The Street of the Eight-Foot Canary
Sunny day . . .
Sweeping the clouds away,
On my way . . .
To where the air is sweet.
Can you tell me how to get . . .
How to get to Sesame Street.[ 1]
Neither the premiere of the Public Broadcast Laboratory nor the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act—two of the three events that marked 1967 as a very special year for the public medium—had the public impact of the third, the birth of Sesame Street . And while it may be fudging history slightly to pin the creation of public television's most celebrated series to our landmark year—the seeds for the series were planted in the closing months of the preceding year, and the show itself first aired in 1969, two years later—1967 was the year when the germ of an idea, unformed and untested, was developed into the reality of a people-and-puppets television show unlike anything that been seen on television.
Not surprisingly, the genesis of the show was as unusual as the show itself. Joan Ganz Cooney, a young producer of public-affairs shows for WNDT (New York's public channel was later renamed WNET), had just won her first Emmy for a documentary entitled Poverty, Anti-Poverty and the Poor . To celebrate her good fortune, she gathered a convivial group of friends for dinner in her Gramercy Park apartment, among them two colleagues who were destined to help lift the young producer onto the highest rungs of her profession, with honors to match. One was her boss, Lewis Freedman, programming chief at WNDT, an urbane, articulate culture maven who had grown up on Manhattan's Upper East Side
in the shadow of the Museum Mile and who had been an early apprentice to the new medium of television. The other, Lloyd N. Morrisett, a lean and laconic Oklahoman with a no-nonsense manner—one writer described him as "fanatically austere" —was a former psychology professor at Berkeley who had turned to philanthropy. At the time of the party, he was vice president of one of America's major philanthropic foundations, the Carnegie Corporation.
At some point in the evening, talk turned to television and to speculation about television's influence, both good and bad, on the malleable minds of the very young. Freedman, a veteran of such pioneering television triumphs as Play of the Week and CBS's Camera Three , held firm to his faith in the medium's potential. Television, he argued, was "the great educator of the future." Morrisett knew very little about television, but he and the Carnegie Corporation were interested in finding and funding new approaches to early childhood education. His interest was caught by the thought that television might be useful in teaching the very young, particularly with its potential for reaching the large numbers of underprivileged children who lacked access to preschool facilities. Before the friends parted, Morrisett challenged his television friends to come up with an idea for using the medium to reach and teach the very young—the generation preparing to enter school for the first time. He set a date when the three of them could meet again, this time with some of Morrisett's Carnegie Foundation colleagues. The seed had been planted.
For fifteen years, public television had struggled to meet the demand for more and better children's programs. Local stations may have differed on the medium's mission but they agreed on one point: public television had an obligation to provide children with constructive, entertaining television fare. Commercial networks had all but abandoned the field by the mid-sixties, and the daily children's shows of an earlier era had vanished, including Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Howdy Doody, Ding Dong School , and Mr. Wizard . CBS's Captain Kangaroo alone remained to carry young viewers through the week toward Saturday's ghetto of animated cartoons. Chil-
dren's programming had joined sports and entertainment as just another of television's profit centers.
The need, easily assessed, was tough to satisfy. Many stations produced local children's shows. Most, like KQED, managed to fill the late afternoon hours with a remarkable number of once-a-week children's shows, all live and produced on tissue-thin resources. None, however, were capable of mounting a five-day-a-week series to satisfy a young audience's television-viewing tastes. Local stations turned to NET for help but NET's hands were tied. The Ford Foundation was interested only in liberal adult education, not in children's programming. As a result, no provision was made for young audiences in any of Ford's grants to NET. The stations, in desperation, pressured NET in the early sixties to dedicate a small part of its very meager non-Ford funds toward the production of a daily children's series, What's New . The show was not so much a creation as a collection of disparate elements, most of them produced by local stations or acquired from foreign sources and loosely held together under its ambiguous title. The series survived until Sesame Street came along, but showing telltale signs of underfunding, it never caught on with its target eight- to twelve-year-old audience.
After the loss of its independent funding from affiliation fees, NET challenged the stations to reach into their own pockets to create a small discretionary fund for children's programming. The fund enabled NET to negotiate with the University of Wisconsin's WHA for the acquisition of Bob Homme's The Friendly Giant , an engaging series for very young viewers. But it was Pittsburgh's WQED that created the first children's show on public television to catch the fancy of children and parents alike. At a time in the mid-fifties when NET was largely dependent on local stations for its programming, WQED supplied the network with kinescopes of a locally produced series, Children's Corner . The show, hosted by Josie Carey, had been created and was produced by a young divinity student, Fred Rogers. Rogers also served as the voice of the puppets. In 1968, Rogers stepped from behind the scenery, doffed his jacket, donned a sweater, and, with elements from Children's Corner —and funding from the station's discretionary fund and the
Sears Roebuck Foundation—created Mister Rogers' Neighborhood .
Until 1969, NET and its affiliates struggled against formidable odds to provide more and better children's programs. Their efforts were praiseworthy, but given the pressing need and the opportunity to serve an important and largely unserved audience, it was not public television's finest hour. That honor would await the outcome of the events set in motion by the conversation at the Gramercy Park dinner party.
