Joan Ganz Cooney

Do We Care for Our Children?

VTR Date: March 15, 1986

Joan Ganz Cooney discusses media and the youth.


GUEST: Joan Ganz Cooney

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Years ago, the late, great media guru, Marshall McLuhan, noted that it’s folly to talk about television’s content, for the medium is the message, not what appears on it. It is the electronic medium itself, with its nonlinear qualities, that seemed to Marshall McLuhan to massage our minds, to mold our perceptual apparatus, to make us a people different than we were under the influence of print in the days of the Gutenberg galaxy.

And now, as brilliant a modern scholar as Neil Postman says just about the same, bashing television, bemoaning our contemporary electronic, nonprint, nonlinear, almost nonliterate fate. After Gutenberg, all is lost. So, forget televisions content for, almost by definition, it all is distracting entertainment – imagery, not substance.

Well to me, personally, that is a somewhat compelling point of view, as you could tell when Neil Postman was here on The Open Mind. But not so for today’s guest, who feels passionately that what counts most importantly about television is what we do with it – how we choose to program and use the medium, and particularly whether we make its content a liberating educative force for our children. Indeed, for almost a quarter-century, now, since we first worked together and New York’s pioneering public Channel 13, Joan Ganz Cooney has been forging television into a powerful instrument for freeing out children from the scourge of ignorance and indifference.

The founder and president of Children’s Television Workshop, Sesame Street, the Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact were here, really. So are the plaudits and the admiration of everyone who wants the medium to enrich, not further to impoverish, our youngsters. Yet, for all of her accomplishments, for all of the long, long list of honors and awards for her achievements in the service of children, Joan Ganz Cooney still doesn’t find it easy in what’s supposed to be our totally child-oriented society to find the resources to care for our kids on television and off. It’s almost as if we Americans were indifferent to them – to our future, for they are the future.

And, Joan, I’m glad to welcome you here today, and to ask you how in the world do we account for what you call, in your New York Time Op Ed piece, our indifference to children?

Cooney: Well, I think it’s a political problem, and I think we’re beginning to see it. Children don’t vote, and many, many of the parents of the children we are most worried about don’t vote, either. Many of them are newcomers to this country. Many of them are in poverty, and we know the voting rate is not as greet among poor people. The elder – meanwhile, the elderly have become a huge force in this country in politics, and at – even as we sit here, the country is now spending three time as much on its elderly population as it is its children. That includes public education. The federal government’s spending 10 times as much on the elderly as it is its children. I think that’s politics.

Heffner: Well, you know, when Elie Weisel was here on The Open Mind, he said that indifference is carelessness, meaning caring less for children, in your terms…do you really think that’s true? Do we care less for them?

Cooney: Not the individual family. I don’t want to be misunderstood on that. I think parents care as deeply today as they ever did about their own children. But as a society, institutionally and governmentally, we care less about our children than we once did. It’s an astounding difference in this country from what it once was, of local and federal spending on behalf of children versus the elderly. We really are saying, you’re on your own – in many, many ways – in education, in caring for them while their mothers worked. And their – many, many mothers must work. Many mothers are the sole support of their children. We really aren’t paying attention to our own future.

Heffner: And in television?

Cooney: Television is a – is even worse, and I use it as a litmus test for a society caring about its children or not.

Heffner: What do you mean?

Cooney: Well, the BBC, for example, started – when it went on the air, it was required by government to do a lot for children. Sir Hugh Weldon, who just died and was the great BBC head, started his career in children’s programming, and that would be unthinkable, today – that someone who was going to head a network started with children. So, I would say that – and certainly in France they care more, in Germany, if you look at what’s on the air, in Japan. Russia is astonishingly good, vis a vis their children and television. Russians care a lot about their children. They don’t have many of them, as you know. Their birth rate’s very low. Whereas, we have just thrown them to the bulls, or whatever it is, with this dreadful programming that we do 24 hours a day on many, many channels. And I agree that that is going to hurt the minds of our children – what they’ve viewing and the hours that they are viewing. But the society is indifferent to that.

Heffner: Well, you know, it’s puzzling to me. When you say it’s – when I ask you to explain it, you say, well, it’s a political thing, in terms of political power. The young don’t vote. We older folks vote for benefits for ourselves. I’m talking about me.

Cooney: Um-hmm?

