Joan Ganz Cooney

Happy Birthday, Big Bird

VTR Date: November 18, 1998

Guest: Cooney, Joan Ganz


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Joan Ganz Cooney
Title: Happy Birthday, Big Bird
Recorded: 11/18/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And whenever it is that you see this program, just know that it is being recorded in November, 1998, and that my guest, Joan Ganz Cooney must be quite date conscious right now because with the drums rolling and the trumpets blaring the 30th season of her incredible Sesame Street has just begun. What an anniversary!

It was, of course, in 1968 that this brilliant young woman co-founded the Children’s Television Workshop which then launched Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and all the other extraordinary educational television programs that have demonstrated so clearly how well the medium can serve our children’s real needs if only it will.

Of course, whenever today’s guest appears on The Open Mind I sneak in a little, I shouldn’t say little, I should say not-so-little plug for the fact that I had given her her first job in public television more years ago than either of us wants to remember … when I was General Manager of Channel 13 here in New York and we both helped put the region’s first public television station on the air.

Indeed, we might well reminisce now, just for a moment as I ask Joan just how close public television and particularly Children’s Television Workshop with Sesame Street and all its other creations have brought us to a promised land where media are mostly a means of raising our sights, rather than of lowering them and of exploiting audiences — even our children — for profit alone. Joan, are we there? The promised land?

COONEY: Well, no … this is not the Promised Land. It may be the other way, it may be the very opposite. Because I think what you and I … nor anyone that I know of knew in 1962 when I first met you and came to work for you at Channel 13, we could not have foreseen the fractionation created by cable and the niche programming and the divisiveness I think that will eventually result from it. We … all of New York watched Channel 13 when it came on the air …

HEFFNER: That’s nice to say.

COONEY: [Laughter] … and all … everyone in the United States who had little children tuned in the day Sesame Street went on the air … or sometime shortly thereafter. People still in great droves watch 60 Minutes on Sunday night. But in many ways this is the end that we’re … this is the end of an era that we’re witnessing. The networks, the three or four major networks no longer have very big audiences, they’re going off to cable and to all different channels in cable. It’s not like they’re going to one or two other channels. So, what, what that’s going to mean … maybe we’ll be better for it.


COONEY: Who knows.


COONEY: Well …

HEFFNER: What scenario gives us the notion that we’ll be better?

COONEY: Well this was a pretty ghastly century, as we were united listening to Jack Benny on Sunday nights on radio and united watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights on television. So it wasn’t like being united … produced … I don’t know that that all of this unity was good. The United States though was not at war with each other, but what I mean is we’ll look back on this century when there wasn’t all this, this cable and cyberspace and so on as a pretty ghastly century. So maybe the next century for … will be better.

HEFFNER: Now, I detect that that’s an argument that you don’t embrace.

COONEY: It’s hard for me to believe that in this country, to have no cultural touchstones such as radio and television brought us, and the movies before that and still to some degree … to have no … to not be united by any cultural touchstone, it’s hard for me to believe that that’s a good thing for the country. It’s hard for me to believe that fact that African Americans watch different, have a different top ten programs from what White Americans and Anglo Americans watch. And that Hispanic Americans are watching quite different programs from African Americans and Anglo-Americans. I can’t believe that’s a good thing. But it hasn’t been proven yet to be a bad thing, so I can’t flatly say “Gee, isn’t that terrible?”.

HEFFNER: Joan, what are the statistics as far as CTW’s product?

COONEY: We are … still get a sizeable number of pre-schools watching Sesame Street and, indeed, I’m happy and proud to say that PBS has a, a series of programs every morning from Barney to Teletubbies to Sesame Street that are very widely viewed in this country by both poor Americans and wealthier ones. Nickelodeon also has a good audience for an educational program called Blue’s Clues and I think that’s a very good thing. So about … there are four or five programs that most pre-schoolers watch in this program, in this country, on PBS and Nickelodeon.

HEFFNER: And the negative stuff?

COONEY: That’s a little older for the most part. I mean kids start wanting, what I call “louder music and stronger wine” at about … well, you know this as a grandfather … at about three and four they start being able to move that clicker around themselves. But in, from their infancy through three they really are … they’re all watching pretty much the same programs … those little kids. That’s the last we’ll see of that in their lives … when they’re four, five and six they’re going off in many different directions … video tapes, computer programming and cable programming.

