the payroll, Channel 13 cut staff, including the GM. Cooney, though, was safe.

“I wasn’t important enough to get fired,” Cooney recalls.

Eventually, her life changed thanks to a dinner party in 1966. There she met with Carnegie Foundation VP Lloyd Morrisett, who was already researching ways that TV could play a better role for children.

As talks got more intense, it was ultimately decided that Cooney, who didn’t have her own children, would be the best person to helm the new production company.

“There’s no good explanation as to how I ended up doing this. It just happened,” Cooney says. “It happened because Lloyd Morrisett wanted me to do it and I was very interested. I was passionately interested in the subject.”

Cooney’s group started under the auspices of NET, National Education Television. By the second year, Cooney led the breakaway to incorporate the Children’s Television Workshop. And it was all thanks to Sesame Street taking off so well with parents and children. Cooney says it was clear they had achieved something special on Sesame Street.

“I knew before it went on the air that it was going to work,” Cooney says. “It was amazing.”

Part of the success was because the CTW made pain-staking efforts to ensure the show’s viability with its audience.

“We did research all the time. The whole show was constructed with research,” Cooney says. “That is, we researched to see if what we were showing taught them what we wanted them to learn, and whether they liked it or not. The latter being as important as the former.”

Helping build a groundswell of support, Cooney points out, critics loved the show initially as well.

“There had never been anything like it. It had been such a worthy purpose,” Cooney says. “I just felt we had it. We all felt we did.”

But Cooney, 82, admits Channel 13 had little to do with the creation of the CTW or the early success of Sesame Street.

“Thirteen did not play a significant role, but I’m very glad to give them credit,” Cooney adds. “I wasn’t [at Thirteen], and I didn’t care about them. I’m sorry to say that, but I was preoccupied with the creation of the Children’s Television Workshop.”

Puppeteer-extraordinaire, Jim Henson, though, did have a hand in the Sesame Street good fortune. Henson was gaining some notice for a local TV show in Washington, and numerous commercials, featuring his Muppets.

“There had been children’s shows with puppets. But we wanted something edgier and newer,” Cooney admits. “I don’t know what we would have done instead.”

Kermit the Frog, Bert, Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Grover, became as much a part of the show’s tapestry as the “humans.”

A determined Cooney, hardly rested on her Sesame Street laurels, creating the Electric Company in 1971. The show, which was a great complement to Sesame Street, focused on preteens. Unlike Sesame Street, the Electric Company ensemble featured established stars Bill Cosby and Rita Moreno. It also showcased some unknowns, most notably, future Oscar winner Morgan Freeman.

Just scratching the surface at her greatness and legacy, Cooney was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Television Hall of Fame.

It’s more than 40 years since her co-founding the CTW. Cooney, despite her advancing age, remains actively involved in the Sesame Workshop.

“I’m chairman of the executive committee of the Board and have an office at the Workshop.  I meet regularly with Mel Ming, president of the Workshop, and attend certain meetings that the management want me to attend,” Cooney says. “I still am asked to do a number of things [give interviews; speak, attend meetings] by outside groups related to our work.  I work about half time which is perfect for me.”

Photo credit: (top) Terry Gruber; all others, Sesame Workshop