Time for Big Bird to Leave the Government Nest
In the winter of 1966, Joan Ganz Cooney and her husband, Tim Cooney (a staff member in then-New York City Mayor Richard J. Wagner’s office) hosted what she called “a little dinner party” at their Gramercy Park apartment to discuss the future of children’s educational television.
In February 1964, at age 34, she and Cooney married in February 1964. They met while she was working on A Chance at the Beginning, a documentary about poverty. He was also director of public relations for the New York City Department of Labor and Director of New York's Office of Civil Defense. Timothy Cooney would eventually become “an unpaid advocate for the urban poor.” Joan Cooney credited this “radical liberal” for making her into a feminist, and later said that he was very supportive and encouraging. The couple never had children. But Ganz would become co-founder of the Children’s Television Workshop, which produced Sesame Street – and Big Bird.
Ganz was born right on the brink of the Great Depression - on Nov. 30, 1929 in Phoenix, Ariz. to Sylvan Ganz, a banker who became president of the First National Bank of Arizona, and Pauline (née Reddon), a homemaker. Her father was a native Phoenician who was born in the U.S. so that his mother could receive medical care after his birth. Her grandfather Emil Ganz was a tailor from Waldorf, Germany who immigrated to the U.S. in 1958 and was president of the First National Bank of Arizona and mayor of Phoenix for three terms. Joan Ganz was the youngest of three siblings. She described her childhood as “upper middle class, country club atmosphere” and stated, “I was raised in the most conventional way, raised to be a housewife and a mother, to work an interesting job when I got out of college, and to marry at the appropriate age, which would have been twenty-five.”
She attended North High School in Phoenix, where she was active in school plays. She stated that her biggest influence as a teenager was her teacher Bud Brown, whose lectures about the Civil Rights movement, poverty, the free press, and anti-Semitism in Europe “absolutely inflamed” her and changed her life. Brown was later investigated as a Communist. She went to the all-girls’ Catholic institution Dominican College in San Rafael, Calif., for a year before transferring to the University of Arizona in 1948. She stopped acting in college because her father refused to support her in that career, and chose Education, even though she was not interested in becoming a teacher, as her major on the recommendation of her mother and because as she later stated, “It was something that girls of my generation did because teaching was acceptable.”
After graduating in 1951 with a B.A. in Education, she went to work for the State Department in Washington, D.C., as a clerk-typist. She was exposed to Father James Keller’s Christopher Movement, which inspired her to become involved with television and the media. Ganz later said, “Father Keller said that if idealists didn't go into the media, non-idealists would.” She returned to Phoenix and despite no experience in journalism, took a job as a reporter at the Arizona Republic. Eighteen months later, in 1953 and at the age of 23, she moved to New York City and was a publicist for the next ten years, initially for David Sarnoff at RCA, then at NBC writing press releases and soap opera synopses, and then for the United States Steel Hour at CBS.
In 1961, she became interested in working for educational television, and became a documentary producer for New York’s first educational TV station WNET Channel 13). Many of the programs she produced won local Emmys.
During this time, she became involved with liberal Democratic politics and as writer Cary O'Dell stated, “fell in with a literary set of young writers and editors who gathered at the West Side apartment of Partisan Review editor William Phillips. Some of this “notable group” included Jason Epstein and Norman Mailer. According to writer Louise Gikow, “Her literary contacts, political savvy, and vast interest in the “world of ideas” – in addition to disarming self-confidence – got her hired (at Ch. 13). Her masterful organizational skills at intuitive grasp of the zeitgeist of the times won her success.”
There was just one problem; she really wasn’t interested in children. She was interested in “education” as in political philosophy. If it was to be aimed at pre-schoolers – well, she could do that, too.
While working for the U.S. Steel Hour, a colleague left to work for the educational television station WGB-TV in Boston; her reaction was life-changing: “What?! There is educational television?!” She later stated, “I knew that I was born to be in educational television; it was St. Paul on the highway.” In 1961, she began to track the progress of a court case in which public television station WNDT in New Jersey was attempting to acquire New York independent station Channel 13, which later became the precursor of PBS station WNET, the first public broadcasting station in New York.
