Critics complain that Whittle’s Channel One erodes the purpose of public education.
Channel One—The twelve-minute news and information package marketed to public high schools by Whittle Communications of Knoxville, Tennessee—has been shown daily in more than 1,000 Texas high schools (10,000 across the country) since March 1990. But static over whether kids should watch commercial television at school every day has never let up.
Beamed via satellite each morning to classrooms all across the country, Channel One was hatched by self-styled “media guerrilla” Chris Whittle. He courted the public school system with a sweet deal: Sign up for Channel One and get—free—a satellite dish plus televisions and VCRs for every classroom. Many schools were won over. For those on a tight budget, such as Austin’s Johnston High School, the offer was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to obtain unaffordable equipment. Don’t think for a minute that Chris Whittle was just giving away high-tech equipment to be nice—Channel One advertisers fork over $150,000 per ad to hawk their wares to kids at school.
Andrea Villarreal, assistant principal at Johnston, has nothing but good things to say about Channel One. “It has worked real well for us,” she says. “We couldn’t have gotten this technology any other way.” Having televisions in every room has also helped in more subtle ways. Says Villarreal: “We taped our cheerleader tryouts and student council elections and ran them on the televisions. It was a good way for us to keep the kids in the classroom and out of the halls.” At Johnston, Channel One doesn’t even come out of instructional time—it is chopped off the student lunch period, which has been reduced to three quarters of an hour.
But there are some, like 45-year-old parent Karen Miller of Houston, who view the trade-off of children’s time for equipment as a civil rights issue. “Although the principal looks like Santa Claus and every teacher gets a TV in their room, the children are being used to barter for their own education,” she says. “We are making the child pay for something the taxpayers should be paying for.” Besides, adds the mother of two, the content—which includes two minutes’ worth of intense fifteen- and thirty-second bursts of advertisements—isn’t exactly conveying “world culture,” as Whittle Communications promised in its original prospectus. “They are delivering twelve minutes of pop culture,” Miller says. And not that well either, if a recent three-year study (paid for by Whittle Communications) is correct. Students who watched Channel One scored only 3 to 6 percent higher in a test gauging their knowledge of current events than did students who had never watched Channel One.
Considering how many TV ads kids are exposed to day in and day out, two minutes of advertising seems negligible. So, curious to see whether Channel One is inspiring students to be consumers of the news or just consumers of the new, as Miller maintains, I visited Lois Willett’s third-period English class at Johnston to watch Channel One. To check my first impression, I viewed a few programs on my own VCR.
Here’s the report from the classroom. The program begins with spunky graphics expanding and receding to the throb of rock music. Today the subject is the Grammy Awards. Our young and energetic correspondent, Hicks Neal, advises us that after the two-minute news segment we’ll learn who decides on the winners and find out if the judges are on the same wavelength we are. Then, “more about the fans and stars later!”
Perky Kathy Kronenberger announces the news in a bright patter. A brief piece about the war on drugs shows federal agents scouring the Texas border in search of cocaine traffickers. Flash! We’re back to Neal as he greets the Grammy-goers. First there’s MTV veejay Julie Brown in her eye-popping gold-sequined bustier (“You look terrific!” says Neal; “I always do,” Brown purrs), then the backup singers on the Diet Pepsi commercial. “We love Hicks Neal on Channel One, uh huh,” they bubble—it is probably not a coincidence that Pepsi is a sponsor of Channel One. Ads for Clearasil and Bite-size Doritos are sandwiched between the Grammys and another series, “On the Money,” which tells the thirteen- through eighteen-year-old viewers how to get a loan when the “$17,000 dream car you want is more than you can afford.” Back to the Grammys again before the Kellogg’s Corn Pops and Burger King ads.
Rummaging through recorded programs at home, I find one about … the Academy Awards. Kathy Kronenberger promises the “lowdown on the Oscar showdown,” which should be interesting since six of the seven films discussed are R-rated, and Channel One viewers are actually too young to see them. Even so, the program features clips from each movie. An ad for M&M’s follows by just minutes an on-the-scene spot from the Olympics—of which M&M’s is a major sponsor. “More next week on ‘Inside Hollywood,’” Hicks Neal assures us. While I was beginning to have doubts about the quality of some of the coverage, I’d have to give Channel One an A+ for its series on hype—a comprehensive view from Alexander the Great to P. T. Barnum to the Monkees.
Karen Miller finds the content of Channel One just as worrisome as the advertisements. In Texas, Miller says, where “about half of our school population can’t even afford a dollar for lunch, Channel One is a constant reminder of the need for a new car or new clothes.” She has been tireless in pressuring the State Board of Education to have it removed from Texas schools. Ironically, some of the board members have never even seen a Channel One program, according to Joey Lozano, the director of public information for the Texas Education Agency and spokesperson for the SBOE. Nonetheless, in a March 13 meeting, the SBOE passed a resolution stating merely that Channel One should not be shown during instructional time. The alternatives would be either to run the shows during homeroom period, lunch, after classes, or not to run them at all. Lozano concludes, “As far as we are concerned, we have dealt with the issue.” The Texas PTA, which is vehemently opposed to Channel One, criticizes the March 13 resolution as unenforceable, says Sandy Kibby, a legislative consultant for the PTA. Adds PTA president Shirley Igo: “Children are still being sold to the highest bidder.”
Some students agree with the PTA and Miller that Channel One cultivates a crassly commercial viewpoint. Andrew Kerr, a tenth-grader at Johnston High School, says, “It’s blatant; it’s horrible. This is insulting to intelligent, literate teenagers.” But, says Kerr, there are students at his school who enjoy Channel One: “It’s fluff time when they don’t have to read or think.” On my visit to Johnston, Mrs. Willett’s class seemed engrossed in the show when the coverage switched to the role of the media in the presidential campaign. But during commercials their gazes wandered. After the program the students complained that they were sick of hearing about the campaign.
Maybe student Kerr is overreacting, says Whittle media relations director Nancy Young. “It doesn’t have to be heavy news to be educational,” she says. “You can reach kids through entertaining.” In Whittle’s view, commercials do more than just promote products. Says Young: “We do two minutes of commercials to pay for the programming, and we don’t apologize for it.”