HEFFNER: And the content of what they attach themselves to after their Sesame Street years?

COONEY: Well, some of it’s okay …some of it’s okay. And some of it is not okay in, in this concerned person’s view. A lot of children are not supervised. We, we think of our homes and the homes of our children and therefore how our grandchildren are growing up … but that isn’t the … in the typical American home and certainly as you go down in the educational attainment and economic circumstance, you will find a lot of unsupervised viewing by children starting at about six of everything. And they have older siblings. Remember many six-year-olds are living in homes with ten year olds. Many four year olds are living in homes with ten year olds. And they’re watching everything.

HEFFNER: You know, you say this … you’re the first person I’ve been able to get to say that and to think of the consequences of that because mostly those whom I invite here say, when we talk about the media content that our children are exposed to, say well after all, it’s the parents’ responsibility to control this. And my answer is, but do parent exercise that responsibility when they are there> And the argument stops there, I mean it never goes … it never goes further. But you know, and you say that children are watching by themselves and parents are not guiding what it is that they see, by and large.

COONEY: A huge percentage of children now have a TV set in their bedrooms that they control totally. And starts are a very young age in America. In all socio-economic groups, so you’re, you’re talking about not only … that children don’t even have parents passing through and saying “what are you viewing?”, but Dick, I’ve got to tell you I’m as concerned about children on computer and on-line by themselves in their rooms. They tell their parents they’re doing homework, and the parents assume that … parents assume computers are educational. Why I don’t know, because computers are only as educational, obviously, as they’re programmed to be. And a lot of these kids are really off in cyberspace where you wouldn’t want them to be in cyberspace, without any … with parents assuming that’s it’s wonderful. At least with television they always say, “Oh, are you watching more television?”. They don’t say that about computers … “oh, are you on-line again?”.

HEFFNER: What are we to do?

COONEY: Well, we’re not going to control it by … try to regulate it, I don’t think it …

HEFFNER: Why? You mean as your choice, or you’re saying “we’re not going tot do that as a people”.

COONEY: This, as a people, we’re not going to. It just strikes most people as un-American, and violations of First Amendment. You know that better than I do, that it … that it run in … you run into First Amendment advocates right away … not that we’re all not First Amendment advocates, but people who feel any attempt to do anything about television or about what’s on … you know, on-line or whatever, would be a violation of First Amendment rights. And I, myself, have problems with First Amendment … with the arguments. I at times say, I don’t know what you do”. There are places in … there are countries in Scandinavia and I don’t know whether it’s all of them, or whether it’s Norway and Sweden, I can’t remember, but I do remember hearing that in, in those countries where there’s a extremely homogeneous population and very little poverty, it’s all pretty much a middle class society, that violence is not on television … period. Now when you ask them why there’s no violence on television, they answer to a person, “because a child may be watching”. Now there are long lines in this countries for violent movies … of adults. But there … but that’s not on television.

HEFFNER: Look, you said a moment ago, you have your own concerns when, when someone suggests that we might regulate or, or limit what appears on television, and so do I. But I think you have more of a sense of what’s happening with this material that’s on the air, on the computer, etc. And … you know, it’s funny … you remember Newt Minow became Chairman of the FCC, sat and watched television and started to call it “The Vast Wasteland”. He does the same thing today, only his response and the response of Sissela Bok and others who address themselves to this question is simply to say, not let’s eliminate the negative, but let’s accentuate the positive, and put more of Children’s Television Workshop on the air. Do I detect that perhaps you share with me the desire to do that, but the concern about what happens if we don’t eliminate the negative?

COONEY: Well … there’s a lot of concern that I feel about it. But I don’t know how you do it without running into what is our long history, in our Constitution, and a dislike of regulation in government, not only by the people who would be regulated, but they can always find huge numbers who say, “boy, you let them in this door and they might start controlling our guns” … etc.

HEFFNER: Look, a century ago, as we approached the twentieth century, one couldn’t argue with a lot of people about such intrusions upon our Constitutional guarantees as an income tax, as regulatory commissions, etc. Admittedly, those weren’t in the area of ideas, they were in the areas of goods and services. You still don’t think that we’ve reached a point at which push comes to shove and we’re going to have to shove a little in this area of First Amendment concerns?

