Don't Turn That Dial

In the wee hours of the morning, an electronic signal beams out of the heavens and splashes into satellite dishes mounted on 12,000 schools across America. Later in the day, hundreds of TV monitors within each school switch on automatically and students' eyes lift to the screen in unison to watch ten recorded minutes of stylish, teen-tailored news reports.

Plus 120 seconds of commercials. Channel One, and it may be coming to a classroom near you.
In May, a small group of parents, teachers and community members at George Washington High School voted to send principal Mario Williams to the Denver school board with a proposal: allow the Channel One network to install a satellite dish on the school and a nineteen-inch TV monitor (on loan) in every classroom. In exchange, the school would promise that at least 80 percent of its students would watch the show--and its ads--on at least nine out of every ten school days.

Teenagers, marketing researchers have discovered, are notorious channel-surfers at home, tuning out commercials whenever they have the chance. Supplied with fat allowances or holding jobs of their own, teens constitute a future army of brand loyalists--yet remain one of the most elusive consumer groups in America.

But in school they are a "captive audience" for advertisers, says the parent of a GW student (the student begged that her mother's name not be used). Channel One is already seen by high school students in Aurora and Cherry Creek, as well as more than 8 million other schoolkids a day. And it's not shy about its ratings: An ad in the March 22 New York Times bragged to potential advertisers that "Channel One's award-winning news show delivers more Tween viewers [ages nine to fourteen] than any other programming you can buy."

Parents, however, says the GW mom, "have no idea what's on Channel One."
Launched in 1990 by media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, the LA-based Channel One Network now belongs to Primedia Inc., a property of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., which also owns RJR-Nabisco, the maker of Joe Camel's favorite cigarettes. Spokesperson Susan Tick calls Channel One's production "an old-fashioned hard-news show" whose young, ethnically diverse stable of anchors rotate as hosts. The show is written and produced by grownups; the anchors, fresh-faced and usually clad in jeans, chat from armchairs on a flashy MTV-style set.

While most networks are trimming back their foreign coverage, 31 percent of Channel One's sat-casts cover international news (with geographical and historical background), and many focus on teen-relevant subjects such as drug abuse and school violence. Sample tapes--including a ten-minute documentary on lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville during the civil rights movement of the 1960s--are professional and informative but unapologetically value-laden as they described China's government-controlled media, Castro's lock on power in Cuba and politics in Kosovo.

Viewers are switched without a transition from these serious reports to Madison Avenue's best: clever, zippy commercials for the likes of Gatorade, Pepsi and Mountain Dew, video-game rentals from Blockbuster, bubble gum from Wrigley's and "Seventh Heaven," a nighttime soap on the WB cable channel. The meaty civil-rights program--broadcast close to Martin Luther King Day--flowed seamlessly into a thirty-second spot for Wrigley's Winterfresh gum, climaxing with a minty-fresh smooch between two good-looking teenagers.

George Washington's collaborative decision-making board, or CDM, voted its approval of Channel One after Principal Williams met with a group of top high school administrators in April, says Diane Cherry, a CDM member and student counselor at GW. Williams told the CDM committee that Craig Cook, chief financial officer for DPS, said he'd look into Channel One for all the district's high schools.

But any talk of Channel One is "theoretical," says DPS spokeswoman Amy Hudson. "There are no discussions under way between the district and Channel One." In the eyes of the school board, which must approve any such deal, "Channel One...would be considered an instructional issue, more than an advertising issue," she adds.

Always controversial, Channel One became even more so last year when Obligation Inc., a conservative Alabama-based media watchdog organization, formed an unlikely coalition against the network with Ralph Nader's liberal consumer group, Commercial Alert. The two groups criticized Channel One because it limits parents' control of what their children are watching. The network hired former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed to perform damage control among conservatives and reportedly paid a prestigious lobbying firm $120,000 last year to polish its image in Washington.

"Channel One has been battered around for years," says Williams, who was the principal of a junior high school in Widefield School District No. 3, near Colorado Springs, before coming to GW. Williams characterizes the argument against Channel One at GW as "mean-spirited." "People already think it's a done deal and want to destroy it," he says. "Let's not destroy something before we talk about it."

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Gayle Worland