Heffner: but we find, as you suggest, that in other countries there is greater concern as manifest in the kinds of television produced for children. It’s not a political situation there.

Cooney: Well, it is, in a way.. there’s a com – in all those countries that I’ve just mentioned, there is a compact between the governors and the governed, and one of the compacts is that government will regulate television so that children are served. And the countries totally agree – the populations in these countries totally agree that children are a special population, unlike any other, and they are trying to make the medium – somewhat safer is how I like to put it, as we have with cars. We insist on speed limits, licensing, seat belts, and so on. We’re trying to make cars safer. We should be trying to make television safer for children.

Heffner: How?

Cooney: By better children’s programming. I am a libertarian, when it comes to regulating after 9 o’clock at night. I wish there were more self-censorship. But we ought to be doing good programming during the day and early evening for our children. We’re losing a great opportunity.

Heffner: But are you suggesting that children don’t watch after 9 o’clock? I think your own statistics indicate otherwise.

Cooney: They watch after 9, but I think we’d all be less concerned about that if we thought they were very well served during the hours that they are most heavily viewing.

Heffner: Is this, then – are you saying that you’re not as much concerned with the impact of the garbage as you are with the vacuum that has been created, or that has always existed, in terms of good material for children?

Cooney: Well, I’m concerned about both, and I think any sensible person is. I think watching a lot of television is not good for any of us. It means we are not doing other things. So I am not for heavy viewing. I wish parents would stop it. They find it very, very difficult. Many, many parents have gone through a lot of fighting and punishment and so on. Kids want to take the path of least resistance, which is pulling that button on and watching some exciting, adventurous, violent but fun, amusing-to-watch – and the children want to do it. My mother worried terribly that I would come home from school and sit in a dark corner and read. The reason she worried, as I look back on it, is the same reason we should worry about children who are heavy viewers. She knew that I was escaping from something, that I was interacting with peers, I was not doing other things; I was just reading. She was absolutely right. I was escaping into books.

Heffner: And yet, I know perfectly well that you reject much of the criticism of the phenomenon of children being glued to Sesame Street, let’s say. You reject that phenomenon…

Cooney: Well, that’s one hour a day viewing. We’re talking six hours, seven hours. In a – in preschoolers’ homes, particularly in poverty homes, the set is on all the time. So we’re talking about – I don’t think anyone wants children to watch even Sesame Street all the time; but they wouldn’t. A family in Washington, a black family – he was a federal worker – soldered their TV set to the public station, and the father said to the kids, you can watch as much television as you want. We are not going to have any more fights. Well, guess what. Those kids started watching a lot less television, because not very much on public television interested them. And they weren’t so, quote, addicted to the medium that they were going to watch programs that bored them. So, they watched the children’s bloc, and that was it.

Heffner: Plus, I remember, back in the Channel 13 days, when we had Mrs. Libert on for the late afternoon children’s show, and the New Yorker ran a cartoon showing the kids playing in the snow, saying to their mother, who was obviously calling to them, Mommy, do we have to come in and watch Mrs. Libert?

Cooney: Yes.

Heffner: What do you think – you say you’re concerned about the hours of viewing, but isn’t that going to happen, anyway?

Cooney: Yes, and therefore I repeat I would do – make a safer, a safer – I would try to have much, much better programming on.

Heffner: Now, how do you make it safer?

Cooney: Now, Neil Postman notwithstanding, and…

Heffner: Yeah?

Cooney: …Marie Wynn, and all – and Frank Mankiewicz, and all these people who are writing about television, the – can anyone doubt that the impact would be different, if children were glued to watching War and Peace, followed by Brideshead Revisited, followed by Civilization and the Jews? Would we really be as concerned, if that was what they were watching? My answer is no, but if it were my child I would be concerned if long hours were spent in front of the set, no matter what was on.

Heffner: Joan, let’s leave Neil alone for a minute, and come back to him. What would you do? How would you achieve your objective?

Cooney: With my own children?

Heffner: No, no, no, in terms of this country’s television product for its children. You say you’re a libertarian when it comes to after 9 o’clock. What would you do before then?

Cooney: Well, I would regulate. I – there’s no question in my mind that we have taken a libertarian course that was not – is not appropriate. Every country in the world that I can think of regulates vis a vis children.

Heffner: But, Joan, no country in the world except this one has a Bill of Rights. No country in the world enables one to stand and say, you can’t tell me what to do with my right of speech; I’m going to program as I choose.

