Sesame Street: The Show that Counts

GUEST: Joan Ganz Cooney and Gary Knell
AIR DATE: 11/07/09

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I just love the title of our program today: Sesame Street, The Show That Counts.

For Sesame Street has counted so importantly in our nation – and around the world as well – for forty years now. Believe it or not, we celebrate its 40th birthday this year. Let’s hear Sesame Streets kids count THAT high!

Well, actually, “The Show That Counts” is what Newsweek Magazine called its anniversary story about Sesame Street in June 2009.

Time Magazine called its story “Tickle Me Obama”. For when Michelle Obama visited the set earlier this year Time reported her as exclaiming, “I’m on a high, I never thought I’d be on Sesame Street with Elmo and Big Bird …”.

And when Barack Obama met the originator of Sesame Street, he made sure to tell her how he and his little sister used to watch the show.

So think, then, how I feel, having nearly a half century ago at Channel 13 in New York given her first job in educational television to the lady who started this whole business … one of my guests today, Joan Ganz Cooney, the co-founder of Children’s Television Workshop and originator of Sesame Street, who remains Chair of the Executive Committee of what is now called Sesame Workshop.

With her today is Gary E. Knell, now the President and Chief Executive Officer of Sesame Workshop, who comes there from a long and exciting career in the media, both public and
private.

And so I guess, what I should say to begin with today to the two of them is “Happy Birthday”.

COONEY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: It must be a wonderful thing. I guess, Joan, I should talk to you first … a wonderful thing to think that what you started 40 years ago, plus, because you had been working on it before …

COONEY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … goes on and on and on as it does.

COONEY: Yes, but it never ceases to surprise me. I don’t take it for granted because I remember all too clearly that we weren’t sure we would last more than a, a season on television when we started.

HEFFNER: Is that true? You, the great optimist?

COONEY: Well, we weren’t sure. I mean that was the public stance. Inside (laughter) I felt that it would last … that it would last longer than that.

But I certainly wasn’t looking to … I wasn’t looking to foreign countries wanting it. And I wasn’t, certainly wasn’t thinking 40 years.

HEFFNER: Well, you talked about foreign countries. And I was saying to Gary that last night I was looking at that wonderful video on the way you have … the way Sesame Street has penetrated into so many countries around the world. Is that a source of great pleasure for you?

KNELL: Absolutely. And, Dick, you know, we really took on the, the whole mantra … what Sesame Street was built on. Which is really to use media to help kids reach their highest potential.

Where is there need? Where can media make a difference? And there’s so many developing countries or places in conflict in the world where we felt we could apply the Sesame Street model and we’ve proven … it’s made a big difference already.

HEFFNER: Is that continuing? Are you continuing to spread the word … and the bird?

KNELL: (Laughter)

COONEY: Oh, yes. Absolutely. Where, where is our … the latest …

KNELL: Well, we’re just jumping into Nigeria. Which is the largest television and film production city in the world after Bombay, believe it or not. It’s called “Nollywood” in Africa …

HEFFNER: Nollywood?

KNELL: Exactly. We will now have a Nigerian Sesame Street for the first time to reach millions and millions of people in the most populous nation in Africa. Where we can make a real difference. Not just on letters and numbers. But also on public health issues like malaria and HIV and AIDS where there’s a lot of kids who are inflicted with the disease.

HEFFNER: Joan, what was … what was your essential purpose when you began?

COONEY: Well it was … pre-schoolers were marching to the center of the public policy stage. This was the era of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society and Head Start was just looming over the horizon. It hadn’t started yet. But Washington was … had various pilot projects around the country that they were researching to see if early intervention, which then was four years old … now, of course, it’s two and three … to see if early intervention could make a difference.

And the research showed that it did make a difference. And so, when Lloyd Morrisett of Carnegie Corporation asked me if I would go around the country and talk to people … to various experts of all kinds, whether television … whether they would welcome television trying to make a difference.

Because at the time (cough) … (clears throat) excuse me the only show on the air for pre-schoolers was quality was Captain Kangaroo. And it wasn’t educational, it was a nice show for kids. A nice quality show.

And the enthusiasm of all these experts, all over the country and in Canada was simply amazing. And so I did a report saying “Yes. The answer is Yes. And here’s how it might proceed. And here’s what it might teach.”

Because some of the Head Start people, the people … the pre-Head Start people were teaching amazing things to these little kids. I mean they were really learning their ABCs, they were learning pre-reading skills, they were learning pre-math skills.

But I will say this, as proud as I am of what we did and still do. If you don’t change … if the public schools … you can’t feed a child filet mignon for its five years of life and then starve it, or virtually starve it and expect the nutrition of the early years to show up in the fourth and fifth grade. It’s not going to happen.

