The New York Times
December 5, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

Channel One's Mixed Grades In Schools

By Constance L. Hays

It has been 10 years since Channel One burst into classrooms across the country with its made-for-adolescents mix of current-events programming and Madison Avenue commercials. With its school-board-friendly business model, it has built a captive audience of eight million schoolchildren, and it has set off controversy all along the way.

Advertisers love it, some parents and educators hate it, and no one else has tried to imitate it. Its founder sold it in 1994 to a corporation that has made sweeping changes to its management in the last two years. There are signs of a backlash in some states against commercialization of schools, prompting Channel One to spend heavily on lobbying. Although its growth has slowed after a rapid start, Channel One has already left a lasting imprint on American education by opening schoolroom doors to commercial messages, and the company has plans to widen its reach with additional technology.

Christopher Whittle founded the company on an idea that was at once revolutionary and simple: Provide schools with satellite dishes, wiring, videocassette recorders and television sets in every classroom -- in exchange for the schools' commitment to show the company's daily 12-minute broadcast, including the two minutes of ads that pay for it all, to at least 90 percent of the students. Channel One began in 400 public and private schools in 1990; the number soon grew to 12,000, encompassing about a quarter of the nation's estimated 31 million students in grades 6 through 12.

But the venture was not Mr. Whittle's only vision of gold in the schoolroom. He also started the Edison Project, which hoped to make money operating private schools. He even scored the public relations coup of recruiting Benno C. Schmidt Jr. away from the presidency of Yale University to run the Edison Project.

But Mr. Whittle's enterprises soon came under a cloud of questions about accounting practices and lavish spending. In 1994, the Edison Project was scaled back sharply and Channel One was sold to K-III Communications, now known as Primedia, for $250 million -- about what the company said it had spent to wire the 12,000 schools. (Now a separate entity, the Edison Project went public last month.)

With its founding visionary out of the picture, Channel One more or less froze in its tracks. The company stopped trying to wire new schools across the country because of the high cost, and concentrated instead on growing ad sales and filling in a few bare spots on its coverage map. In the last two years, Primedia has overhauled Channel One's management, hiring an educational expert for the first time. And it has put together Channel One Interactive, an Internet-based program whose development costs have not been disclosed but were enough to have diminished the parent company's third-quarter financial results, said Warren Bimblick, Primedia's vice president for investor relations.

CHANNEL ONE is not without its fans, like Anthony Bencivenga, a middle-school principal in Ridgewood, N.J., who calls its daily broadcast "the best student-oriented news program available," although he adds that he could live without the commercials.

But it continues to arouse strong opposition, both for the advertisements it forces children to sit through and for the content of the programs between them. Critics attack it from both extremes of the political spectrum. At a Senate hearing earlier this year, Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum, known for her very conservative views, and Ralph Nader, an avatar of the anticorporate left, were united against Channel One. They and others contend that it wastes teaching time and undermines the moral authority of schools by beaming commercial messages to children who have little choice but to sit and watch.

In between are people like Chris Whitcome, a seventh-grade science and homeroom teacher in Carson City, Nev. She says she is ambivalent about Channel One, which arrived in her middle school in September. "On some days, I could be doing something more worthwhile," she said last week. "Then there are days like today, when there are programs they can really relate to, about dressing for job interviews, how do you act, do you chew gum."

At Mr. Bencivenga's school in New Jersey, a classroom of sixth graders recently tuned in, as they do at 8:30 every weekday morning. For anyone educated before the Channel One era, it is an arresting sight: 25 children's heads craned upward to focus on a video screen mounted near the ceiling; the broadcast is the only sound in the room. Their teacher, Kathy Ferdinand, says it is no big deal, though when she received her teaching degree from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., television was not considered part of anyone's curriculum.

"I think we've been very adaptable to it," she said. "The information base is solid, and they do look at a varied portion of the world's cultures." Social issues also come up, like divorce, addiction and depression. "Debriefing them, you sometimes have to be gentle," she said of her students. "You're coping with this in the classroom."