Cooney: But the FCC very nearly – when Dean Burch was chairman very nearly did make rules about children. It was voted down by one vote. And the networks, while they were lobbying against it, were already calling The Children’s Television Workshop, saying, Can – if that rule passes, can you help us create some programming? I don’t think that it is – I think what we’re doing is a little bit comparable to crying fire in the crowded movie theater if there’s not a fire. I think we have entered a danger zone vis a vis our children, and that we really, really should regulate that if you’re going to have airwaves – and I give you that right, if you can afford a station or network, — then you must do something constructive for children who are viewing.

Heffner: Why don’t you do more for us?

Cooney: We, as programmers?

Heffner: Children’s Television Workshop?

Cooney: Networks are not interested in buying our product, Dick. We have a very hard time even selling special, night time specials for children, to the networks. We are doing a new mathematics series for Public Television that will go on air next year. We are – given that we are doing curriculum-based work, we – you can’t put – you can’t turn on a dime. You can’t. it takes you two to three years to get the subject matter right.

Heffner: Do you see – in the presumed concern about the American family and what has happened to the family in this country, do you see any sign that her is going to be a turnaround here, and that children’s programming will be more and more the subject of regulation and help?

Cooney: No, I don’t. I think that probably the networks are lost to this cause, now; that that’s done; and that the only – the real hope would be more money for Public Television, to do children’s programming, and perhaps getting cable interested. No, I think we’ve probably lost the cause, Dick. I’m very concerned about it. I don’t think we’re going to give up how we do business on television. Now, look, as we know, things go in cycles, and you could find around 1995 that the FCC decides it should regulate vis a vis children. I don’t think it’s a First Amendment issue.

Heffner: Well, you say you don’t think it’s a First Amendment issue, because you find yourself on one side of it, the regulatory side.

Cooney: But I don’t’ think the networks have argued very strenuously that to be required to do an hour a day or two hours a day of children’s programming seriously violates their First amendment rights.

Heffner: If push came to shove, you don’t think that that would be a – I mean, if that one vote on the FCC that you talked about in Dean Burch’s time were to be cast differently, and the FCC were to fix its canon against the self-slaughter that you talked about, in what we do to our children, don’t you think that would be the cry?

Cooney: That would be the cry, but I think it would be accepted very quickly. I think we forget 7 to 8 every Sunday night must be devoted on all three networks to either news and public affairs or children’s programming, and that has been, of course, a very good time on commercial television. I haven’t heard them scream First Amendment about that.

Heffner: Yes, but we’re living in this age – wonderful or poverty-stricken age – of deregulation, and I gather from what you’ve just said you really don’t see much chance that there is going to be a voluntary move on the part of the private sector.

Cooney: No.

Heffner: What chance do you think there will be of the kind of regulation that will override the involuntarism of the present?

Cooney: Well, I think – I don’t think that there will be regulation – not very soon. I think what will change the nature of the game somewhat are VCRs. That is, if you can put in programming for your children. The people, alas, that will take advantage of that technology are probably the ones that need it least – I mean, who would get educational or good plays, good drama for their kids. They’re the ones that probably need it least. But the technology is going to change the situation somewhat.

Heffner: Joan, what about that as the criticism that had been aimed at Sesame Street, generally – that, though you wanted Sesame Street to be a key to the future for youngsters who came from deprived backgrounds, what happened was that those who were well-to-do became better-to-do through watching Sesame Street?

Cooney: Well, we never said that show was solely for poor children.

Heffner: No, not solely.

Cooney: What happened, Dick – and I – this always happens, by the way, in – we never said we’d close the gap. What we said was that we will move children of lower achievement or at lower socioeconomic levels to a literacy line; that television could do that. So, yes, the middle-class youngsters made comparable gains to the lower socioeconomic groups from watching Sesame Street, but they all made make gains, or our middle-class children. What we want is for all people to read, and to do well in school, right up to their abilities, whatever that potential is. Television can help. It is certainly not the sole answer, but it can be a supplement.

Heffner: Now, in a sense, Neil Postman kind of ticks you off with his criticism of television.

Cooney: Yes, because I think it’s off the top of his head is what troubles me. I don’t know what his research is on all those statements.

Heffner: But you can have a statement about the nature of society and the nature of literacy without the research. I mean, are you saying unless you have those numbers –?