So my great, great worry is that unless the country, unless there is a consensus that we must stay with these kids and that we must use digital media with these kids to keep them engaged so that we get them to a literacy level at the fourth grade because if they aren’t literate by the fourth grade, they are predictably going to be in trouble the rest of their lives. Either drop-outs, teenage pregnancy, criminality.

So, so my great passion now is, is not only seeing that Sesame Street continues and continues throughout the world, but to worry about what happens to these kids after they stop watching Sesame Street.

HEFFNER: Well, given the problems involved with the founding of Sesame Street, and I, I mean the battles you had to wage … and the matter of funds for the support of Sesame Street … was that just a ride in the park compared to what we’re going to have to do now in the digital world?

I mean you, you could … you could … you could pinpoint and you did what had to be done. And you could identify the dollars that were needed. What do you do in the digital world?

KNELL: Well, I, I mean, I think what Joan did is realize very early on that kids have a natural attraction to media. It was television. And, and Joan revolutionized television. By proving that it could educate kids and get them prepared for school.

Now we know kids are addicted to digital media. They’re … kids today will never know a world before cell phones. Will never know a world before iPods. Will never know a world before the Internet.

And they’re coming into school as digital natives as opposed to us adults who are really immigrants to, to digital content.

We have to find a way to harness that power to educate kids so these fourth grade children, who Joan just talked about, are literate and are on their way to graduating high school. And staying out of poverty.

This is the next challenge for the 21st century. And we’re going to have to fix this both as informal educators as well as so-called formal educators in schools across the country.

HEFFNER: Well, I realize that you’re … you’ve made the first major step in the … do you call it a Workshop?

COONEY: MmmHmm

HEFFNER: Or the Foundation? Or …

COONEY: Oh, the Center.

HEFFNER: The new center … the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in which you’re focusing on that problem.

COONEY: Yes.

HEFFNER: Well, what’s the work plan?

COONEY: Well, we … we have to do some research. I mean we have to see if you can make it work educationally. So, so we have partnerships with various entities … they’re as interested as we are in, in the question.

As we asked initially … on, on the … when we were founding Sesame Street … can television teach? That was the first year that we were on the air. We had a lot of research going on to show that it could or could not. It happened to be able to very well. Because the funders were absolutely adamant that we show that their money worked in terms of educating children.

So we have … are doing some … obviously some research to see what … how you can make digital media educational. Can you get enough … can you get enough mass, for one thing, with enough of the media … these media … doing the same thing.

But you have to start small and see what, what can you help them learn. I think all of them could help … I think you could insert some education in almost every game these kids watch. Or, or play.

They happen not to care whether it’s educational or not. They, they aren’t turned off by educational games because it’s the same fun for them.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm

COONEY: And so if we can show that, that it will make a difference to use … to have education in those media, I think we can get some of the commercial producers on our side.

So the Center is going to be working on, on such issues. Partnerships … partnerships is the answer because of the wide … I mean it is so diverse.

You know when we started Sesame Street we were … there were only … the only pre-school shows on educational television were Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street.

The commercial networks were doing almost nothing, with the exception of Captain Kangaroo. Well, look at the world today. Not only are there many, many pre-school children shows on, on Nickelodeon and on Sprout … our channel and on many others … going 24/7.

But there’s all these digital media that, that kids are using. All you see them everywhere with their handheld … I am more interested in the handheld mobile than anything else, because I watch my grandchildren. And they’re all using those media.

So I would like to get a … enough that it would be a critical mass to insert education. At … we’re aiming initially on literacy to the six to nine year olds because of this fourth grade crisis, where we know that they’ve got to be able to read by fourth grade.

So that’s what I most care about at this time, and the Center does. But we can eventually expand it to other subjects if we can show that we can make a difference in that. But it’s tough. It is so different from …

HEFFNER: What is the research showing up to this point? Have you gone far enough …

COONEY: I don’t know …

KNELL: Well, we’ve done some research. We, we got funded on a cell phone study where we gave cell phones to moms in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

And the condition was that they would have to get a phone call from Maria from Sesame Street every day (laugh) and show their kid the video about a different letter of the day. So you would complete the entire alphabet in a month. And 80% of those moms viewed it as a very important way to teach their kid.

Now think about that … this is a way you can teach your kid the alphabet in one month’s time using a mobile phone.

And what Joan is referring to, I think, is really … is exactly right. We have a chance now to revolutionize, through this mobile technology where people are going to access the Internet more than on a computer in the future. As these, as these things get smaller, faster and cheaper.

Not only in this country, but around the world. In Africa or in parts of Asia where schools are just really not built out at all, they will leap frog over educational restrictions by, by using mobile technologies.

And the Workshop as part of its goal of using media to help kids this way can be a real leader in that. And that’s really what we’re trying to, to push for in the 21st century.