When Channel 13 became public two years later, Ganz applied for a position as the station's publicist, but the general manager told her they needed producers. “I can produce,” she told him, even though she had no experience in producing television shows. She later stated, “I've never been qualified for any job I've been hired for.” According to television historian Cary O'Dell, Channel 13 hired her because of her ties she had made through her political activities and associations with Partisan Review. Ganz later said during an interview with the Archive of American Television that the transition to becoming a documentary producer was not difficult for her because she was well-read and aware of the issues of the day, adding, “I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven, dealing with foreign policy and domestic policy and civil rights, which became the great passion in those years for me.”
Taking a pay cut, she and her boss Lewis Freedman produced a series of “ teach-ins” on major issues. One of her first programs was called Court of Reason, a weekly live debate show; notable guests included Malcolm X and Calvin Butts (pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, President of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, and Chairman and founder of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, an engine for $500 million in housing and commercial development in Harlem).
She produced a debate show on America’s policy toward Cuba that aired the week before the Cuban Missile Crisis. She also produced another debate show called Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the World, in which poor people were brought into the studio to confront the government officials responsible for developing anti-poverty programs. Although the ratings were low, Joan Ganz and Freedman won Emmys for its production. The viewers were touted as “serious-minded adults who cared about matters of race, injustice, and the imbalance of opportunity in New York and beyond.” She also produced inexpensively-made documentaries that she later called “Little Grandma Moses documentaries” for Channel 13 that were well-received by their viewers, including A Chance at the Beginning, which featured the precursor of Head Start that won her a local Emmy and was later used to train Head Start teachers. She later reported that Channel 13 had won 8 out of 13 New York Emmys in one year.
So, back to 1966. Also attending the “little dinner party” were her boss, Lewis Freedman, and Lloyd and Mary Morrisett, whom the Cooneys knew socially. Lloyd Morrisett was an executive at the Carnegie Corporation, and was responsible for funding educational research. The conversation turned to the possibilities of using television to educate young children. Morrisett raised the question, “Do you think television could be used to teach young children?” Cooney replied, “I don't know, but I'd like to talk about it.”
The party was the start of a five-decade long professional relationship between Cooney and Morrisett. A week later, Cooney and Freedman met with Morrisett at the offices of the Carnegie Corporation to discuss doing a feasibility study on creating an educational television program for preschoolers. Freedman was opposed to Cooney’s involvement because he did not think she would be interested in a project that focused on children and because he did not want to lose her at Channel 13, but she was chosen to do the study.
In the summer of 1967, Cooney took a leave of absence from Channel 13, and funded by the Carnegie Corporation, traveled the U.S. and Canada interviewing experts in child development, education, and television. The result of Cooney's travels was a distilled, neatly structured fifty-five-page report entitled, “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education,” The report, which Gikow called “a schematic for the show Sesame Street would become,” described what the new show would look like and proposed the creation of a company that oversaw its production, which eventually became known as the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW).
Cooney later stated that her undergraduate training in Education helped her research and write the study, and that it, along with her Emmy, provided her with credibility in the eyes of both the experts she interviewed and the new show’s funding sources. She later told an interviewer, “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.” She later told Davis, “Preschoolers were not necessarily my thing. It was using television in a constructive way that turned me on.”
At first, Cooney assumed that the project would be produced by Channel Thirteen, but when the station’s owner rejected the proposal and questioned Cooney’s credentials, she left the station and went to the Carnegie Corporation as a full-time consultant in May 1967. For the next two years, Cooney and Morrisett worked on researching and developing the new show, raising $8 million for Sesame Street, and establishing the CTW. Despite her leadership in the project’s initial research and development, Cooney’s installment as CTW’s executive director was put in doubt due to her lack of high-level managerial experience and leadership, untested financial management skills, and lack of experience in children’s television and education. According to one of her biographers, "Doubters also questioned whether a woman could gain the full confidence of a quorum of men from the federal government and two elite philanthropies, institutions whose wealth exceeded the gross national product of entire countries.”
