Whittling Away at Education:
The Encroachment of Channel One

by Darby Saxby

My high school hasn't changed much since I graduated last June. Its halls remain eerily dim, lit by fluorescent bulbs that seem to get dingier every year. Its social studies textbooks are getting shabbier, its ancient lab equipment has not yet been replaced, and its few computers are even more outmoded than they were a year ago. It can boast, however, of a new addition to each classroom: a television set suspended from every ceiling, fixing its imperturbable electric stare on all it surveys. At precisely 7:45 each morning, T.V. screens all over the building now light up in unison and beam the same 12 minute show to every student in the school. ItUs not the second coming of Big Brother (although some suspect that it may be just as diabolical): Channel One has arrived at my school.

Since its inception in March of 1990, the showUs blend of advertising and current events education has been seeping into schools across the country. Hotly contested by school officials, town council members, state legislators, and the national news media, Channel One is as controversial as it is widespread. It has become, in fact, a bona fide hot button educational issue, disputed with all the frenzy that surrounds its comrades in controversy, classroom censorship and school prayer. Indeed, to the extent that the three debates center on the intersection of public and private spheres, and the degree to which governmentally funded institutions should be influenced by the motivations of individuals (whether those individuals are seeking to spread religious feeling or to sell sneakers) they share a fundamental similarity. They are also immensely important. While most students find it easy to tune out a few minutes of prayer or a commercial or two, we should by no means ignore these issues; the sorts of agendas which we invite into our classrooms mirror our national values, and will shape the values of future generations.

Channel One is a television network primarily known for a 10-minute news program, Channel One News, which it produces and distributes to subscribing schools. The show, a snappy MTV-esque mix of infotainment and teen-oriented news, also includes 2 minutes of commercials for products like Reebok, Pepsi, and Frito-Lay. Since Channel One is currently installed in 12,000 schools nationwide and reaches 8.1 million students, making it more widely watched than any major network, companies eagerly pay upwards of $800,000 for a single 30-second spot. Channel One owes its prevalence to the enticing package that it offers to participating schools: $60,000 worth of equipment, including television sets for each of its classrooms and a satellite dish. In exchange, the school promises to air Channel One News, ads and all, to at least 90 percent of its students on at least 92 percent of its days.

Channel One's enormously profitable amalgam of business and education is the brainchild of Tennessee-based entrepreneur Chris Whittle, who has built his rocky career on attempts to expand the range and specificity of marketing. His projects include the now-defunct Medical News Network, which provided educational and commercial television to doctors in the '80s, and Special Reports, an array of glossy magazines and TV shows designed to captivate the previously untapped audience of patients in waiting rooms. Whittle made his first foray into in-school advertising with RConnections,S a series of posters designated for classrooms and hallways that sport both corporate logos and informational messages aimed at teens. While Connections proved a successful enterprise, collecting $710 million in 1988, Channel One Rrode over it like a truck,S as Whittle later commented. The network struck instant gold for Whittle Communications.

The controversy surrounding both Channel One and its founder, however, has tempered the enterpriseUs success. WhittleUs media empire began to crumble in 1994, when newspapers revealed that he owed millions of dollars in back taxes and had privately pocketed profits from a number of his ventures. He had to sell Channel One for a mere $250 million to K-III Communications, a subsidiary of the leveraged buyout firm of Kohlberg, Kravis, and Company, which owns other youth-oriented enterprises like the Weekly Reader and Seventeen. Like Whittle, Channel One has its share of detractors: New York state public schools enforce a ban on it, for example, although Republican Governor George Pataki recently tried, and failed, to overturn its prohibition. Similar battles have been fought in North Carolina, New Jersey, and California. The national Parent-Teacher Association remains virulently opposed to the program, while its core of supporters, mostly conservative legislators who want to reduce educational spending and school officials who must cope with such reductions, continues to grow. Indeed, nearly every school system that considers its installation prompts a fight, and the resulting battles do not culminate in clear-cut resolutions. Many agree with the New York State Board of Regents statement that Rstudents who attend school by reason of compulsory attendance should not be exploited by commercial activities.S1 However, Channel One NewsU educational benefit and the usefulness of the equipment which the network provides, some argue, justifies its incorporation into schools.