Freedman, Cooney, and Morrisett met several times during the spring and early summer of 1967 with Morrisett's Carnegie colleagues to toss ideas about and explore the dimensions of a vision not yet fully formed. By June, Carnegie was ready to fund a study: was it feasible to design a television series for preschoolers that could teach without sacrificing its entertainment values? New York's WNDT would be the grantee, but Morrisett wanted Cooney to conduct the study. He wrote Freedman to say that he thought she "would probably do an excellent job of carrying out the study." It proved to be an understatement.
Joan Cooney, the daughter of a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother, was "driven by a sense of obligation from early adolescence . . . I felt I had to go off and justify my life." At the age of twenty-four, with a degree in education and after a brief stint as a reporter, Cooney left her native Arizona for New York. There she worked as a publicist, first with RCA/NBC, and later with television's distinguished drama series, The U.S. Steel Hour . In 1962, with no production experience, she applied for and was given a position with WNDT, the newly opened public-television station in New York City. By the time she was ready to embark on the new adventure in children's programming, she had had five years' experience producing social documentaries for WNDT, some of which took her into the inner city, where she gained a heightened sensitivity to the problems of the poor, particularly the young poor. She was familiar with the problem; she set off to find some answers.
Making her way across the United States and Canada, Cooney met with psychologists, educators, pediatricians, children's-
television specialists, and anyone who could provide ideas, evidence, and arguments. By October, the results were organized into a fifty-two-page report, "The Potential Uses of Television," that recommended testing and evaluating "television's potential for fostering the intellectual and cultural development of young children." The report provided the foundation on which the series was built. The recommendations contemplated an hour-long magazine show, broadcast twice (morning and afternoon) every weekday, and employing a variety of techniques including puppets, animation, music, stories, and child-involving activities. The content of the show was to be strongly cognitive in design, overtly instructional in nature, and rapid and repetitious in method. The experts with whom Cooney talked strongly recommended that the show for children be accompanied by a weekly show for the parents of the preschoolers. The idea was later dropped as unfeasible.
Cooney was influenced in her judgments on content by the experts with whom she talked, but her own instincts as a television producer spoke loudly and clearly about method. She wisely incorporated three interrelated objectives in her recommendations: first, to use television's most advanced production techniques; second, to produce the series through a national rather than a local entity; and third, to not undertake the series until it had sufficient funding to do the job properly. "If we are going to attract children to quality children's programming," she wrote, "they must have many of the production values [meaning pace, humor, professional performing talent, film inserts, animation, and so forth] to which today's young children have become accustomed." Nor did she ignore the potential of the commercial as a teaching form, disdained as they were by educators. "If we accept the premise that commercials are effective teachers, it is important to be aware of their characteristics, the most obvious being frequent repetition, clever visual presentation, brevity and clarity."Sesame Street 's "commercials" for numbers and letters would become one of its most effective and distinguishing elements.
Although Morrisett and Cooney thought that the desired quality could only be achieved by forming their own production company, Cooney, who was still nominally a WNDT employee, felt ob-
ligated to discuss production with the station first. (The Carnegie Commission study, under way at this time, was about to recommend the decentralization of national program production.) The discussions, however, never became serious; the president of WNDT, a former vice president of CBS, failed to see the program's potential. There was another, related factor. If the proposed series was to stand up to the commercial competition, it would need an adequate production budget, not the anemic production budgets of public television's other series. Awesome as it seemed in the context of public television's lean budgets, her original estimate of $2 million had to be doubled, then tripled, and ultimately quadrupled by successive cost analyses. The final cost of $8 million for the first year's experiment, an amount only dreamed of by most public-television producers, was compared in Cooney's report to the estimated sum of $2.75 billion it would cost to send every four- and five-year-old to school at public expense. It was not necessary to pretend that a season of Sesame Street was the equivalent of two years of formal schooling—it obviously was not—in order to make the case for an $8 million daily television show that would touch the lives of millions of children that age.
Even before Cooney's feasibility study was fashioned into a formal proposal, Morrisett began the search for the needed funds. The next eighteen months provide a cautionary tale for those who would undertake to fund an expensive production for the public medium, even one with the potential benefits of Sesame Street . Morrisett's persevering efforts to find partners, anyone willing to share the heavy funding burden—other foundations, the big three networks, or production companies—reaped heaps of praise and encouragement and some tentative expressions of interest, but little else. And then in the summer of 1967 the tide began to turn. The man largely responsible for the change was Harold ("Doc") Howe, the U.S. Commissioner of Education and one of Morrisett's longtime friends. The department, better known for bureaucratic torpor than bold leadership, was an improbable force for turning tides and affecting the course of events. But then "Doc" Howe was an improbable person to be occupying its highest office. At the conclusion of a meeting at which Morrisett and Cooney
briefed his staff on the project, Howe's enthusiastic response was "Let's do it." He instructed his staff to explore any available means of mobilizing the government's educational resources behind the project.
In a fortunate choice, Howe put his assistant, Louis Hausman, in charge of the project. Hausman, a veteran of the commercial networks, understood the special demands of the medium, and though he was unconvinced that an educational television show, however skillfully done, could compete successfully with commercial entertainment, he thought that the idea deserved a test. (But true to the totemic traditions of the commercial medium from which he came, Hausman wanted the test put into the hands of "professionals," by which he meant the Hollywood production studios.) His television experience also brought a note of reality to the budget; he was the first to warn of the inadequacy of the original $2 million estimate, and he convinced Howe that the government's share had to be larger, large enough to give the project a fair shot at reaching its higher goal.
