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Don't Turn That Dial

Reading, writing and arithmetic add up to money for Channel One.

When his Widefield school began recording school announcements and student presentations and playing them on the closed-circuit video system installed by Channel One, "one of the most powerful things was to see how students really bloom on the air," says Williams. He recalls how one pupil "who kids would classify as a 'nerd'" became the school weatherman--and a de facto celebrity. "Kids love to see themselves. This allowed them to feel they were part of something special."

But Vivian McCullough, a former college math instructor who was the only member of George Washington's CDM committee to vote against Channel One, believes that schools should provide an oasis from the din of a conflicted world. "There are a lot of heavy-duty things going on in the world today," says McCullough, who admits that she herself is not a TV watcher. "The reason that education is something of an ivory tower is because people need to have some distance from the world while they're concentrating on other things. The kids should feel they're in a safe environment."

The network came under renewed fire in a May 20 U.S. Senate hearing on education, where Ralph Nader insisted that schools showing the broadcast "implicitly endorse the products that Channel One advertises. Children," he added, "should not be required to subsidize their own education by being forced to watch advertisements."

"Channel One was the first program to kick in the school door," says Dylan Bernstein of the California-based Center for Commercial-Free Education. "It was the first to target the schoolhouse as a market."

Today, cash-strapped school districts around the country are an even easier target. Ads ring school ball fields and have even crept into textbooks. DPS's current policy on advertising--revised from the original written in 1973--notes that "District 1 will aggressively seek to enhance revenue through the marketing of advertisement space" but will accept only ads that "meet standards of good taste." In 1998 the school district signed a five-year, $5.7 million contract with Pepsi, which has stocked school hallways with its luminescent blue vending machines. It now plans to run a "Life Skills" program touting the dangers of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes--paid for by Philip Morris.

One of the most public fights over Channel One took place at San Jose's Overfelt High School, the first public school in California to invite the network into classrooms. Educators were not impressed with the show's content--and realized the twelve-minute daily broadcasts equaled one hour of class time each week, or six full instruction days a year.

"The material is basically shlock," says Nick Leon, a California school administrator and former social studies teacher at Overfelt High. "It became an ethical question: Why should I have my students lose six days of instruction so they can sell hamburgers and zit cream?" After a raucous debate in schools and the courts, the San Jose school board dumped Channel One and bought VCRs and 22-inch TVs so teachers could tape and show programs of their choosing.

"Channel One is an incredibly savvy organization," says Bernstein. "It's not just some guys who want to give TVs to a school. By the time the issue gets to public debate, Channel One always has a local administrator on its side."

Channel One was not even on the CDM committee agenda at George Washington High School the night that Williams asked the group to vote. But counselor Cherry says the group participated in "a lot of discussion. It was very open and above-board." The Columbine shootings had occurred just a few weeks earlier, "and I saw a real need for a connection among students," says Cherry. Using some dated but serviceable video equipment that the school owns, students could televise the daily announcements they now make over the loudspeakers and show clips from the school play and the weekend's football game during the lunch hour, she says. "It would allow students to connect with each other. The faculty for the most part are in support of it because of all the things we could do with it."

But many teachers remain highly skeptical--including most members of the National Education Association, the American Teachers Federation and the National PTA, which all oppose commercial broadcasting in schools. Educators are under increasing pressure to raise test scores, so every minute of the school day counts. Some point out the irony of how science and health teachers, charged with teaching good nutrition, have to stand by as Channel One runs ads for sugar-packed pop and candy bars.

And while taxpayers are demanding more bang for their school buck, Channel One foes insist that paying teachers to keep kids' eyes glued to a TV screen is not the way to spend money. A study released this spring by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee found that Channel One costs $1.8 billion a year in national classroom time, including $300 million for the time spent watching commercials.

Close to 1,190 Colorado schools are already wired to receive free, educational newscasts and documentaries from CNN, the Weather Channel, the Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon and 36 other cable networks through Cable in the Classroom, a nonprofit arm of the cable industry that provides hookups and commercial-free shows (but no loaner TV sets) for schools.

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