Cooney: But he’s ascribing it to television, and, I don’t know, we’ve always had a fair amount of illiteracy in this country, long before television. Education has not been a big American value. It has been a big value to immigrant families. It certainly was, in previous generations. We’re not a country that’s absorbed with educating our young. And I would say that literacy has always been a problem here – always an astonishingly high number, all through the ages, you will find that we had, compared to many other countries. I am not going to defend heavy viewing of what I think is mostly the mindless, lowest-common-denominator, often trash that is on television. I do not think the nature of the medium has very much to do with what the problem is. I think the nature of the programming has a lot to do with it. Yes, we are going to learn about things via the televised image. I don’t know what we are to do about that. I – for example, Neil Postman is worried about television; I am very worried about the medical technology that we are creating, and what it is going to do to this society – that you can keep everyone going forever, if you put them on artificial respirators and so on, and it becomes everybody’s desire to live forever. As someone said, we said God was, back in the ‘60s, if you recall. And a young person responded on the – I read it, not so long ago – on the issue of technology, I want the technology. You told me God is dead, and now I want to live forever. So, I consider technology a big problem, and I don’t think we’re facing anywhere, including television technology, face – how to employ it in the most constructive way on behalf of this society.

Heffner: Let me go back for a moment to what you said about other countries. Are they employing television in a way to make their youngsters more and more familiar with technological advances? Are they using television as a teacher to the extent that we just aren’t?

Cooney: Britain always has; has always had good programs on the air for kids – school programs. All British television, whether you’re public or for profit, must do X amount of programming for children – educational.

Heffner: And the research – what does it indicate?

Cooney: Well, I think teachers find it a good supplement. I don’t think there have been longitudinal studies done, on are they better off with seeing some science on television or not. We know they are, Dick. It’s the same as companies that – corporations who have tried to quantify whether underwriting the ballet on Public Television helps their company. They can’t quantify it, but they know it does.

Heffner: Yeah, but, Joan, you know, you say we know this is the case. And in a sense, that’s what Neil Postman was saying about his argument. We know it’s the case.

Cooney: Well, can anyone doubt – and I guess the answer is yes, but I don’t think many people really doubt that, as long as children are going to be watching television, wouldn’t we – wouldn’t it be better if we were teaching them (garbled) – American history, drama, for example?

Heffner: I approve of that,

Cooney: As Britain has done an enormous amount in history for its whole population – on television. Does he really think that watching Elizabeth I, in Britain, is harming the minds of children? I doubt it.

Heffner: I doubt it too. I don’t – I think what he’s doing is – look, I remember the years when you were bashing television. I mean, you still do it. You did it before, but you were doing it much more. Neil is at that stage and in that phase. He’s not a producer. He doesn’t turn out the kinds of splendid programs that you do, so, he stands back as an academic, and is critical of this medium.

Cooney: well, I believe that it is – it’s going to affect the amount that people read. There’s no question about it. (overtalk)

Heffner: Which way? Which way? Up or down?

Cooney: They’re not going to read as much, I don’t think. Despite the fact that many books sell very well and many magazines sell very well, I true – I believe people put in much less time in reading today than they did 20 years ago or 30 years ago, before television, because you got your news from newspapers; you didn’t get it from television.

Heffner: That’s a point that he makes.

Cooney: Yes.

Heffner: You don’t disagree with that.

Cooney: Oh, no. I don’t’ like heavy viewing of television for anyone. I don’t like it. I don’t know what to do about it. As I say, I don’t like where the medical technology is taking us, and I don’t like cars, but what are we going to do about it? Are we going to wring our hands, and say, Oh, woe is me! All this technology is changing the world? Or are we going to say, Hmm, maybe there’s an opportunity here, rather than just crying about it?

Heffner: You know, I remember in the days when – I remember the days when I used to refer to the Luddites, and I would say, as you’re suggesting now, what are you going to be, a Luddite? Are you going to destroy the machinery? I am not so sure that that question always has to be answered In the negative. If you keep going down the path in which you build the machinery that, given our culture, is going to be used in a destructive way, since you’re given to regulation at this stage, or a little more than I expected, why not regulate the machinery and –?

Cooney: Well, it will be. I mean, I’ll make you that bet. France permits no dialysis for people over 65, so, rich people fly out of the country, over to Switzerland, who need dialysis. They’ve just made that decision that they are not going to keep all the engines going. I think that’s an unfair and wrong decision, so don’t misunderstand me.