Few people dispute the value of teaching schoolchildren, particularly those on the cusp of adulthood, about the news and keeping them connected to the world at large. The Nickelodeon cable channel and others have come up with their own news and public-affairs programs aimed at the young, who generally are not drawn to the nightly news broadcasts on networks and local TV stations because they are "all about cops and shootings down in New York," as one seventh grader put it.

By far the clearest legacy of Channel One is that it has bonded public education with corporate America in ways that could hardly be imagined a decade ago. Schools that granted entry to Channel One broke down a longstanding fence protecting the educational experience from free-market commerce. Since then, other businesses have followed.

These days, school districts barely hesitate before signing exclusive contracts with soft-drink companies like Coca-Cola or PepsiCo. Sponsorships of athletic events and cafeteria functions are commonplace, with consumer products distributed or sold directly to schoolchildren from kindergarten on up. School buses in many areas carry billboards for movies or consumer products like Speedo bathing suits. In the closest approximation of Channel One's model, one company provides schools with free computers whose screens display streams of advertising in one corner.

Some school districts are vigorously soliciting commercial activity. One Colorado district printed a glossy flier for prospective corporate sponsors. It promised perks and prominent exposure linking them with the schools and their programs. So prevalent has the private sector's presence in public schools become that a Kmart commercial this summer showed a yellow school bus trundling along, a huge red Kmart logo plastered to its back door.

"Channel One invented the whole notion of a captive audience of kids for advertising," said Andrew Hagelshaw, senior program director for the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, an advocacy group based in Oakland, Calif., that spends much of its time battling Channel One. "What's changed is the whole level of aggressiveness and enthusiasm and the lack of fear companies have about advertising in schools."

Jeff Ballabon, an executive vice president for network affairs at Channel One, said there was no connection between Channel One and subsequent forms of commercialism, like the soft-drink contracts under which Coca-Cola and PepsiCo pay school districts thousands of dollars to exclude competitors from vending machines, cafeterias and other outlets on school grounds.

"The reality is the sponsors of Channel One News are playing a tremendous, important role in getting this free and independent journalism to the kids," Mr. Ballabon said. "The deals that schools make with vendors to feature only their products in the schools -- that smacks to me of commercialism."

He added: "The same people who have gripes about Channel One point an identical finger at 'Sesame Street' and the Girl Scouts for commercializing kids. We're perfectly happy to be in that company."

TO some parents and educators, commercial inroads in the schools are not a problem but a golden opportunity to supplement tight school budgets without further burdening taxpayers. In a country built on free enterprise, they see little conflict between the schools' educational mission and the marketing agendas of the corporations that take part.

Others see crass exploitation, both of children and of resource-starved schools, and in some regions state legislatures and religious groups are adopting measures against in-school commercialism.

In June, the 15-million-member Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution denouncing Channel One because it directs advertising to shoolchildren.

California recently enacted a law prohibiting brand-name references in textbooks, in response to the appearance in middle schools of a math workbook, published by McGraw-Hill, that mentioned Oreo cookies, Nike sneakers and other products in word problems. McGraw-Hill said it was not paid to include the products in the book, but was trying to make "real world" applications that would appeal to children.

Another California measure, which would have outlawed advertising in schools and banned exclusive contracts with consumer-products companies, encountered fierce opposition from business lobbyists, including some hired by Channel One, Mr. Hagelshaw said. Legislators eventually passed a weakened version that allows ads and exclusive contracts but requires schools to use the money they receive for "legitimate" educational programs. What constitutes such a program is the subject of considerable disagreement.

The city of San Francisco adopted its own school commercialism ordinance last spring that, among other things, bans from the classroom any material provided by corporate sponsors that includes company logos or other advertising. In Wisconsin, a bill introduced in the state legislature this year that would ban exclusive soft-drink contracts remains in committee.

MORE subtle marketing forays into the schools have also drawn fire. Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, sponsored a bill in Congress this year that would require schools to receive parents' permission before their children could participate in computer-based contests and other commercially sponsored programs that collect data on students.

"As we started to look at some of the uses of computers in these giveaway programs that allow the companies to monitor the students' activity, it raised questions about how that information is collected and disposed of," Mr. Miller said. "Parents ought to know that their kids are being put in this position. We ought not to allow this commercialism to interrupt the parent-child relationship."

