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."

A proposal to adopt Channel One has been brought before the Denver school board in the past and was roundly defeated; Jefferson County Schools, after a great deal of debate, banned it outright. But like textbooks and field trips, Channel One is "just another piece of a strong puzzle," insists Williams, whose former school had signed the network's dotted line. "A broadcast will not do anything unless it's part of the academics. It doesn't replace good teaching."

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.

GW could buy its own TVs and VCRs by dipping into the $250,000 in technology grants it's recently secured or the $80,000 in tech dollars approved for each school last fall by Denver voters. DPS's Career Education Center offers courses in movie and TV production. The Five Points Media Center also has a free media production program for high school students; this fall, the center will become the first community organization in the U.S. to join CNN's student bureau, and two of its half-hour documentaries will be cablecast nationwide on the CNN and HBO Family networks.

But Channel One supporters still feel that students should get their news the Channel One way. "My personal feeling is that many kids are going to see enough commercials throughout the week that a few more won't really make a difference," says Cherry. "It is too bad to take two minutes out of the school day, but I feel the newscast would be very important."

"We sent reporters to more than two dozen countries last year and have a staff of roughly 200," adds Tick of Channel One. "If seeing a couple of ads for Mars Bars is going to make that possible--okay.

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Gayle Worland