Children’s Television Workshop

  • Education
  • 1968

By the time he endowed the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911, Andrew Carnegie had already given away some $43 million and started five charitable organizations. But he was 76 years old, and the day-to-day strain of managing his own philanthropy was getting to him. After consultation with friends, he gave $125 million to start a trust to distribute funds in his name. Additional sums were transferred upon his death.

One of the Carnegie Corporation’s lasting achievements was in the area of children’s television. In the 1960s, the trust began exploring whether television could be used as an instrument for education of the young. It allocated funds for TV producer Joan Clooney to explore, through interviews with medical and learning professionals, the possible viability of educational broadcasting. Her study suggested there was promise, but the multimillion-dollar costs of actually producing high-quality programming led Carnegie to seek out partners who could help it explore the idea further. The Ford Foundation eventually stepped forward to add $1.25 million to the Carnegie Corporation’s 1968 grant of $1 million. This in turn opened the door to contributions from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Office of Education. And with these joint resources, the Children’s Television Workshop was established.

The Children’s Television Workshop inaugurated a new way of planning and making television shows—combining creative work by writers and directors with educator expertise, and drawing on the results of more than a thousand studies and lab experiments on how children absorb knowledge. When the new CTW program “Sesame Street” premiered in 1969, the Educational Testing Service was given a contract to measure its effect on child viewers.

A string of studies showed that watching “Sesame Street” mildly increases letter recognition, vocabulary, and other elements of school readiness of preschoolers. 1994 research funded by the Markle Foundation, another loyal “Sesame” funder, found that some positive effects lasted through adolescence. (Meanwhile, passive cartoon watching and much other “children’s programming” turns out to have negative cognitive effects on the very young.) Today, “Sesame Street” is the most widely viewed children’s TV series in the world, and the winner of more than 100 Emmy Awards, showing that television can be fun for children while, at least, avoiding harming them.