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Channel One's Mixed Grades In Schools

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.

In 1994, Channel One was sold to K-III Communications, now known as Primedia. In the last two years, Primedia has overhauled Channel One's management, hiring an educational expert for the first time. It has also put together Channel One Interactive, an Internet-based program.

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 advertisement it forces children to sit through and for the content of the programs between them.

Critics 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.

"I think we've been very adaptable to it," said Kathy Ferdinand, a teacher at Mr. Bencivenga's school in New Jersey. "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. "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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 spokeswoman. "We show the occasional Friday night television lineup, but we have to turn away a lot of it because we feel that it's not appropriate for the classroom," she said.

Channel One also runs recruitment ads for the armed forces, Ms. Tick said. Whether these advertisers are aiming young enough, even on Channel One, to accomplish their purpose is an open question.

"Generally, the research indicates that around 10, 11 or 12 years of age, kids have already formed a lot of their ideas about advertising and are skeptical about it," said Deborah Roedder John, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. "They can be persuaded, but most people consider the real at-risk personality to be under the age of 8. At that age, children don't understand the concept of advertising; they think it is there to tell them useful things."

Channel One is not generally shown to children that young.

Middle-school students certainly seem to know why they see the ads they see. "The commercials are for stuff we would buy, like stuff for acne," said Tom Piccininni, a seventh grader at Benjamin Franklin.

For their part, many teachers and school officials complain that they have no influence or control over the program's content. Channel One's programs are produced by a staff of 14 producers and 8 reporters, who also serve as anchors. The emphasis is on making the news interesting and attention-getting as well as informative, said Andy Hill, Channel One's president for programming.

To that end, reporters have recently been sent to Turkey and Rwanda to cover earthquakes and a civil war, and a high school senior is being sent to Northern Ireland to interview teenagers there about the peace process.

"People will say you have a captive audience," Mr. Hill said. "But anyone who would use that term has never tried to get a teenager's attention. They may be sitting there, but they're not captive."

Even if it can mold the political landscape to its liking, large-scale expansion into more schools is not where Channel One is headed.

"There has never been a major plan for expansion because the costs are so dramatic," Mr. Ballabon said. "It really has not made sense for us to expand."

But there is the Internet to consider. Lauren Rich Fine, a media analyst for Merrill Lynch, says the interactive Channel One program now in development could increase Channel One's exposure in classrooms.

"It would help them expand things a bit more," she said. "Right now they are stuck in the 12-minutes-a-day loop."

Moving to a computer-based program seems the logical next step said Tom Rogers, who took over as chairman and chief executive of Primedia, Channel One's parent, a month ago. He came from NBC where he developed the CNBC and MSNBC cable channels. "Every television channel has to think about how to translate itself into new technology," he said.

"Interactivity could make it a more engaging experience than the passive act of watching a television screen," Mr. Rogers said. "The revenue, the cash flow seem to have been growing. You have a school population that is loyal and seems to want it. Where do we take it from here?"


Constance L. Hays, The New York Times. December 5, 1999.

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times, Inc.. All rights reserved.