It’s really a re-invention of the fundamental idea about using television. It’s now all about using these digital medial … including hand-helds to change game. And not be afraid of them, but to embrace them. The same way television was embraced as an educator. We’ve got to reframe the question. That’s what we’re working on.

HEFFNER: You … I would think that you have the advantage of … you say you go to moms with the cell phone … that you have the advantage that in all likelihood the generation .. the parental generation is as familiar with the new modalities as their kids are.

KNELL: Well, you know there’s a cut off (laugh). It’s about age 30 …

HEFFNER: 30? Okay.

KNELL: And those above age 30, in a way, don’t get it. (Laugh) That’s a gross generalization.

And those people, even our own employees who are under the age of 30, they are just interacting with digital media in a completely different way.

They are on Facebook. They are on all these things. It’s just a part of their natural, daily behavior. As opposed to us who have to sort of figure it all out all the time.

So these are now the moms. And these are the dads who are having kids. So there isn’t that lag anymore …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

KNELL: … there isn’t that discrimination, so to speak. This fear of media that existed before. And we’ve just got to get smarter about it. Those of us who care about education, which is primarily what the Workshop’s about … figure out ways to harness that power, that lack of fear … towards making a difference in these kids lives. And we’re getting there.

HEFFNER: Joan did you find that fear of the new media, of trying to teach with television was an important factor when you were beginning?

COONEY: Well, it certainly was of getting it into institutional settings … pre-K and then … and then when we did Electric Company we, we broke the barrier finally.

It became the most widely used television show in schools in America. But it, it was a barrier, it still is a barrier. But … and I don’t think television will ever be widely used in schools. But there’s been a leap over television. And it’s far more now … trying to get teachers to learn how to use computers, in particular, to teach. And we have a ways to go. You think of it as being so … because … in the private schools if you’re grandchildren or children are in private schools you really don’t have a good picture of what’s going on in public education.

A granddaughter of mine who’s seven in private … in a private school in New York said, to me the other day when I asked her what she was taking in school this year. She said “typing”. Well, me … who’s in the last century still … on media, said, “Typing?” to this little peanut. And, and little tiny hands. And I said, “I was in high school” … well, I took it because a girl had to be able to type to get a job …

HEFFNER: To get a job …

COONEY: They always asked you, “Do you type?” And she said, ‘Yes,” she said “And I’ll have it every year until the sixth grade or fifth grade … when I think I’m supposed to be able to do it very well.”

And then I went “Wow, of course, it’s computers. I forgot.” So they’re using … they … all the home work is done on computers by the fifth grade with, with these kids.

It is much slower in the public schools. But it’s going to get there. It is so … it’s as inevitable as the sun going down tonight that it will get there because it is their language. It is … you won’t be able to teach without it.

HEFFNER: Are you just trying to depress me?

COONEY: (Laugh) Me, too.

KNELL: (Laugh) Dick, Dick … it’s also about. I mean Joan’s absolutely right. It’s also about embedded video. It’s not just words.

So think about this in a high school. You’re teaching the end of World War II. You can show a kid Harry Truman’s press conference about dropping the atomic bomb in the high school history class.

Now think about how much more that is engaging that child as opposed to reading it in a text book. It just brings these things to life. And we have now … I think, Joan, in about 17% of public schools in this country, these smart boards where teachers are accessing media instantaneously in the classroom.

That’s going to grow. In, in the UK it’s already over 50%. These things are just going to take over and be part of the classroom life. So media and formal education are coming together. It’s not a question of “if”, it’s a question of how fast.

HEFFNER: Why are they further ahead than we are?

KNELL: Well, I think probably government has subsidized it more.

HEFFNER: Ah, I see.

KNELL: You know, the whole broadband policy that President Obama has been laying out as trying to make those connections now in schools and in rural parts of the US … these are all goals of this administration. Now whether they’re going to get there, to get the funding for all this is an open question.

COONEY: Well, in Britain, of course, you have central control of education.

KNELL: Right.

COONEY: We’re the only country in the modern world that has this decentralization. So the federal government can’t … it’s very hard for them to force anything.

KNELL: In a national curriculum as well.

COONEY: In a national curriculum.

HEFFNER: Oh, it is the national curriculum. Because with money you … that’s the nose under the tent, isn’t it? If the Obama Administration can provide the wherewithal, you found certainly, that your ability to find funds for Sesame Street was of major, major importance.

COONEY: Yes, of course. But that was something the federal government could do. As was Head Start. So they came in rather enthusiastically, finally.

You know it took a lot of beating doors down. But they were pretty sure it was what they wanted to do. Particularly we had a very enlightened … he would now be Secretary of Education, it was then called Commissioner.