COONEY: Well, you know we’ve tried and, one thing is, I think, is the horse is probably out of the barn because of cyberspace and because of the amount of cable that there is now. Pretty soon I guess everything’s going to be computerized. I mean right now you can subscribe to a service that you plug into your television set … Web-TV, I think it’s called … and you can go on-line, on your television, with your great big screen, lying in bed … I always said, well, you can’t take a computer to bed with you. You don’t have to anymore, you can take a small keyboard on your lap and you can get anything in the world. You can get information about yourself, you can get pornography, you can get information about geography, you can order airplane tickets, or you can get Seinfeld in repeats. It’s all … the technology, I think, has made it almost impossible to regulate it. But when we’ve tried … for example, the FCC said that all commercial networks, or stations rather I believe it was, had to have two hours a day of educational programming for children. Well, that seemed like a pretty good idea. I mean at least that’s not, that’s doing the Newt Minow … what Newt Minow suggested, put more good stuff on, see if good can drive out bad. Well, all that the stations and networks did was to put on programs like Lassie or whatever, reruns, and say they’re educational. And they would make the case, they’d look at it and say “Lassie learns to pick up a bone and run with it and take it to her master”. So that’s educational. It didn’t cause any change whatsoever in what they ran.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t that indicate that more stringent measures must be taken, whatever the tradition, whatever the history?

COONEY: We might say, but it is … this country, I think, has become more conservative in terms of regulation. That is, it’s moved farther away from regulation, starting with Reagan’s whole thrust at de-regulation, much of which I approve of. I mean that was in some business areas, and airline de-regulation which in terms of permitting more and more people … more people to travel than ever before … it’s a good thing. Telephone de-regulation. We may be annoyed at the inconveniences, but the truth is more people have access to long-distance, etc. at better prices. The emphasis has, I think, since the early eighties, has been away from regulation, so I don’t think we’re going to go there. Nobody’s pushing for it.

HEFFNER: I was hoping that this program was going to bring about a renaissance of, of such pushing.

COONEY: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: But, Joan, let me go back to CTW and some of things that you said when you were here last, and it was too long ago. You said there was a prejudice against the medium, educational television. And I wonder if you still feel that way.

COONEY: Less. Oddly enough since I was last here, there have been more educational programs on the air for children. My really real regret about my career a few years ago, was that we … that no one had copied us. That we hadn’t really influenced the medium, that there weren’t more programs on the air for children. Everyone was saying, “Oh, well Sesame Street did it”. Well, for all kinds of reasons some of them commercial, in which they noticed that CTW, licensed products, which is how we support Sesame Street, but for profit … we’re a not-for-profit, but for profit producers said, “aha, we can do a popular children’s program and make money, if we can get it on public television, and if it’s educational or at least constructive”. And that happened, and I bless it because it created several more good programs for children. We’re … so that there has been a real flowering of programs for young children. Somewhat less for older children. That’s a very neglected group of kids, the six to ten, six to twelve year old kids, it’s a neglected audience. Because you’re expected, it’s as if the broadcasters expect you to go from six to adult programming, and there’s almost nothing in between, that you would want your children to watch. There’s childish programs on, but they’re not children’s programs. So, I …so things are better since I was last here for children. In my view I feel very up about the choices and the amount of programming that is on for pre-school children.

HEFFNER: What about dollars?

COONEY: Dollars for those programs?


COONEY: Well, if they’re made by for-profit people, which they largely are, other than out programs, most of the entities putting on programs are for-profit companies, and they put up the money up front and PBS airs it without paying them anything. And then they license toys and maybe give PBS a little, a percentage of that. But the point is that they can make, they can put them on and license for the toys and books. We have to have money. To do our kind of programming costs a lot of money. Our kind of programming is researched, it has curriculum specialists putting curriculum into the programs, there’s no one to fund them up front if … because we’re not a for-profit, so unless PBS and CPB, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and maybe a corporation, and some foundations come in, we can’t do new programs of our kind, and you won’t see many of them again.

HEFFNER: Is it more difficult, less difficult for you now to raise that money?

COONEY: More. It will never … at least not in my lifetime, and the lifetime of the next generation I don’t think you will see anything like the government/private foundation partnership that came together to create Sesame Street, Electric Company, Three-Two-One Contact, those programs. It just … the government’s not there anymore.

HEFFNER: You know, I was fascinated by a statistic in the paper today. I found that hard to believe that only 20 percent of American adults have school age children, which must mean that there is less of a concern and a greater unwillingness to reach into our pockets.