When 1967 drew to a close with no firm commitments on funding—Doc Howe's plan to pull together a pool of grants from several government agencies, including his own, was working, but still far from realization—Morrisett knew that only resolute action could move the project off dead center. He turned to his own foundation, persuading the Carnegie president, Alan Pifer, to make the first move. The plot was simple: If we at Carnegie show our good faith in the project by the rustle of our money, perhaps others will follow. It was risky, but it worked. In January 1968, the Carnegie board voted the first $1 million, followed three weeks later by a Ford grant of $250,000, with Ford's promise of more to follow if the project got off the ground. The final $1 million came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in what was one of its earliest major grants. By March of 1968, Carnegie and its new partners were ready to go public with their plans.
In the elegant environment of a Waldorf Astoria ballroom, worlds away from the underprivileged audience the series hoped to reach, Alan Pifer of Carnegie, McGeorge Bundy of Ford, and Doc Howe of the U.S. Office of Education (USOE) announced the
formation of the Children's Television Workshop, together with its plan to produce a twenty-six-week television series that would take preschool youngsters on "the educational journey so vital to their lives and the well-being of the nation." To no one's surprise, Joan Ganz Cooney, who had departed WNDT a year earlier to devote herself full-time to the study, was named the project's executive director. (Jack Gould of the New York Times was moved to comment prophetically that Cooney's appointment "automatically thrusts her into the forefront of women executives in broadcasting.") The need for a corporate base for the new organization was satisfied by "affiliating" it with NET for its first year. Morrisett and Cooney, both wary of tying the Workshop too closely to what they saw as the highly bureaucratic public-television structure, signed an agreement with NET's Jack White that provided for needed administrative and legal services but assured total autonomy where it counted: in programming, personnel, and finance. Even those ties were severed at the end of Sesame Street 's first season, when CTW became its own corporate entity. The wisdom of the move became more evident in later years when CTW's freedom to chart its own course, to move in or out of the nonprofit world, and to develop and market the products of its creative genius provided an economic base that allowed it to become a largely self-supporting institution.
Joan Cooney likes to say luck played an important part in the Workshop's ultimate success. But luck was a marginal factor in her choice of David D. Connell for the critical role of the project's executive producer. Earlier, Cooney received an offer of help from Michael Dann, at the time the programming chief of CBS-TV. "You'll need an executive producer," he told her. "Let me help you find one." Dann recommended Connell, the former executive producer of CBS-TV'S children's series Captain Kangaroo , a highly imaginative producer and, most important, one who had mastered the special skills of producing a daily show. Cooney was to discover to her dismay that Connell had left Captain Kangaroo a year earlier with no thought of returning to children's programming, and certainly not to a series hobbled with an advisory board
of educators. They talked not once but four times. Connell liked Cooney's openness, her thoughtfulness, and her intelligence. But he had strong reservations about her plans for a children's television series. With its platoon of educational advisers, the show was bound to be "academicked to death." She assured him that she would not allow the entertainment values to be sacrificed. "If we err, we will err on the side of entertainment." This statement proved to be the turning point in their protracted negotiations.
Connell agreed to put aside the challenge of his own business to take on the much larger challenge of producing yet another program for children. This, however, was to be a program with a difference, not wholly entertainment or education, but a skillful blending of both—light enough to win young hearts away from seductive cartoons, yet freighted with enough educational content to satisfy the aspirations of its planners. It would be the toughest challenge of his professional career, and one that would need the help of the best production talent he could find. Not surprisingly, he turned first to the ranks of his former colleagues at Captain Kangaroo . Two, Sam Gibbon and Jon Stone, already in conversation with Joan Cooney, were quickly signed on as producers. Together with Connell, they formed the nucleus of what was to become one of the most imaginative and remarkable production teams in children's television.
Even before they were on the payroll, the three were tossed into a dizzying round of summer seminars with panels of educational advisers. For three case-hardened television producers, armed with a producer's traditional faith in their innate ability to sense what would work and what wouldn't work on the tube, meeting with "advisers" was tantamount to consorting with the enemy. But they were wrong and they were the first to admit it; the seminars proved to be one of those elements that, as everyone later agreed, "made" the television series. It was tough going at first. But as soon as each side learned to breach the barriers of the other's arcane lingo, they found that they could talk. And talk they did, hammering out a set of specific curriculum goals on which the producers' creative skills would be tested. No little part of the seminars' success was due to the organizing skills of an able young
professor from Harvard, Gerald S. Lesser, who joined the Workshop in its early stages as a consultant in developmental psychology. When Morrisett and Cooney decided to organize a Board of Advisers—the content specialists chosen to keep the television producers on track—the sandy-haired ex-New Yorker was their first choice to head it. His meticulous behind-the-scenes planning, together with his jargon-free speech, shirt-sleeves informality, and self-mocking humor, helped to minimize the predictable academic grandstanding—Lesser called it "Talmudic haggling"—expected of a group well practiced in one-upmanship. He created an unthreatening environment that not only permitted the interchange of ideas but actually encouraged it.