Heffner: Because, as you say, the rich fly out.

Cooney: The rich fly out. Not only there, but I think many 65 year olds are much more important than five year olds. But, however, we’re not prepared – than certain five year olds; we’re not prepared to make that judgment, and I don’t want to. But, believe me, our grandchildren will be, or our great grandchildren, will be making those judgments.

Heffner: But you are making the quality judgments, in terms of programming, particularly programming that children watch, and you are now ready to regulate.

Cooney: Yes, but we’ve always – we only quit regulating, very recently. There really weren’t a lot of complaints about regulation. Remember equal time (laughs) and fairness in news? I mean, all those things were regulations. I don’t even know if they’re still on the books.

Heffner: They’re on the books, but are – at least for equal time is concerned, evaded by – oh, by the League of Women Voters and other organizations that find means of getting around it.

Cooney: Yes. I believe the networks will not change, unless they are regulated, and I am for that regulation. And they would respond. If all three were equally penalized, they would get on – as soon as the regulation went through, they’d get on with putting on children’s programs.

Heffner: Do you think that there’s any chance that they’ll get together? Because you say if all three are regulated so there is no competitive edge to the person who doesn’t follow the Joan Ganz Cooney line. Do you think – you remember, there was one time when the three networks were getting together – indeed, in family viewing time.

Cooney: Um-hmm, um-mm (overtalk)

Heffner: They made the effort. They started it. And then there were those who attacked it in the courts, and they won.

Cooney: Um-hmm.

Heffner: They said this was in –this was, in the first place, conspiracy in restraint of trade, it was monopolistic, and it was violative of our rights.

Cooney: Cooney: Well, I believe that they could gain permission to meet with each other on children’s programming. My – I’m going to bet you that the justice Department would agree to their meeting on that, particularly if they said that all – assume no regulation, okay? But assume good guys. I mean, a decision to do a good-guy thing. And they said, the three of us are going to get together, and each one – we’re going to rotate who’s doing a daily show for children. I don’t think the Justice Department would stop it.

Heffner: Let me ask you whether – we just have a few minutes left. Is that what you want, a rotation, where there still is the opportunity…

Cooney: Better than nothing. No, I’d like to see all three networks do programs – do a program a day for preschool children and a program a day for school-age children when they come home from school. I’d like to see all networks do that.

Heffner: But, you know, I don’t mean to push you where you don’t want to be pushed. I also know that you’re not going to be pushed where you don’t want to be pushed. But that notion of a program – an early program, a later program, and still the flotilla of garbage – maybe that’s not fair – the mass of programming…

Cooney: The mass.

Heffner: …that is the mass. You’re going to say it’s better than nothing.

Cooney: Well, yes, I guess I believe that it’s better to eat something nutritious once a day, even though you’re going to eat junk food the rest of the day, than to eat only junk food. I will use a food analogy.

Heffner: Would the Children’s Television Workshop be prepared – could it be prepared to fill the vacuum not just on one network, but all of them?

Cooney: I think, over time, we could be helpful. I don’t think one production company should do it all. But we are currently proposing a daily show to a pay cable company, and – so that, yes, we – and it took us two or three or four weeks to figure out what to propose. We could be helpful. We would be among the programming houses that could be helpful.

Heffner: And when you are on the air, with Sesame Street or your other programs, what percentage of children who are free to watch or to watch traditional material – what do you get? What percentages do you achieve?

Cooney: Of the children watching after school?

Heffner: The children watching when they can watch, when there is a competition between Sesame Street and things that are less desirable.

Cooney: Children watch programs designed for children, if given a choice. We have very, very big audiences, both at 9 in the morning and at 4 in the afternoon. For little kids. Remember, we’re two-to-five, but we have a huge statistics on six-to-twelves watching, and many homes – something like four or five million homes without children watch Sesame Street.

Heffner: And those are four or five million homes that aren’t enough for the networks, right?

Cooney: Well, but it’s about – I think our numbers are like ten million people watching Sesame Street once a week. It’s a big number. A network would take that show. It’s not for sale. I think we could sell Sesame Street, maybe.

Heffner: Well, for crying out loud, do it.

Cooney: Maybe (laughs)

Heffner: thanks so much for joining me today, Joan Ganz Cooney.

Cooney: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please do write The Open Mind, in care of this station. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”