When experimental psychologist Lloyd Morrisett, PhD, attended a New York City dinner party in 1966, he never imagined that a conversation he had there would lead to a television show that has forever changed children's educational programming.
Today that show--"Sesame Street"--is broadcast in more than 120 countries, has won more Emmy Awards than any other show and is one of public television's great success stories.
Back in 1966 though, Morrisett's goals were much smaller and pragmatic. Conscious of the educational disadvantages of poor and minority children, Morrisett wanted to find new ways to improve their access to preschool learning in his role as vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, a philanthropic foundation focused on education.
Under his direction, the foundation conducted six experiments to test children's responses to teaching methods in an effort to reverse the educational trend.
But, says Morrisett, "There was a big discrepancy between what we were doing and what we were trying to accomplish [in reducing the education gap]." Morrisett was frustrated because while the experiments were effective, they reached only a few hundred disadvantaged students.
The dinner party provided that opportunity because it was there that he talked with public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, who had produced a public affairs television show on preschool education.
Together they brainstormed on how television could be used to close the education gap by reaching millions of children. To find out, he asked her to prepare an explorative paper on the possibility of using television to teach young children.
Her report, titled "The Potential Uses of Television in Pre-School Education," envisioned a television series chock-full of entertaining, quick, catchy themes while still teaching solid, measurable educational skills in language and math. While Cooney did not have any formal psychology training, Morrisett's background helped him to enlist two psychologists for the project: learning expert Gerald Lesser, PhD, of Harvard University, as chairman of the board of advisers, and Edward Palmer, PhD, of the Oregon State Division of Higher Education, as director of research. In the formative stages of "Sesame Street," the in-house staff and research team, as part of the Children's Television Workshop, held five curriculum-planning seminars with producers and researchers.
Together, the team members worked to craft a fast-paced show that would capture children's attention while still meeting the original educational goals. To make sure those goals were met, Lesser and Morrisett tapped their psychology backgrounds for work on empirical testing of a pilot program. But the show still needed a name before going forward.
Show consultant Virginia Schone came up with the name "Sesame Street" by asking children at a day care center to think up names for a television show set on a street. "Sesame Street" won by default after a memo went out with six or seven street names, and no one at Children's Television Workshop thought of a better name.
Cooney also enlisted puppeteer Jim Henson to create the Muppet characters who have become institutions: Bert, Ernie, Grover, Cookie Monster and Big Bird, each possessing their own distinctive personalities. The producers and researchers used these character traits, like Oscar the Grouch's irritable nature, to teach children about relationships and emotions.
An instant success
In addition to lending his own psychological expertise to the project, Morrisett was instrumental in garnering the financial backing that made "Sesame Street" happen. He focused on raising the $8 million needed to get the show off the ground, acquiring $4 million from the U.S. Office of Education, securing $1 million from Carnegie and persuading the Ford Foundation to reverse an earlier rejection of the project.
"It was exciting trying to get endorsements from significant people and hold six seminars for producers to talk to researchers," says Morrisett. "Finally we had the money to do it, but we didn't know if it was going to be successful."
The show premiered on Nov. 10, 1969 on public television. Many educators and broadcasters were at first skeptical of the fast-paced format and mission to educate while entertaining, but "Sesame Street" was an instant success with children and parents--reaching more than half of the nation's 12 million three- to five-year-old children in its first season.
"When we went on-air in 1969, 'Captain Kangaroo' was the only children's daily program on-air of any merit at all," Morrisett says. "After it left the air, there was a distinct void, and as a result, the popularity of 'Sesame Street' was measurably increased."
Pre- and post-Sesame
Morrisett's interest in communications was fueled during his doctoral studies in experimental psychology by psychologist Carl L. Hovland, PhD, who founded the Yale Attitude Change Program.
After graduate school, Morrisett, spent two years as an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He then joined the Social Science Research Council in New York, studying computer simulation of patterns of human thinking among other projects. That work fed his passion for the emerging field of cognitive psychology. Thereafter, he met Carnegie President John Gardner for lunch, who later offered him the position of executive assistant at Carnegie.
While there, he climbed the ranks to vice president and developed a specialty in early education, as evidenced by his work on "Sesame Street."
As the show grew in size and scope, Morrisett eventually moved on to a post as president of the Markle Foundation, a small nonprofit focused on medicine. During his 28 years the foundation concentrated on communications and information technology. But he always kept a foot in his work at "Sesame Street," serving as chairman of the board at the Children's Television Workshop, now called Sesame Workshop.
Two years ago, Morrisett retired from that position, but he remains chairman emeritus of the board and still provides it with guidance. At 73, he continues to sit on six company boards, and now takes time for piano and voice lessons.
As he looks back on his pioneering work on "Sesame Street," Morrisett says he hopes that his contribution will positively affect children for generations to come.
Mitang, Lee D. (2000). Big Bird & Beyond: The New Media and the Markle Foundation. New York: Fordham UP.