And he is the one who saw it and kind of forced his recalcitrant people that worked for him to find the money. He said, “You’ve got money squirreled away somewhere for research. Let’s call this research”.

Which, of course, it’s what it was. But you don’t get that many very enlightened people in federal power.

HEFFNER: What about turning away for a moment from the digital age. What about the funding for Sesame Street itself?

COONEY: Nowadays?

HEFFNER: Nowadays.

COONEY: Well, we were very fortunate in being a pre-school program because there’s, there’s toys and music and books for that age group. The first toy of most children today … and certainly in the middle classes and up … is a book. And there are all kinds of infant books now made.

Well, we were able to be in the marketplace doing Sesame Street merchandise … toys, books, music, videos, DVDs … and that brings in enough money to support the show. And does.

But that is just the beginning of our costs. We do very elaborate outreach which very important to us. And, and … we have a website … which if you don’t have a website, you might as well not … you might as well go out of business. And that’s very expensive to run, which we support.

But we do it with grants from institutions, foundations, corporations, individual foundations and government. We receive money from the Pentagon for …

HEFFNER: For children.

COONEY: … for work, for work with families on DVDs … military families … on deployment, on return … on injuries, death. We use Muppets to show how you talk to children and we’re beloved in, in the … at the Pentagon with people dealing with military families.

HEFFNER: Could you have imagined, 40 years ago, what you would have created by now.

COONEY: No way. I … absolutely … I, I did … was so unimaginative … I didn’t see it going abroad the first year. And Germany, I think it was …

KNELL: MmmHmm.

COONEY: … came and asked and we … I was stunned and we had … then shortly thereafter Latin America and it was, you know, it was country after country. There was a big headline around that period saying “The BBC rejects Sesame Street” (laughter).

Well, it wasn’t that … you know … it was unfair a bit to them. They didn’t buy it … and … but it was made a huge story in the States and in England …that they had rejected it as too American. And that only got many other countries to come in and say we’d like to have Sesame Street (laughter).

These were mostly English speaking countries … Australia, Canada and so on. Then they … but Germany was the first one where we went to Germany and created a German Sesame Street with their actors. And then, of course, when we went to countries in the Arab world, we had to create new alphabet pieces … everything was different. But when you look at a foreign production of ours, you would never dream it was an American show.

HEFFNER: Well, no I realize that in looking at the, at the video. You think the same thing will happen in the digital world?

KNELL: Absolutely. And, you know, I might say, I think the BBC didn’t want the show because you were trying to teach the letter “Z” instead of “zed”.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

COONEY: (Laughter)

KNELL: But now we’re doing a show in Northern Ireland, dealing with sectarianism and dealing with bridging the divide as, as Northern Ireland tries to build a shared future. That you can show the others through the power of television and through a website there that, you know, you humanize the other side.

And it’s been endorsed by Gerry Adams who’s wearing a cookie monster watch and Martin McGinnis and Ian Paisley and all of these people who didn’t speak to each other are now endorsing the Muppets to make a difference in Northern Ireland. That’s the power that we have.

So the television show can really be the lead horse, and digital really can follow on to extend the lessons of what you’re trying to promote in a given country. Whether it’s there, whether its in Israel, whether it’s Germany, or whether it’s the Gulf state … that’s what we’re trying to do all around the world.

COONEY: Then Palestine.

KNELL: Yeah. A recent New York Times magazine article on our work in Palestine …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm

KNELL: … where you do have a bit of two steps forward and sometimes one point nine steps back … as long as you’re still in that ratio as opposed to the opposite … we will continue to move forward, giving kids some optimism in that very difficult environment.

HEFFNER: Do you have any feedback that’s negative here in this country regarding your incursions into Israel and Palestine? Into Northern Ireland, etc.?

KNELL: Well, we’ve had to … we, we … we’ve actually been dubbed now by the Head of the USC … the Dean the USC Annenberg School as developing and delivering “Muppet Diplomacy”. It has become, really a tool of public diplomacy … the best of America in terms of innovation and education, as an export.

In training people of how to use media to make a difference. So I think in that scale we’ve, we’ve done a service for America and I think risen above any controversy that might take place. We’re very sensitive to local interests and trying to make sure that those get promoted. But we haven’t been without controversy over the years, either.

COONEY: But I think …

HEFFNER: In 15 seconds.

COONEY: … I think you were asking whether it … the … there was controversy in the US …

HEFFNER: Yes.

COONEY: … over what we were doing. Very little. Over the years.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting.

COONEY: Very little.

HEFFNER: I would say “You’re lucky”, but I know you’re not lucky. You’ve made your own luck at Sesame Street and Joan and Gary, I appreciate so much your joining me here and what I must say again is “Happy 40th Birthday”.

COONEY: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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