Students ought to be abreast of the news, and Channel One represents an easy way to expose them to current events on a daily basis. Its content, though teen-oriented, resembles that of most network news shows; it combines hard news and science stories with pop culture fluff and sports updates. Like most evening news viewers, students tend to ignore the former in favor of the easier-to-digest latter, as a 1994 University of Michigan study suggested. Furthermore, schools rarely commit to encouraging attentiveness among students; less than one-fourth of the 56 schools which participated in the study aired the program at times most likely to capture student interest. It tended to get buried in the chaos of homeroom or lunch.2 My 16-year-old brother, whose school shows Channel One at the beginning of every school day, agrees: "I just ignore it. I have homework to do then." Polls of students in Channel One schools yield slightly more promising results. 43 percent of students surveyed reported that they "usually" paid attention to the show, while 37 percent "occasionally" did.3 Yet although the majority of students evidently take some interest in the program, their scores on a multiple-choice current events quiz administered by the Institute of Social Research increased by an average of only three percent."

Given that schools devote 12 minutes of classtime to the show every day, which amounts to 7 full school days of Channel One annually, this improvement is astoundingly minute. Students with teachers who talked about the show and incorporated it into their curriculum, however, scored a more encouraging 8-12 percent above the mean. This statistic suggests that Channel One, used well, can be educationally beneficial. However, the program may not surpass other current events teaching tools. Discussion enhances its value, but Channel OneUs structure does not encourage discussion. Since the network beams each dayUs program to subscribing schools by satellite only hours before it is shown, teachers canUt preview it, base their curricula on it or bring in materials to supplement its content. They canUt even pause or replay certain segments; a current events teacher might be wiser to videotape the evening news and bring it to class. The educational value of television, a necessarily transient medium that may not be able to engage studentsU minds or transmit messages that they will retain, also deserves questioning. Some argue that Channel OneUs flashy visual approach can reach out to those students who refuse to read. The aforementioned Institute for Social Research study counters this assumption, however: it indicates that motivated males with high GPAs benefited most from Channel One, while the test scores of C and D students improved a miniscule amount. It may be true, then, that the student population which learns most from Channel One could profit even more from a newspaper and magazine-based curriculum. It does seem clear that educators considering Channel One need to research it, and its alternatives, thoroughly Q 60 minutes of classroom time every week comprises a significant allotment, and shouldnUt be devoted to a program not yet demonstrably effective.

If televisionUs value as an educational tool is dubious, then the primary payoff of Channel One, the free equipment that accompanies it, may not be very useful after all. The prospect of acquiring $60,000 worth of new technology attracts administrators, but this technology actually translates into nothing more than television sets and a satellite dish that only picks up Channel One programs. Teachers who want their classes to view broadcasts unrelated to Channel One must supply their own VCRs. Channel One does boast of offerings unrelated to its news show, including The Learning Channel, a source of in-depth programs on science and history, and The Educator's Channel, for teachers, and it furnishes schools with useful equipment.

My school, for example, can now televise morning announcements that were once read over a rickety P.A. system, and it is able to broadcast special messages from the principal throughout the day. However, such perks do not make my alma mater, which has trouble maintaining a working computer lab, a technologically sophisticated one. The schools most likely to subscribe to Channel One are not in positions to buy computers, however, or much of anything else. The program exists in 6 out of 10 schools which spend less than $2,600 on each student per year, and in less than 1 out of 10 schools which spend more than $4,500. Channel One reaches a disproportionately poor, black and urban audience. If the program is largely ineffective educationally, and if the equipment accompanying it is little more than an expensive gimmick, then this rate of implementation of Channel One demonstrates, once again, that the schooling of AmericaUs poor remains a low priority in this society. Educators willing to put students in front of a TV set and let them tune out for the equivalent of 7 days each year are giving up on their pupils.