Out of the summer meetings came the seminal work on which the shows were built, a heavy volume detailing a wide variety of educational goals, some cognitive (teaching the child to recognize and manipulate numbers, letters and geometric shapes, and so forth) and some affective (serving the child's emotional needs by helping the child to adjust to his or her environment through teaching such values as cooperation). Setting specific educational goals gave a distinctive character and unique educational value to what could have been just another highly engaging, entertaining children's show. The goals, necessarily stated in broad strokes, gave a clear sense of overall direction but offered little help to producers attempting to focus a piece of animation or the lyrics of a song on a very specific lesson. Honing the broad goals to manageable size was left to a small corps of bright young researchers; they told the producers what to shoot for then let them know whether their pieces hit or missed the mark.
Unconventional as it was to television, the importance of research to the CTW design was never questioned, least of all by Morrisett, whose social-science background convinced him that it was integral to the production process from beginning to end. "Formative" research tested the product as it was being made, providing a means of quality control that allowed for mid-course corrections, and these corrections were followed by another test to see if the material and method successfully held the attention of the target audience. Finally, when the shows were aired, "sum-
mative" research measured whether they had, in fact, achieved what they were supposed to achieve. In addition to the tests, the Workshop's research director, Dr. Edward L. Palmer, used a fiendish device called a "distractor" to measure attention levels. Palmer had invented the distractor while studying television's effects on young children for the Oregon State System of Higher Education. The "distractor" was a portable movie screen, set at an angle off to the side of the television receiver, which showed a series of slides with random images appealing to children. Using this device, Palmer could determine from moment to moment the young viewers' attention to the program on the tube. By changing the slide every seven and one-half seconds and observing whether the eye movements of the youngsters were on the screen or the tube, Palmer developed an attention profile of each episode that resembled nothing so much as the chart of stock-market prices in a highly unstable economy—instant evidence of what held the children's attention and what didn't. Attention levels, important as they were, were combined with other modes of testing to determine levels of comprehension of the educational message.
The program's producers, at first predictably skeptical of Palmer's results, were won over when he cannily demonstrated his device, not with their own untried Sesame Street material, but with established children's shows that they knew and, in the case of Captain Kangaroo , had themselves produced. The results were shattering. What every producer knows in his heart—that kids will respond positively to being addressed directly by the show's star—was solidly debunked by tests on Captain Kangaroo . The distractor showed that whenever the Captain addressed his young audience directly, their collective gaze, attention, and interest shifted to the distractor slides. Even though Palmer had shrewdly chosen an episode in which Captain Kangaroo attempted the almost impossible task of holding his young viewers' attention while explaining how government works, the exercise taught some needed lessons. Even before turning out their first foot of film for Sesame Street , the producers were privy to invaluable insights into their prospective audience and its television behavioral patterns. Insights, however, were not always an ironclad guarantee against misjudgments—as
"The Man from Alphabet" demonstrated. The parody on television's popular show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was conceived as a clever way of teaching letters. The educational advisers liked it for its teaching potential. The producers liked it for its humor. But the kids for whom it was intended looked the other way. Palmer's distractor disclosed that the clever wordplay, delightful as it was to its adult creators, simply sailed over the heads of the uncomprehending four- and five-year-olds. With a sorrowful shrug and a rueful sigh, "The Man from Alphabet" was scrubbed.
By mid-winter of 1968, the show was cast, the production team was filled out with the addition of yet another Captain Kangaroo alumnus, Jeffrey Moss, and all hands were feverishly engaged in planning and producing five one-hour "test" shows with the target date for an out-of-town tryout set for the following summer. Joan Cooney had long since made up her mind about one aspect of the planning: unlike most children's shows, this show would not have a single host or hostess. As far as she was concerned, this was a nonnegotiable element. In her words, "I do not want the show to become too closely identified with one person and have to live with that problem in future years."
The cast would be multiple and mixed, women and men, blacks, whites, and, later, Hispanics. Cooney also insisted that the cast be interchangeable, in case any drifted away. Few did. They settled on four principals: a black couple in their early thirties, their white neighbor, and an older man to tend the candy store. The role of Susan, the young homemaker (the role was upgraded to home-maker-and-nurse in the second season after women's organizations pressured for a stronger role model), was played by a former schoolteacher-turned-pop singer, Loretta Long. Finding the right person to play her husband, Gordon, proved more difficult. No one who tried out for the part had the warm, casual personality Connell was looking for—until, in a moment of inspiration (or perhaps desperation), he persuaded one of the show's producers, Matt Robinson, to audition. "In less than two minutes I knew we had found our Gordon," Connell said later. Robinson played the role for the first three seasons. For the part of the young high school teacher, Gordon and Susan's neighbor on the Street, Con-
nell chose a young singer from the Mitch Miller show, Bob McGrath, who had achieved a measure of stardom among Tokyo's teenagers while on tour in Japan. Of the four principal cast members, only the role of Mr. Hooper would be filled by a professional actor. Until his death in 1982, Will Lee, a veteran of forty years on the stage, played the role of the kindhearted candy-store proprietor.
