Lloyd Morrisett, the co-founder of Sesame Street whose curiosity about whether television could serve as a tool to teach children was piqued when he observed his young daughter staring at a TV test pattern, has died. He was 93.
Morrisett’s death was reported by Sesame Workshop. No details of his death were immediately available.
Morrisett, then an experimental educator for the nonprofit Carnegie Corp. of New York, and Joan Ganz Cooney, a producer for a New York public TV station, were the driving forces behind the Children’s Television Workshop, which began in March 1968.
Out of that, Sesame Street debuted on Nov. 10, 1969, reaching more than half of the nation’s 12 million 3- to 5-year-olds in its first season.
At a dinner party hosted by Cooney and her husband in their Manhattan apartment in February 1966, Morrisett, who had a background in psychology, told a story about waking up early on a Sunday morning and finding his 3-year-old daughter, Sarah, mesmerized in front of the television.
“There was something fascinating about it,” he told Karen Herman in a 2004 conversation for the TV Academy Foundation website The Interviews. “What is a child doing watching a station identification signal, what does this mean? I didn’t know.”
“I said, ‘Joan, do you think television could be used to teach young children?’ Her answer was, ‘I don’t know, but I’d like to talk about it.’”
Cooney took a three-month leave of absence from her job at Channel 13 to travel around North America to interview teachers, child psychologists, child development experts and TV producers for a Carnegie-funded study that would be called “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education.”
Morrisett convinced his superiors at Carnegie to invest $1 million in Sesame Street, then lobbied for and received $4 million from the U.S. Office of Education and $1.5 million from the Ford Foundation, which had rebuffed him earlier. He cobbled together the $8 million he needed for the show’s inaugural season by summer 1968.
Commercial broadcasters including Westinghouse and NBC did not want to air Sesame Street without advertising, so Morrisett had little choice but to go with the loose network of public TV stations then operating around the country.
More than a half-century later, Sesame Street is the single largest informal educator in the world, reaching tens of millions of children and their families in more than 140 countries each year while winning five Peabody Awards and nearly 200 Emmys.
An only child, Morrisett was born in Oklahoma City on Nov. 2, 1929. He and his parents lived in New York City; Cranford, New Jersey; Yonkers, New York; and Los Angeles, where his father, also named Lloyd, was a professor at UCLA starting in 1941. His mother, Jesse, was a homemaker.
After graduating from University High School in L.A. in 1947, Morrisett received his B.A. in liberal arts in 1951 from Oberlin College in Ohio, did graduate work in psychology for two years at UCLA and earned his Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Yale in 1956. (His studies there led to advancements in sports psychology.)
He spent two years teaching at the University of California at Berkeley but “didn’t find teaching as satisfying as I thought I was going to … I was brought up to think it was the best life in the world,” so he quit to take a job with the Social Science Research Council in New York.
In 1959, Morrisett joined the Carnegie Corp., a philanthropic foundation devoted to education, and he helped launch studies that unearthed the educational obstacles that plagued poor and minority children.
Carnegie initiated programs at the preschool/kindergarten level so that disadvantaged kids in the first grade “were more like the children from advantaged homes,” he said. However, the foundation was reaching perhaps a “few hundred, maybe a thousand” kids a year; a show like Sesame Street could reach so many more.
One of Morrisett’s oldest friends from junior high school was Cooney’s cousin, and that’s how he met the TV executive. While he concentrated on fundraising, she drew on her connections to assemble a creative team that included Captain Kangaroo veterans and young Muppets mastermind Jim Henson.
The Children’s Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop) also created shows including The Electric Company, founded by Morrisett, Cooney and actor Paul Dooley.
He served as Sesame Workshop chairman through 2001 and was on hand in 2019 with Cooney when Sesame Street became the first TV show to be honored by the Kennedy Center Honors.
Morrisett exited Carnegie in 1969 to serve for the next 28 years as president of the nonprofit John and Mary R. Markle Foundation, which focused on medicine and then communications and information technology. He was also a longtime board member at Tucows, an internet services company.