Lloyd Morrisett, the co-creator of Sesame Street, the educational television show seen by millions of children worldwide, died at the age of 93.
Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit he helped co-found under the name the Children’s Television Workshop, first confirmed Morrisett’s death on Tuesday. There was no mention of a cause of death.
Morrisett, who was born in 1929 in Oklahoma City, began his career as a teacher with a foundation in psychology. Through his work at Carnegie Corporation, a nonprofit institution focusing on education, he became an experimental educator, seeking for novel ways to educate youngsters from disadvantaged homes.
While working there, he collaborated with public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney to establish the Children’s Television Workshop, with the goal of producing educational programming for children.
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Sesame Street, the company’s initial show, premiered in November 1969 and reached more than half of the US’s 12 million three- to five-year-olds by the conclusion of its first season. Sesame Street is now the world’s most popular informal education source, reaching millions of youngsters in over 140 countries each year and garnering nearly 200 Emmys.
Morrisett would later recount the motivation for it: waking up early one morning in 1965 to discover his then three-year-old daughter, Sarah, captivated by a station identification message on television while waiting for cartoons to begin. He met Cooney at a dinner party in 1966 and informed her about it.
“There was something interesting about it,” he told me in 2004. “What is a child doing viewing a station identification signal? I had no idea. ‘Joan, do you think television could be used to teach young children?’ I said. ‘I don’t know, but I’d like to talk about it,’ she replied.
“Sarah Morrisett had mastered a complete repertory of TV jingles,” author Michael Davis said in his book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, about this time. “It’s not a stretch to say that Sarah’s mastery of jingles led to a central hypothesis of the great experiment known as Sesame Street:
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if television could successfully teach children the words and music of advertisements, couldn’t it teach children more substantive material by co-opting the very elements that made advertisements so effective?”
Cooney traveled around the United States for months, interviewing teachers, child psychologists, development experts, and television producers for a study titled The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education. Half of the nation’s school districts did not have kindergartens at the time.
“More houses have televisions than baths, telephones, vacuum cleaners, toasters, or a daily newspaper,” Cooney wrote in the survey, which was funded by Carnegie Corporation, where Morrisett worked at the time.
Morrisett persuaded his Carnegie colleagues to donate $1 million to Sesame Street, and he also secured $4 million from the US Office of Education and $1.5 million from the Ford Foundation. Morrisett sought public television stations on what would soon become Public Broadcasting Services after commercial broadcasters declined to play the show without advertising (PBS).
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Simultaneously, Cooney organized the show’s creative team, which included Jim Henson, the young Muppets mastermind. The show premiered nearly four years after Morrisett’s initial epiphany.
Lee D Mitgang writes in Big Bird & Beyond, a book on Morrisett’s career, “Had Morrisett been any less adept in securing financial support, Cooney’s report would likely have been just another long-forgotten foundation idea.”
From 1970 through 2000, Morrisett was the chairman of Sesame Workshop. In 2019, he and Cooney attended the Kennedy Center Honors, when Sesame Street became the first TV show to be honored.
The Long-Term Influence of Sesame Street
The show’s unique approach to education, most of which can be ascribed to Morrisett’s efforts, has distinguished Sesame Street from other children’s television. Morrisett, an experimental psychologist, was inspired to work with children’s television after noticing his three-year-old daughter Sarah had memorized various TV jingles.
Morrisett, who had a background in early education, was motivated to think about how television could be utilized to teach children. Morrisett was also in charge of securing much of Sesame Street’s first funding. Sesame Street’s educational approach was groundbreaking for television at the time, and it is still as vital and popular now, more than 50 years later.
Sesame Street has not only taught children scholastic essentials like counting and the alphabet in the decades since its debut, but it has also taught toddlers about diversity, inclusivity, and social issues. Recent Sesame Street topics have ranged from divorce and parental military deployment to mental health and understanding COVID-19.
Sesame Street has remained a vital resource for both parents and children for the past 54 years. Generations of youngsters would not have benefited from the cherished children’s program if Morrisett’s contributions and hard work had not been made. Despite Morrisett’s death, Sesame Street enters its 54th season and continues to have a significant cultural impact.