Sesame Street 's quartet of flesh-and-blood residents were soon upstaged by a motley cast of nonhumans—odd creatures artfully stitched from pieces of felt, manipulated by a company of deft hands, and bearing the implausible names of Kermit the Frog, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch. Although puppets had been part of Joan Cooney's original plan for the show—she had suggested among other possibilities Burr Tillstrom and his Kuklapolitans—her producers saw the inanimate creatures as a limiting factor. Writing for characters with already established personalities is rough when you're trying to tackle a wide range of teaching situations. Luckily, good fortune intervened. One of the producers—which one is in friendly dispute—suggested Jim Henson and his Muppets. All of the producers knew and admired his work, even though Henson's fame was still very limited. Word was beginning to spread, however, after his several appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and his participation in product commercials. Jon Stone, who worked with Henson on the ABC special Hey, Cinderella, had a high regard for the spade-bearded puppeteer's genius—especially his knack for creating custom-made personalities to fit the most bizarre requirements—and like his colleagues thought Henson was the only puppeteer for the project. Persuaded to place his wild-ranging imagination in the service of early childhood education, Henson joined Sesame Street with a bundle of ideas and a single hand puppet, Kermit the Frog. The Street's other familiar puppets-in-residence were created to meet the specific needs of the Workshop.
The Muppets gave Sesame Street an identity as winning as it was singular, although its singularity may have been muted somewhat after Henson introduced his own highly successful series, The Muppet Show, on commercial television. But only Kermit the Frog, of
all the Sesame Street Muppets, turned up on the screen in both series. (Henson shared rights to his Sesame Street creations with the Children's Television Workshop. But because Kermit was created before Henson joined Sesame Street , he owned the frog outright.) The Muppets, of course, were a huge hit with children as well as their parents. In the process of becoming an inseparable element in the success of the series, they helped to turn Henson's career and company into a highly bankable asset. His sudden death in 1990 of what could have been an easily treatable illness shocked and saddened the millions of Muppet fans whose lives had been brightened by his wit and creativity.
Earlier, Sesame Street lost another of its creative stars with the untimely death of be Raposo, the composer of much of the show's engaging and instructive music. Raposo combined a classic composer's credentials—he had studied with Walter Piston at Harvard and the great Nadia Boulanger in Paris—with the accomplished piano fingers of a Broadway tunesmith. He turned out tunes for Sesame Street for five seasons, resigned for a time, then returned in 1983. But even in his absence the show was marked with his musical brand. His output was prodigious, eight pounds of music a week by his own estimate, and incredibly wide-ranging—danger music, mischief music, reverie music, slithering snake music. His youthful audience, however, identified him with his singable songs—several of which hit the popularity charts, climbed to the top, and remained there for an impressively long run. "Sing," one of his biggest hits, was recorded by a varied list of artists, including Barbra Streisand, the Carpenters, Peter Nero, and the Boston Pops. And "Being Green," Kermit's appeal for an understanding ed appreciation of skin-color differences, was lofted into the ranks of the big hits with a Sinatra recording.
Eighteen months of painstaking preparation set the stage for the highly satisfying climax on the morning of November 10,1969, when the world got its first glimpse of the eagerly awaited show. The young viewers showed wide-eyed fascination with the show's fast-paced sequences. Critical acceptance was also enthusiastic but more restrained. The Village Voice found reviewing the show "about as easy as reviewing the Second Coming," while the
New York Times , also despairing of the task, wrote, "It is with a feeling of helplessness that an adult tries to assess the potential impact of the Children's Television Workshop." Both overcame their feelings of helplessness to endorse warmly the promising newcomer to the otherwise bleak wasteland of children's daytime television. Some critics were astute enough to recognize that Sesame Street was more than a breakthrough in children's television—it signaled the early rumblings of a revolution that would force a change in the way primary schools approached the education of children entering school for the first time.
The Sesame Street show that the children of America saw that November morning was much better than the five pilot programs that had been tested during the preceding summer on the inner-city children of Philadelphia. Research made the difference. Palmer's distractor revealed deep valleys of inattention in the pilot shows. The problem was not in the animation, film, or Muppet sequences, but in the street scenes with the four live actors. The producers recommended enlivening the street scenes by introducing Muppets. But the educational advisers were opposed; they felt that intermixing people and puppets—fantasy with reality—would risk confusing the two in the child's mind. Connell thought the risk was worth taking. "Explain to me," he asked of anyone willing to listen, "what reality means to a four-year-old in front of a television set."
The producers prevailed. Henson, challenged to create several of his inimitable furry creatures to interact with the Street's human population, came tip with two of Sesame Street 's most popular and enduring characters. Oscar the Grouch, sole tenant of the street's trash can, would help the child to understand that it was perfectly all right on occasion to feel grouchy and out-of-sorts, to feel "different." And Big Bird, the lovable eight-foot canary, clumsily inept but determinedly optimistic in the face of disappointment, would reassure the child about their inability to do everything right the first time. It's "the only adult-sized object in the world," one reviewer pointed out, "that kids can feel superior to." Both Oscar and Big Bird, given life with the voice and hands of Carroll Spinney, showed that educational goals need not be sacrificed for the
sake of gaining the child's attention when both can be achieved in one master stroke.
Cooney felt the ideal hour for airing Sesame Street would be 9 A.M., the prime time for reaching preschoolers in their homes. The older children, who usually control the set, were off at school, the adult early morning lineup of shows was over, and Sesame Street wouldnt be in the awkward position of competing with commercial television's only program for preschoolers, Captain Kangaroo , which came on at 8 AM. Some stations, however, were contractually committed to provide local school districts with an instructional television service at that hour and were reluctant to yield their time. (It did not help that nursery schools were outside the jurisdiction of the contracting school district.) With her customary resolve, Cooney and her assistant, Robert Davidson, hit the road, visited twenty-five key cities, met with station executives, and most Important, talked to local school superintendents. With one significant exception they achieved the desired results: only Cooney's former colleagues at WNDT resisted the appeal. Although the station agreed to run the show twice a day, it would not or could not yield the nine o'clock hour. New York, with the country's highest concentration of day-care centers, was critical to the success of the experiment. Determined to have her 9 A.M. slot, Cooney struck a deal with a local commercial channel (WPIX) for the hour she wanted. For its first season, Sesame Street aired on both New York channels; by the time the second season rolled around, WNDT had come to terms with its school service and aired the series in the morning time slot.