COONEY: There is. You’re seeing it in terms of financing school … in school bond issues, you’re seeing …


COONEY: … them voted down all over. Mostly, I mean what’s really happening in America is … it is not that fewer children are being born, because at the moment our population’s holding steady … it’s that we’re aging. It’s an aging society. So that fewer and fewer people of child-bearing and rearing age in America, and that percentage is going to up, not down, of older Americans so that you’ll have these … you’ll have people over sixty-five far out-numbering children under five.

HEFFNER: Then why is the question of education and educational reform supposedly such a hot political item?

COONEY: I’ve decided it has nothing to do with numbers. Because twenty years ago education was not a hot item when there were more children proportionately. I think that maybe it’s when you’ve got fewer … maybe there are more adults per child … worrying … I mean …

HEFFNER: Worrying about …

COONEY: Worrying about children.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

COONEY: But you’re also a more affluent society now. And therefore we can afford to talk about education in a way that we weren’t twenty years ago. Further, we’re a society facing a technological revolution and almost everybody understands that, but in particular businesses understand it. And corporations have been greatly behind school reform.

HEFFNER: Are you still of a mind that the Carnegie Commission made a mistake in fostering the notion that what you and I were dealing with was public television rather than E-TV, educational television?

COONEY: I think it was a mistake. I have thought it was a mistake for a number of years now. Because educational television everyone understood. The Congress, the parents, the adults without children everyone knew what it was. Public television … what does it mean? The BBC, which is a public entity is hardly recognizable compared to … I mean it, it now does … you know, it is .…


COONEY: … it’s in competition with commercial television.


COONEY: Public television in the United States is more in competition than it used to be. Less than the BBC is in England, but I think that public television … I think educational television would have kept the eye on the ball in a way that the words “public television” do not.

HEFFNER: I remember writing a piece for the Sunday magazine section for our old friend, Lester Markel, called “E-TV is Public TV, or Community TV”. And what a mistake that was because, as you’re suggesting it knocked the props out financial props out, from underneath us. Government would be more willing to provide money for “educational” … even if it weren’t “instructional television”. Where do we go from here?

COONEY: But bless on that … bless the public … you know that they’re increasing the amount of money, I believe for public television because Newt Gingrich and, and the others in his party who wanted to de-fund public broadcasting got their heads handed to them a few years ago. And they now are not going to take that issue on again very soon. And indeed, they’re talking about increasing funding to, to get the public stations into the digital age.

HEFFNER: Leaving children for a moment, we just have two minutes left, what do you see for public television generally. You talked about its competing, looking, and it does look more like commercial television in certain ways, that it has commercials today. What do you see happening to it?

COONEY: I still think … I think that you do see the sort of commercials, but the programming’s very different from anything else. I think its big problem is it’s so under-funded that it’s very hard for it do to the kinds of programs that attract big audiences. Some of the old BBC dramas, like Brideshead Revisited, the, the great documentaries like The History of the Jews, some of the big events, as they were called, that really brought in tons of new viewers and which had long lives elsewhere after … in videotape, in universities, if they were on documentary subjects. I think it’s problem now is that it’s so under funded, that it can’t do … it can’t bring in the audiences that it ought to be bringing in. Because it is different and better still.

HEFFNER: Are the audiences going down? Or just not going up enough?

COONEY: They’re just not going up very dramatically. It’s holding its own. People understand quality and there’s quality there.

HEFFNER: When I turn on Channel 13 now, I am so fascinated by how different it is, how much … I was going to say “professional”, but that probably is the word … how professional it is .

COONEY: Yes, it’s very professional.

HEFFNER: Even the damn commercials.

COONEY: [Laughter] Yes, even …

HEFFNER: … are better than the ones on commercial television.


HEFFNER: Joan, any optimistic thoughts for the future?

COONEY: Well, gee, I do feel optimistic. Children’s programming is better and there’s more of it, for young children. On public television, on Nickelodeon, on the Disney Channel, some on the Cartoon Channel. The Cartoon Channel is not all cartoons. So, you do see some of them saying we ought to do something for the little kids. I wish they’d say we ought to do something for the bigger kids, and maybe they will.

HEFFNER: Thanks. That’s the right note to end on. Joan Ganz Cooney, thank you so much for joining me. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another 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.