Joan Ganz Cooney is the founder of the Children s Television Workshop, Joan Ganz Cooney. Usingthemediatohelpothers

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1 BORN: November 30, 1929 Phoenix, Arizona American television producer As an education device, television has important strengths: it is accessible, it is cost effective, and it works. Joan Ganz Cooney is the founder of the Children s Television Workshop, an organization that has created educational programming for children s television for more than three decades. Her best-known work is Sesame Street, an original children s TV program that features such beloved characters as Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar, and Bert and Ernie. The show enjoyed such great popularity in the United States that a number of other countries developed their own versions. By the mid-2000s, Sesame Street reached more than 235 million people in 120 countries around the world. Joan Ganz Cooney. Ó NANCY KASZERMAN/ ZUMA/CORBIS. Usingthemediatohelpothers Joan Ganz Cooney was born on November 30, 1929, in Phoenix, Arizona. Her father, Sylvan Ganz, worked as a banker, and was born Jewish. Her mother, Pauline Ganz, was Roman Catholic. Joan was raised as a Catholic, and she went to parochial elementary schools as a child. She 41

2 then attended North Phoenix High School, participating in tennis and drama productions. It was in high school that her life was changed by a teacher. Classroom discussions about such important social issues as poverty, race, and class inspired her to become involved in social activism. Another early influence in Cooney s life was Father James Keller, a Roman Catholic priest who founded the Christopher movement in Father Keller used his position as a religious leader, writer, and radio and television personality to encourage Catholics to become involved in mass communication (media like television, radio, magazines, and newspapers) as a means to help people. In several interviews, Cooney noted that Father Keller s message motivated her to become involved with children s television in order to help deprived kids and make a difference in the world. After graduating from high school, Cooney attended the Dominican College of San Rafael in California. She later transferred to the University of Arizona, where she earned a bachelor s degree in education in With little interest in becoming a teacher, she decided to pursue a career in journalism. Cooney worked as a writer for the Arizona Republic newspaper for a year, then decided to move to New York City. Her first job in television came when she was hired as a publicist (someone who promotes a business or product in the news media) for a soap opera at the NBC television network. She then took a job at the CBS television network, where she served as a publicist for a variety show called the U.S. Steel Hour from 1955 to During Cooney s first year at CBS, her father committed suicide. His death profoundly affected Cooney, who then suffered from a long and dangerous bout of anorexia (a type of eating disorder). She later told a reporter that she considered her struggle with anorexia to be a passive form of suicide. Fortunately, she was eventually able to get her eating disorder under control. In 1964, she married Timothy Cooney. Becoming involved in children s programming During the 1960s, animated cartoons started to dominate children s programming on the major television networks, particularly on Saturday mornings. This emphasis on cartoons led to increased concerns about the quality of children s TV programming. Critics complained that cartoons had no educational value and pointed out that they often included violence, stereotyped characters (generalized, usually negative portrayals 42 Television in American Society: Biographies

3 of a group of people), and commercial tie-ins ( products for sale which are linked to characters in the cartoons). Many people felt that the networks did not offer enough educational programming for children. In 1967, the U.S. Congress responded to growing concerns about the quality of television programming by passing the Public Broadcasting Act, which provided government funding to create a national broadcasting service. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) focused on creating programs that would educate, inform, and enrich the television viewers. Cooney s strong interest in education and social issues helped her get a job as a producer of documentaries (fact-based films) for a public television station in New York City. Even though Cooney had no experience working on films, she soon received an Emmy Award (an annual honor presented for excellence in TV programming) for producing a highly praised documentary on poverty in America. A short time later, Cooney received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to study the impact of educational programming on disadvantaged children. Her study, titled The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education, found significant differences in what middle-class and lower-class children knew by the time they started preschool. Most middle-class children were already familiar with letters and numbers by the time they started school, for instance, while the majority of poorer children were not. The study concluded that television could be used as a tool to teach disadvantaged children basic skills, such as counting and the alphabet, through programs that were both educational and entertaining. In an editorial for Electronic Learning, Cooney expressed her belief that television can serve as a valuable tool for teachers in the classroom: As an education device, television has important strengths: it is accessible, it is cost effective, and it works. Fifty years ago, a teacher could only point to a map and say, Here s Africa. Today, with broadcast channels devoted to schools, television can bring Africa itself into the classroom. And VCRs can make rich video libraries available to teachers when they want it, for as long as they need it....research has found that carefully designed educational programming can help children learn motivate them to read and write, improve their mathematical problem-solving skills, or encourage them to get involved in science-related activities even after the set is turned off. Along with Lloyd Morrisett from the Carnegie Corporation, Cooney founded the Children s Television Workshop to create this kind of children s programming. She recruited educators, psychologists, child development experts, and creative personnel to develop a fast-paced and enjoyable TV Television in American Society: Biographies 43