Furthermore, they are compromising more than just educational effectiveness; Channel One, because of the commercials which accompany it, also poses an ethical dilemna. Some argue that advertising has already saturated youth culture, and that two extra minutes of marketing every day make little difference to a population of students inured to television. Indeed,only 38% of students reported seeing ads on Channel One that they hadnUt already seen elsewhere. This line of reasoning, however, ignores the notion that state-funded education exists, or should exist, in opposition to the commercialism pervading nearly every other aspect of society. Schools ought to teach students to think and to question; commercials glorify the quick fix and the impulse buy. As Joel Rudinow commented in the magazine Educational LeadershipUs December 1989 issue, Rthe active, alert, engaged, inquisitive, creative, skeptical, reflective habits of mind that education aims to encourage are hardly optimal for the reception of advertising. What advertisers want is a passive, unreflective, credulous audience, susceptible to the dictates of external authority.

Education and advertisement may be at cross-purposes, but the two are joining forces with increasing frequency. The sort of in-school marketing that Chris Whittle helped to pioneer is attracting more and more companies seeking untapped audiences. Pizza Hut, for example, has a "Book It" program that offers discounts to prodigious readers. The "Minute Maid Challenge" encourages summer reading, while CampbellUs Soup donates sports equipment to schools which collect soup labels. This sort of corporate benevolence becomes more insidious when product plugs are inserted directly into the school day. McDonald's produces a classroom magazine touting the environmental advantages of styrofoam packaging, AT&T sponsors classes in communications skills stressing telephone use, oil companies like Exxon donate laboratory equipment and lesson plans on natural resources, and food companies like Nutrasweet and Chef Boyardee issue pamphlets on nutrition. Such materials, usually slanted, put underfunded schools in a bind. They often have to make concessions to companies or go without important supplies. In the meantime, advertisers clamor to pay high prices for product exposure.

As teens become more cynical and more immune to conventional ad messages, corporations search furiously for new ways to inculcate themselves into the consciousness of AmericaUs youth. Carol Hernan, senior V.P. at Grey Advertising, told the Washington Monthly recently, "It isn't enough just to advertise on T.V. YouUve got to reach the kids throughout the day - in school, or as theyUre shopping at the mall...or at the movies. You've got to become part of the fabric of their lives." That's why STAR Broadcasting, in St. Paul, Minnesota, produces a radio show that mixes popular teen-oriented music with ads and then offers schools $20,000 to $40,000 annually to air it between classes and during lunch. Although this money is tempting, especially for schools on the brink of bankrupcy, educators should not entangle themselves with corporations courting customers. Schools should be teaching students to think critically about commercial messages, not implicitly endorsing them. Dan Perlstein, a professor of education at Vassar, agrees that the adoption of programs like Channel One constitute a Rbroader abandonment of schooling as a public good and as an institution whose primary role is to model and promote democratic thinking.

I'd love to visit my high school and find its classroom televisions gone, replaced by state-of-the-art computers. However, thatUs not likely to happen soon; my district still has trouble passing a modest levy. If my alma mater received adequate funds, however, it wouldnUt have to acquire equipment by selling classtime to a private company. The prevalence of programs like Channel One points to both a financial and ethical crisis at AmericaUs public schools. Advertising revenues may assauge the former, but educators who woo corporate interests will ultimately pay a higher educational price. TodayUs schools must develop thinkers, not mere consumers, or theyUll help to produce a society in which everything is for sale - and nothing is worth buying. YJE

Endnotes: 1 The Times Union, June 5, 1995. 2 Jerome Johnston and Evelyn Brzezinski, Taking the Measure of Channel One: A Three-Year Perspective (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1993). 3 Washington Post, December 26, 1994. 4 Ibid. 5 Education Digest, October, 1994. 6 Educational Leadership, December 1989. 7 Washington Monthly, June 1995. 8 The Times Union, June 5, 1995.


1996 The Yale Journal of Ethics. All rights reserved.
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