A Star is Born: From Conversation At Dinner Party to Cover of Time
The Nov. 10, 1969, premiere of "Sesame Street" was the culmination of more than three years of effort led largely by a former publicist for network soap operas.
It began at a Manhattan dinner party, where Joan Ganz Cooney complained in a conversation about the poor quality of children's programming on television. She was talking with Lloyd Morrissett, a psychologist who was then vice president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He suggested that she research the possibility of a TV show that could teach preschoolers.
The two envisioned a video version of the federal Head Start program, which was then beginning to bring an enriched preschool experience to many disadvantaged children.
With the enormous success of network shows such as "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," Ms. Cooney and Mr. Morrissett were convinced that a fast-paced, quick-cutting program was the formula needed to engage children enough to make them willing to sit through lessons on their television screens.
"'Laugh-In' was the most popular show at the time, and it was also the most popular show with children in the Nielsen ratings," Ms. Cooney recalls. "We were determined we were going to reach the lower socioeconomic group by borrowing the techniques of commercial television, including Madison Avenue."
The commercial networks were approached about financing and airing the show, but they saw it as too risky. Funding for the first-year budget of $8 million eventually was secured from the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the new Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the U.S. Office of Education.
Building an audience was also a challenge. It helped that the Public Broadcasting Service had just been formed, linking public-television stations for the first time. But the producers literally took to the streets to inform inner-city families about it, sending sound trucks through Harlem that stopped to show a 15-minute preview. The National Council of Negro Women and other groups went door to door to alert mothers.
For help with the show itself, Ms. Cooney consulted with educators and psychologists, including a former research professor for the Oregon education department, Edward L. Palmer. He later became the first research chief for the Children's Television Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street" and of which Ms. Cooney is now chairman.
"We felt we were pioneers," Mr. Palmer says of that experience.
The staff spent months doing formative research on each segment. Sketches that preschoolers in test screenings found boring or confusing were changed or scrapped.
One major decision was to set the show in the kind of urban milieu that was so familiar to many disadvantaged children; instead of an escapist tree house or fairyland, "Sesame Street" would be full of rundown brownstones and populated by Hispanics, whites, and blacks.
But there would also be an assortment of yellow and green creatures.
The puppeteer Jim Henson's Muppets stole the show on "Sesame Street'' from the beginning. Now, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, and the seven-foot yellow canary, Big Bird, are fixtures in the pop culture of children. And they provide ctw with lucrative income from such licensing ventures as toys, coloring books, and videos.
The workshop is expected to take in $56 million in 1989 from magazines, books, and product royalties, well over half of its overall budget. (The Muppets created for "Sesame Street" will not be affected by the recent deal in which the Walt Disney Company acquired Henson Associates Inc. and its stock of characters, such as Miss Piggy.)
The first year of "Sesame Street" was a near-unanimous success among critics and viewers. By the start of its second season, in 1970, Big Bird had made the cover of Time magazine, which said that "Sesame Street" was "not only the best children's show in TV history, it is one of the best parents' shows as well."