4 show that would add to existing educational programs in schools. The result of this work was Sesame Street. Sunny days on Sesame Street Sesame Street made its debut in November It aired on about 190 public television stations nationwide and was watched by an estimated 11 million weekly viewers in the United States. Filmed in Queens, New York, the show featured a racially and ethnically diverse cast of characters living in an urban setting. It also included the imaginative puppets of Jim Henson ( ), as well as songs, skits, guest stars, cartoons, and instruction in such topics as the alphabet, counting, colors, and geography. Based on Cooney s research into the way children learn, the show was divided into short segments, and the key concepts were repeated in various segments. As Sesame Street evolved, it also began to address current social issues, such as changing gender roles, child abuse, illness, aging, sibling rivalry, race relations, and death. When Will Lee ( ), the actor who played the beloved character Mr. Hooper, died, the show not only paid tribute to the character but discussed how his death affected the other characters. Many television critics praised the show for its sensitive handling of the issue, pointing out that the character s death gave parents a valuable opportunity to discuss a difficult topic with their children. Studies on the impact of Sesame Street have demonstrated that children who watch the program show improvement in their skills and level of school readiness. As Cooney predicted in her study, the show benefits poor children by teaching them the alphabet, counting, and reasoning skills at a crucial time in their lives. This knowledge allows them to start school without a distinct disadvantage compared to middle-class children. Sesame Street has remained popular for more than three decades. As of 2006, approximately 8 million people tuned in to watch the show each week in the United States, and versions appeared in over 120 countries around the world. In fact, Sesame Street was the most widely viewed children s television program in the world. The show received 97 Emmy Awards (annual honors recognizing excellence in television) more than any other show in television history as well as numerous other honors. Growing the Children s Television Workshop Spurred by the overwhelming success of Sesame Street, the Children s Television Workshop went on to produce several other popular educational 44 Television in American Society: Biographies

5 Joan Ganz Cooney Joan Ganz Cooney ( fifth from the left) was among the women honored at the Museum of Television and Radio s premiere of She Made It: Women Creating Television and Radio exhibit in P H O T O B Y E V A N A G O S T I N I / G E T T Y I M A G E S. programs for children, including The Electric Company, a show for gradeschool children; Contact, a science show targeted at young girls; Ghostwriter, a detective show featuring a multicultural cast; and Square One TV, a program about math. In 1975, Cooney and her husband divorced. That same year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a radical mastectomy (the surgical removal of both breasts) and emerged from a series of treatments cancer-free. In 1980, she married Peter G. Peterson, the former U.S. secretary of commerce and chairman of the New York investment firm Lehman Brothers. The couple established a foundation to support children s television programming. With the rise of cable television in the 1990s, the Children s Television Workshop teamed up with the Nickelodeon cable network to launch an educational channel for children called NOGGIN. Cooney s organization also published books and magazines; produced computer software, toys, and films; and sponsored community outreach programs. Television in American Society: Biographies 45

6 Cooney has served as a member of several notable boards and commissions, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the President s Commission on an Agenda for the 1980s, and the Governors Commission on the Year of the Child. She has also received a number of respected awards for her work in children s television programming. In 1990, she was named to the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and she also received an Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy. In 1995, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation s highest civilian (non-military) honor. In 2003 she received the National Humanities Award. For More Information PERIODICALS Cooney, Joan Ganz. Not a Moment to Waste: The Power of Television in Education. Electronic Learning, March WEB SITES Joan Ganz Cooney. Museum of Broadcast Communications. archives/etv/c/htmlc/cooneyjoan/cooneyjoan.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006). Sesame Street Facts. Sesame Street Workshop. press_kit/facts.php (accessed on May 22, 2006). 46 Television in American Society: Biographies

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