Despite the large number of UHF stations in their lineup of m 170 NET affiliates, Sesame Street attracted in its first week a formidable audience of 1.46 million television homes, a number destined to grow many times over in succeeding months. The result was no happy accident. Morrisett and Cooney, alert to the necessity of recruiting an audience, earmarked a sizeable 10 percent of the $8 million grant her promotion and utilization activities. Part went to a public-relations professional, Robert Hatch, then a vice president with Carl Byoir. (Hatch later became a Workshop vice president.) Hatch orchestrated a national promotional effort that cul-
minated in a Xerox-sponsored salute to the show on NBC-TV two nights before its premiere on public television. Many who caught the NBC special tuned to their local public channel the following week for the first time.
Hatch's audience-delivering efforts exceeded expectations. But his use of conventional media meant that he was not reaching the underclass—Sesame Street 's target audience—which rarely depends on conventional media for its information. Working with local public stations, Hatch organized an inner-city effort in twenty selected cities. New York, however, with the nation's largest population of low-income families, demanded a special campaign. The task was given to Evelyn Davis, a quietly effective African American with more than fifteen years of experience working with New York's low-income people. Although television receivers were almost universal in poor homes by this time, most of their occupants were unaware of the educational channel. For those who had no access to a television set, Davis organized a treasure hunt for used receivers. Some of these receivers were designated for schools, some for day-care centers, and, where small viewing groups could gather in homes around the single set, day-care providers were supplied with materials and trained in the use of the programs. Davis was determined to destroy the cultural myth among low-income families that parents of poor families, poorly educated themselves, are ill-equipped to teach their own kids. "I told them: 'You are your child's first teacher . . . we're going to offer you a more organized way of doing it.'" Her work paid dividends. In 1970, an independent survey of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the city's largest concentration of poor blacks, revealed that among children two to five years old, 90 percent were regular Sesame Street viewers. This result was replicated in other inner-city areas around the country.
Davis's early inner-city efforts in New York grew into a much larger effort, national in scope, that moved well beyond the original task of reaching new audiences for the Workshop's several series for children. Under Davis's leadership as corporate vice president for the Workshop's Community Educational Services, they developed a bold and innovative outreach program without
parallel in broadcasting, helping the children of migrant farm workers and prison inmates, training low-income adults and adolescents to become child-care providers, organizing science clubs amidst the desolation of the South Bronx, forming community clubs ("Power Stations") to motivate underachievers to learn basic language arts among the rural poor in the Mississippi Delta, and more.
From the beginning the Workshop had two goals for Sesame Street : to teach basic facts and skills to preschoolers, and, at the same time, to attract a large and devoted audience. The latter was achieved and sustained for more than a quarter of a century, during which the series attracted the largest and most diverse audience of any PBS daily series. More critical, however, is the question of whether its educational goals were realized. That answer came from an independent research firm, the Educational Testing Service, in a four-hundred-page volume of test results and analysis at the close of the first season. The ETS report validated the original hypothesis of the project: Sesame Street could teach—and did. The children who gained the most were those who viewed the most. And what they learned best were those skills given the most time and attention on the shows. Moreover, the presence of an adult with the child proved significant: the greatest gains were made by children who watched at home in the company of a mother or another interested and caring adult with whom to talk over the show. Race, sex, and socioeconomic status made no difference in the gains made by the children—all did equally well. Frequent viewers, often children from disadvantaged homes, surpassed the gains of children who watched only infrequently. It would have been gratifying had Sesame Street succeeded in narrowing the gap separating disadvantaged from advantaged children entering school for the first time. Unfortunately, using a nationally televised series to narrow the gap would require the advantaged to forgo the televised series until the disadvantaged caught up, an obvious impossibility. On the other hand, there was concern that Sesame Street not inadvertently widen the gap. ETS assured them it did not. Both groups made significant gains, and though the gap
remained, it was a gap between two groups of which both had benefited from exposure to the show.
The first season's test results were corroborated at the end of the second season. Still, critics of the series found plenty to carp at, particularly among the community of social scientists—predictably, perhaps, since nothing can tame an academic who has caught the scent of an esteemed colleague's "flawed" study. Some critics called for "better" goals and then cited mutually exclusive ideas for improving them—one even suggested that Sesame Street teach "wisdom"—while others charged CTW with hubris for having goals at all; who were they to decide what a child should be taught? Overlooked was the obvious: a single television series, however well done, is not the sum of a child's early education. For the show's producers, confident that America's public television had finally produced a show worthy of the BBC, the bitterest pill was the BBC's refusal to air the series in Britain. Rather than praising the series, Monica Sims, BBC's director of children's programs, condemned it for dictating to children what they should learn and for placing too much emphasis on "right answers." Sesame Street , she declared, is "indoctrination." British children were not denied the series, however. After limited exposure on the independent channels, the series began daily airings in 1986 on Britain's Channel 4.