Advertisers, however, crave their own uninterrupted relationship with students, and for several reasons. The audience is captive; young children generally do not leave school for lunch or to buy beverages. Psychologists say children who see brand names in school tend to associate them with the authority of their teachers. And reaching consumers early in life is a mantra for consumer products makers, who depend on brand loyalty for future sales and profits.

"Youth is critical to the soft-drink business," said C. J. Fraleigh, vice president for cola marketing for Pepsi-Cola, which has advertised on Channel One since its inception. "That's when so many people form their brand preferences." He said Channel One was attractive to Pepsi because it reaches teenagers as efficiently as the Super Bowl reaches men. By his estimate, 35 percent to 40 percent of the students who watch Channel One pay attention to and remember the Pepsi ads it carries. "There is no other vehicle to get those sorts of numbers of teens on a daily basis," he said.

Seventh graders at the 600-student Benjamin Franklin Middle School, where Mr. Bencivenga is principal, seemed to bear out Mr. Fraleigh's view. "My whole class started banging on the desks when the Pepsi commercial came on," one boy said, humming the "Joy of Cola" theme song that Pepsi introduced this spring.

For the privilege of beaming the ads into classrooms, neither Channel One nor its advertisers contribute any cash to Benjamin Franklin Middle School's $54 million annual budget; the only benefits for the schools are the use of the equipment and whatever instructional value can be found in the programs. Some parents question whether it is a fair bargain.

"I would hope that our children wouldn't be sold at any price," said Dr. Michael Doyle, a pediatrician from Bloomfield, N.J., where the local superintendent wanted to bring in Channel One earlier this year but was overruled by the board of education. "But goodness, if you're going to sell them, why sell them so cheaply?"

Other parents go further, saying that taxpayers are in effect subsidizing Channel One. "There's no money passing hands, but to give up that hour a week of school time makes these the most expensive TV sets you ever laid eyes on," said Jim Metrock, a former steel executive from Birmingham, Ala., who started an advocacy group called Obligation Inc. five years ago that has become a vocal opponent of Channel One. "That school time was purchased by taxpayers. If you watch Channel One for 90 percent of the school days, it adds up to 31 hours a year.

The estimated cost of educating a child in Alabama is 6 cents a minute, he said. "In a class of 23 students," he added, "that's $2,600 per year for the rental of that TV set."

Mr. Metrock, who describes his views as conservative, said he did not find out that his daughter had been watching Channel One for years -- until she was a high school senior. "I was appalled," he said. "This is required commercial television. We have an obesity crisis with adolescents in this country, and here we have government schools telling children to eat Snickers and drink Pepsi."

THE channel's advertisers include Mars, which makes Snickers; Procter & Gamble, maker of Clearasil, and Polaroid, which advertises its I-Zone camera. Television and cable networks and distributors of feature films are also eager to buy ads, said Susan Tick, a Channel One

FAIR USE NOTICE: This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of education issues, issues of democratic process, corporate accountability, social justice and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Is it Wrong to Sell School Naming Rights?

Attention, -- Students -- Shoppers - Chicago Tribune

Crossing the Line - Columbia Daily Tribune

Commercializing Our Schools: Who's On First? - South Florida Sun - Sentinel

McDonald's Benefit: Kids Happy, but Critics Aren't - LA Times

Company's $500 carrot to teachers questioned - Denver Post

Schools are Still Pepsi Free - Oakland Tribune

Coke Finds Its Exclusive School Contracts Aren't So Easily Given Up - Wall Street Journal

Resist Pepsi's Generation of Revenue - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Want Fries With That Humiliation? - New Haven Advocate

Commercialism In U.S. Schools Is Examined In New Report - NY Times

AOL Offers Free Service To Schools - AP

School Board Scuttles Deal With Coke - Philadelphia Inquirer

`Media Literacy' Sparks a New Debate Over Commercialism in Schools - Wall Street Journal

Cola contracts lose fizz in schools - USA Today

Math Book Salted With Brand Names Raises New Alarm - NY Times

Lobbyists trying to sway younger minds - USA Today

Pepsi Prank Fizzles At School's Coke Day - Washington Post

[Top] - [Home] - [Press Room] - [Become a Member]