At first, Cooney did not fight for the position, but with the support of her husband and Morrisett, and after the investors of the project realized that they could not move forward without her, Cooney pursued it and was named executive director of CTW in February 1968. As one of the first female executives in American television, her appointment was called “one of the most important television developments of the decade.”
"Sesame Street" premiered on PBS on Nov. 10, 1969. In its first season, the show won three Emmys, a Peabody, and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. According to Newsday, “Scores of glowing newspaper and magazine stories fluttered down on Mrs. Cooney and her workshop like confetti onto the heads of conquering heroes.” Les Brown of Variety Magazine called Cooney “St. Joan.” Cooney later reported, “The reception was so incredible. The press adored us; the parents adored us." [No mention of the children]. The first year Sesame Street was on the air, Cooney was inundated with attention. She reported that the requests for interviews from the press “were endless,” and attributed it to the emergence of the women's movement in the early 1970s. Cooney also testified before Congressional hearings on children and television, starting before the show’s premiere.
In 1969, Tim and Joan Cooney, who were childless, became “de factor foster parents to an inner-city black child” whom Tim Cooney met while working in Harlem for a civil rights organization. Eventually, the child returned to live with his mother and was killed in New York City before he turned 30. The Cooneys' marriage, which was called “turbulent,” ended in 1975. Due to Tim Cooney's long history of alcoholism, he was unable to support himself, so Joan Cooney paid him alimony until his death in 1999.
Cooney remained the chairman and chief executive officer of the CTW until 1990, when she stepped down and was replaced by David Britt, who Cooney called her “right-hand for many years.” Britt had worked for her at the CTW since 1975 and its president and chief operating officer since 1988. At that time, she became chairman of the CTW’s executive board, which oversaw its businesses and licensing, and became more involved in the organization's creative side. Also in 1990, Cooney married businessman Peter G. Peterson, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Richard Nixon. They met when Peterson was on the board of National Educational Television, during her presentation of Sesame Street to them. She “inherited” five stepchildren by marrying Peterson.
Cooney served on several committees and corporate boards, including the Mayo Foundation, Chase Manhattan Bank, Johnson & Johnson, and Metropolitan Life Insurance. Cooney recognized that she was invited to serve on these boards because she was a woman, and because companies were trying to be more inclusive. She also did some public speaking on the behalf of the CTW and returning to her roots, worked on documentaries. She credited her involvement with the boards with teaching her how to run an organization and about the business world. In 1990, she was the first female nonperformer to be inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame, and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1995.
In 2007, Sesame Workshop founded The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which studied how to improve children's literacy by using and developing digital technologies "grounded in detailed educational curriculum," just as was done during the development of Sesame Street.
Thanks to donations from the Carnegie Foundation and “evil corporate” grants, not to mention its revenue from licensing its creative products and characters, like Big Bird, the Children’s Television Workshop – now called the Sesame Street Workshop – has grown up and is entirely self-sufficient. Capitalism works very well for Big Bird. With his resume and experience, he will never have to stand on the unemployment line or use food stamps, nor lie on his resume, the way founder of the network did. Any broadcasting company would be thrilled to have him.
But there’s that pesky problem of commercials and commercialism. SSTW doesn’t want its young progeny to be subverted by the ideals of Capitalism. Big Bird is a big, yellow cash cow. The money he brings in also funds some not-so-cute programming. Sesame Street does a pretty good job of dumbing down the Liberal agenda for tykes, too, even while they stay away from politics and controversy. After all, it is a kid show. When a TV commentator asked Big Bird didn’t respond to Mitt Romney’s comments about him and cutting funding to PBS (Public Broadcasting System), Big Bird replied, “I didn’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers.”
All the same, it’s time for Big Bird to leave the government nest. He’s going to have to learn to flap his wings and fly on his own merits, just like the rest of us.