Sesame Workshop, formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), is a Worldwide American non-profit organization behind the production of several educational children’s programs that have run on public broadcasting around the world (including PBS in the United States). Sesame Workshop was instrumental in the establishment of education children’s television in the 1960s, and continues to provide grants for educational children’s programming four decades later. Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett were the original founders, with the intention of producing a revolutionary television series based on cutting-edge research into childhood learning. The result was Sesame Street, a landmark program which has been reproduced in countries around the world.
Although it was originally funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the United States Office of Education, the majority of the Workshop’s funding is now earned through licensing the use of their characters to a variety of corporations to use for books, toys, and other products marketed toward children. This ensures that the Workshop has reliable access to funding for its programming without depending on unpredictable grants.
Founded by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett in 1968 to produce Sesame Street, the company, currently run by President and CEO H. Melvin Ming, has since produced many other shows and a variety of multimedia content. The CTW name was officially changed to Sesame Workshop on New Years Day 2000 to reflect the company’s reach into new media and capitalize on the worldwide recognition provided by the Sesame Street name (although Sesame Street continued to use the CTW name until April 2000).
Moving to Carnegie Corporation of New York, the grant-issuing foundation, to act and advise independent of what is now WNET, Cooney began laying the groundwork for the Children’s Television Workshop. Carnegie hired Linda Gotley to help Cooney write the proposal. Barbara Finberg and Lloyd Morrisett, program officers at Carnegie would regularly react as funders, every few days trying to find holes in the proposal. During these days, segments like “One of these things is not like the others” were established.
Despite the insistence of the US Office of Education that there was no money to fund the project, Howe persisted, and insisted the project be classified as a research project. Ford joined funding, as did the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was being established just as Sesame Street was. Between those organizations and Carnegie, US$8 million was raised to create a semi-autonomous organization. This organization was established to become completely separate, should they succeed.
At a press conference in March 1968, the Children’s Television Workshop and Sesame Street were announced. Jack Gould, television critic for The New York Times, gave the project front page space. “If you had Jack Gould in your corner, you could not believe what it meant,” said Cooney decades later.
With Cooney, an assistant, and a secretary, CTW began production on the show. Cooney tried to talk George DeSarde of WCBS-TV to come to CTW as producer of the series. Within a few days of being graciously declined by DeSarde, Cooney received a letter from Mike Dann of CBS, who eagerly wanted to join as an executive producer. Dann and Fred Silverman decided Cooney should try to get David Connell as a producer.
Connell had recently left Captain Kangaroo, and started his own company in an attempt to get out of the kids’ TV industry. After four meetings, Cooney talked Connell into signing on, after being assured creative freedom and no micromanagement on Cooney’s part. Connell insisted on a few “non-negotiables”. First, he wanted to include four hosts, both black and white, male and female, none of whom would ever “own the show”, as Bob Keeshan “owned” Captain Kangaroo, or Fred Rogers “owned” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He also wanted “commercials” to promote letters of the alphabet, like this one for example. Perhaps most importantly, Connell wanted a guarantee that education and entertainment would never be separate elements of the program.
While attracting Connell, Cooney received a call from Lou Hausman, who worked for the Commissioner of Education; he suggested Jon Stone, also from Captain Kangaroo, a producer who had retired to Vermont, though no more than 35 at the time. Stone came to New York to speak with Cooney, but declined the opportunity to be an executive in the production. Stone wanted to be a producer, reporting to Cooney; Cooney suggested such an organization structure would only create “madness”. Stone and Connell had a history of disputes, which were smoothed out, after the two re-met. Sam Gibbon, CTW’s third alumni, had also initially declined joining any children’s programming. According to Cooney, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Gibbon called her to say “if you still want me, I’m yours.” He was primarily involved with integrating curriculum into the series.
Edith Sornow, who was not yet the film producer for Sesame Street, called Cooney, asking her to come to the Johnny Victor Theatre to see a reel of commercials by Jim Henson. Cooney had heard of Henson before then, but never actually seen his work; the commercial had not aired in New York, and she had never tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show when his Muppets appeared. After “almost falling on the floor laughing,” she was open to getting him to sign on, but was doubtful he’d agree. Jon Stone, who’d worked with Henson on ABC television special Hey, Cinderella!, discussed the idea with a reluctant Jim.