Over the years, Sesame Street has worn out or won over most of its critics, most of whom, it is fair to say, are over the age of six and whose judgments, therefore, must be weighed accordingly. One reason for the show's continued popularity and its durability has been Cooney's insistence on keeping Sesame Street fresh by minimizing repeats and producing new material. Over a third of each season's content has never before been seen. And unlike those children's shows whose viewers outgrow the show and move on, Sesame Street 's viewers start younger and stay later, reason enough to keep the show fresh. But there is an even more compelling reason. Sesame Street was born as an experiment, and the Workshop is determined to keep it that way by continuing to try new methods, new materials, and new goals. Some changes, more cosmetic than substantive, included replacements in the cast. Yet when Will
Lee (Mr. Hooper) died in 1982, he was not replaced nor was his absence explained to the young viewers by any one of the many obvious dodges. Instead, his death became the subject of a special show, aired on Thanksgiving Day when many parents would be watching with their children, that treated the sensitive subject honestly but also gently affirmed the continuity of life by linking Mr. Hooper's death with the birth of a new baby.
The substantive changes have been less apparent but are much closer to the show's purpose, affecting what and how it teaches. Curriculum goals have been continually expanded, and more emphasis has been placed on the child's behavioral development—social attitudes, self-esteem, and coping with fear and failure—but without sacrificing basic cognitive skills. Sesame Street still means preparation for reading, math, and science, all of which, along with the show's recent attention to ecology and the status of women, reflect some of the current concerns of America's adult population. Similarly, the "discovery" of the large and growing Hispanic population in the United States not only introduced a shift to bilingualism but also brought two new neighbors to the street, Maria and Luis, as positive role models for Latino children.
Two years after the debut of Sesame Street , the Workshop launched a second series, The Electric Company , using fast-paced entertainment and big-name stars to motivate second- and third-graders to read. The Electric Company became the most widely used television program in U.S. classrooms and, though production of the series ended with its sixth season, the series continued in reruns on public television and in school classrooms for another eight years. The Electric Company was followed in 1980 by 3-2-I Contact , which sought in its twelve years to demystify science for the eight- to ten-year-old and to encourage more young people to consider science as a future career. In a somewhat similar vein, Square One TV , launched in 1988 and continued for five seasons, managed to make the abstractions of mathematics the subject of a highly entertaining series aimed at dispelling classic fears of the subject. The Workshop turned to the dramatic form with Ghost-writer , its most recent effort to motivate the eight- to ten-year-old to take an interest in reading.
CTW's two sorties into adult programming have been somewhat less triumphant. A 1974 series, Feeling Good , imbedded health information for young adults in an entertainment format but foundered on its own premise: viewers looking for entertainment looked elsewhere while those looking for health information found the entertainment intrusive. Though enjoying mild success in several limited areas—anti-smoking, for instance—the series achieved greater effect in a spinoff called Latin American Health Minutes , which capsulized preventive health-care information into one-minute messages for use on television throughout Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin America. Three years later, the bi-centennial of the United States was celebrated, albeit belatedly, with a nine-hour miniseries, Best of Families , a fictional account of two New York families at the turn of the century who were separated by class but joined by the romance of the two principals. Critics gave it good marks, but the shows failed to generate the kind of popular enthusiasm the Workshop had stirred up with its children's shows.
For the more than two decades since it began experimenting with the uses of entertainment for learning, the Workshop's production record has been remarkably high—more hits than misses—and has included series and specials produced for the commercial networks and cable. The Workshop's success has brought countless honors to Joan Ganz Cooney, its president for most of those years. Cooney is now semi-retired, having been succeeded by her former executive vice president, David Britt, but she continues to participate actively in the Workshop's affairs as the chair of CTW's executive committee. Less well known publicly has been Lloyd Morrisett's role as the Workshop's chairman since its founding. Not only was he responsible for finding the start-up money, he has continued his efforts to keep the nonprofit agency in a sound financial condition. From the beginning, he urged the staff to greater efforts at self-support, freeing the enterprise from dependence on the vagaries of federal subsidy. Federal dollars have been used primarily for the start-up of new Workshop projects.
The first step toward self-sufficiency was modest: a products di-
vision licensing the CTW name and identity to a handful of educational toys. The toys, the books, and the contracts grew until the modest marketing had ballooned into a multimillion-dollar business. To the toys and books were added games, soft goods, and all manner of merchandise with an appeal to children. In addition, while the product-licensing business was growing, so were the Workshop's magazine-publishing ventures. Monthly publications, each tied to a Workshop series, enter two million homes as an adjunct to the television series. One of CTW's most successful ventures has been the marketing of its several series in foreign countries. An international division placed Sesame Street on the television systems of nearly sixty countries on six continents. The show's culture-free creatures are as familiar to young viewers in Brunei as they are in Brooklyn. In more than half the countries where the show is seen, Sesame Street has been adapted to fit the cultural context of the country. The culture-free animation and Muppetry of the original are used, but the New York street scene is replaced with settings appropriate to the country; indigenous people and street creatures of the country's choice make up the cast; and curricular goals are set by local educators. France, for example, coproduced a Rue Sesame , Germany a Sesamstrasse , Latin America a Plaza Sesamo , and in the Middle East, a Hebrew version, Rechov Sumsum , was coproduced in Israel and an Arabic version, Ifta Ya Simsim , was coproduced in Kuwait.