Gerald S. Lesser of Harvard became the head of CTW’s board of academic advisors, and later brought in the Educational Testing Service.
The Department of Education and other funders had decided they wanted to study children’s comprehension of topics before and after watching Sesame Street. Lesser set up four two-and-a-half-day seminars over the summer with producers, meeting to establish what was important to teach children. The session topics were: on perception, reasoning skills, pre-reading and pre-math, and “affective skills”, the period’s term for emotional skills.
Cooney remembered seeing a leather-coated Jim Henson come into one of the seminars at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and becoming worried by his appearance that he was one of the Weathermen. Her concern was heightened due to the recent event of a building in Greenwich Village having been blown up by Weathermen. Cooney whispered her fears to Connell, who reassured her. Once Cooney and Jim met, Cooney says they automatically clicked. Jim much preferred general family audiences, but Cooney was able to allay Jim’s fears of being “ghettoized” into children television. Joe Raposo, who worked with Henson and Stone before, was added soon after.
When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting signed on to sponsor the program, the organization’s chairperson was Frank Pace. Pace warned strongly against the broad curriculum Sesame Street aimed to teach. “Pick only a few goals, and accomplish them. Don’t try and do too much; show… only three or four or five goals,” Pace told Cooney and Connell.
Sesame Street Toys & Merchandise
Current licensees include Procter & Gamble (Pampers diapers), Fisher-Price, Nakajima USA, Build-A-Bear Workshop (Build-An-Elmo, Build-A-Cookie Monster, And Build-A-Big Bird), GUND, Hasbro (Sesame Street Monopoly), Wooly Willy, Betty Crocker (Elmo Fruit Snacks), C&D Visionary (air freshners) and Children’s Apparel Network. Former licences include Applause, Child Dimension, Gibson Greetings, Gorham Fine China, Ideal Toys, Milton Bradley Company, Nintendo, Palisades Toys, Questor, Radio Shack, Tyco, and the Western Publishing Company. Creative Wonders (a partnership between ABC and Electronic Arts) produced Sesame Street software for the Macintosh, since at least 1995 and on the PC since 1996; Atari produced Sesame Street games in 1983. Before going bankrupt, Palisades Toys was to release a line of deluxe series action figures, for adults, as part of Sesame Workshop’s push to expand into retro products for teens and adults. Only a Super Grover figure was distributed to conventioneers.
The Sesame Beginnings line, launched in mid-2005, consists of apparel, health and body, home, and seasonal products. The products in this line are designed to accentuate the natural interactivity between infants and their parents. Most of the line is exclusive to a family of Canadian retailers that includes Loblaws, Fortinos, and Zehrs.
As a non-profit organization, a percentage of the money from any Sesame Workshop product goes to help fund Sesame Street or its international co-productions.
Barrio Sésamo, Plaza Sésamo, Sesamstraße, Sesame English and Sesamstraat have all had merchandise of their local characters. Shalom Sesame videos and books have also been released.
In 2004, Copyright Promotions Licensing Group (CPLG) became Sesame Workshop’s licensing representative for The Benelux, adding to their United Kingdom representation.
Tickle Me Elmo was one of the fastest selling toys of the 1996 season. That product line was and still is one of the most successful products Mattel has ever launched. Both it and its most notable successor, TMX, have caused in-store fights, because Elmo starred in a Christmas special that year, in which he wished every day of the year was Christmas.
After Fisher-Price recalled a large number of Sesame Street brand toys (among multiple licenses) in 2007, Sesame Workshop announced that they would independently inspect the products of all manufacturers. It went so far as to threaten withdrawing entirely from toy licensing, if it were not satisfied with the manufacturer’s guarantees.
Its fiction books are published on five continents, primarily by Random House in North America. Over 18 million Sesame Street books and magazines were purchased in 2005.The books often mention that children do not have to watch the show to benefit from its publications.