Because it is determinedly nonprofit, CTW's revenues from product licensing and foreign coproductions are reinvested in its own programming. Some of the money goes to meet part of the production costs of Sesame Street , discounting by as much as three-quarters the cost of the series to the public stations, and some is invested in new ventures. In this respect the Children's Television Workshop is unique among public broadcasters: by using its own income to discount the costs of its shows to the system, it has become one of public television's principal program underwriters.
Success has a million mothers. CTW's success has been variously credited to wise planning, fortuitous circumstances, and just plain luck. Certainly time and money were a factor: CTW had both. Until Sesame Street came along, no public-television series had ever en-
joyed the luxury of eighteen months of preparation and money in the bank to go first cabin. The hardheaded realism of the planners at the Carnegie Corporation had taken pains to see that it had both. The Workshop likes to credit its programming success to what it calls "the CTW Model," the melding of the "art" of television with the "science" of program research. In this model, producers work in close harness with researchers, a relationship whose uniqueness derives from the common knowledge that producers and researchers speak a different language—and rarely to each other. David Connell, Sesame Street 's original executive producer, was among the skeptics; years of experience with children's programming led him to fear that the intervention of researchers would intellectualize the material to death. To his and everyone's surprise, the model worked. Connell was the first to admit it, citing the notion of broadcaster-researcher cooperation as "the most bold experiment" in the experimental series. Within the organization, the CTW model is accorded a reverence reserved for Holy Writ and finds application in all the Workshop's program efforts.
Herman Land, commissioned to do a study on the Workshop during its early years, credited the Workshop's remarkable success to its organization, through which runs "a thread of sanity." Very early in its history, the Workshop attracted a group of uncommonly talented and highly motivated people—a pioneer of the Workshop described them as "lightning in a bottle" —but the critical ingredient was creative leadership. Land called it "objective management . . . management dedicated to the achievement of a social goal through rational ends." CTW's leadership came primarily from two people, founding chairman Lloyd Morrisett and founding president Joan Cooney. Morrisett, a visionary with a practical streak, has a gambler's impulse to place his bets—but not until the odds have been carefully weighed. Joan Cooney's seemingly unerring sense of what works and what doesn't, and her unusual sensitivity to talent and how to recognize it, have been strengths in a business in which instinct and luck are required ingredients.
Both have wisely insisted on the Workshop's autonomy. Self-sufficient, independent of the system, and unburdened by its en-
demic politics, with no permanent commitment to serve the public system exclusively—although PBS has been its principal partner—and with a governing board neither politically appointed nor station-elected, the Workshop has been free to serve the single constituency it is committed to serve: its young viewers.
Unlike most children's television, the Workshop has clearly defined its goals and limited the scope of what it hopes to achieve to readily measurable objectives. Did the young viewer learn the letters of the alphabet? No need for seat-of-the-pants guesswork or recourse to oracular divination. Nor have the Nielsen numbers been the final arbiter; ratings only told how many were touched by the success or failure of the teaching. Few television programs have understood their purpose so surely, and fewer still have known with such certainty whether they have succeeded in achieving it.
Finally, the factor of timing must be taken into account. The Children's Television Workshop, with its aim to serve the educational needs of the disadvantaged, was born at a moment in the nation's life when our collective conscience was darkened with the injustice of inequality. Racial riots in Newark and Detroit months earlier were still fresh in our collective memory, and greater blows were yet to come. On March 31, 1968, President Johnson, weary of a war in Vietnam that had siphoned off resources needed for his war on poverty at home, announced his intention not to run again. The curtain on the Great Society was coming down (not, however, before it had lent its impetus and some of its funds to the creation of the Workshop). Less than a week later, the country was numbed by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on a motel-room balcony in Memphis, followed eight weeks later by the gunning down of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. A stunned nation was ready for palliative measures. The Workshop offered one such measure, small for a large ailment, but with the virtue of speed. By 1967, television had become pervasive, a fixture in low-income homes as well as the homes of the more affluent. Skeptical educators, fearful of the intrusive tube, were beginning to give it grudging acceptance as a potentially effective teaching tool. The tool was there, waiting to be used.
When Sesame Street first took to the air in 1969, Variety commented that "the only thing wrong with Sesame Street is the fact it took twenty years to get here." Now that it has been around for more than a quarter of a century, affecting the lives of two generations of children, questions are being asked about its staying power—whether it can continue to maintain its freshness and originality as tastes and times change. The show's popularity on public television is already being challenged by another preschool series featuring a tubby "dinosaur" named Barney, whose simple, low-key approach is in sharp contrast to Sesame Street 's fast-paced, more complex production values. On the positive side is the push that the success of Sesame Street has given to public television to fulfill its commitment to serve young audiences. As a result, PBS has increased the number and variety of its children's programs. On the negative side is the failure of Sesame Street to affect the quality of children's shows on the commercial networks. Having successfully proved that children's fare could be constructive and, at the same time, meet the commercial networks' standard for popular entertainment, expectations were high that Sesame Street would open the door to a new approach by the networks. But ready as they are to clone a competitor's winning format, commercial television rejected the prompt and continued to address young audiences primarily as potential consumers for products of dubious social value. We stand alone among the nations of the industrialized world in treating young viewers with such casual disdain. Our indifference is compounded by an apparent reluctance to create a publicly funded system capable of balancing the questionable commercial values projected by the nation's dominant broadcasters.