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Amid Furor, 'Channel One' To Debut in 400 Schools

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After more than a year of heated debate in the education community, Whittle Communications' "Channel One" news show for teenagers finally debuts on a nationwide basis early next month.

Despite objections from national education groups and the outright opposition of some state education officials, Whittle says more than 2,500 middle and secondary schools in 34 states have already signed contracts for the 12-minute daily news show, which contains 2 minutes of commercial advertising.

Christopher Whittle, chairman of Whittle Communications, was defi4ant last week as he announced at a New York City press conference that the program would premiere March 5 in 14,000 classrooms in 400 schools.

"One year ago, a lot of people said that a launch day would never come for our Educational Network and, in fact, seemed prepared to do anything to stop it," Mr. Whittle said. "The opponents of this project, whether they admit it or not, are significantly out of touch with how local educators feel about this project."

Mr. Whittle accused the program's opponents of "moving to more desperate forms of action," such as deliberately misinforming the public and trying to pass state laws "to take the decision [to use the program] away from local educators."

Charging that local cable companies have perpetrated "an enormous sham" in claiming to reach more than 5,000 schools with noncommercial news programming, Mr. Whittle released the findings of a Whittle-commissioned Gallup survey of 1,500 junior- and senior-high students in which fewer than 1 percent said they watched a televised news broadcast in school on a given day.

Mr. Whittle also announced that his company had made a $900,000 grant to the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and Interwest Applied Research of Beaverton, Ore., to study the impact of the Educational Network on student learning over the next three years. If, after the third year, the research comes to unfavorable conclusions, "we will be out of business," he said.

The company does not plan, however, to monitor the impact or effectiveness of its advertising, Mr. Whittle said.

Show A 'Lightning Rod'

A fast-paced news show, Channel One is designed to boost students' knowledge of current events while providing advertisers direct access to the lucrative teenage market.

The program was tested last year at six U.S. schools by Whittle, a Knoxville, Tenn., communications company that specializes in innovative media that target specific audiences for advertisers.

The program has become a lightning rod for debate over such issues as business support of schools and commercialization of the classroom, the use of television and technology in education, and students' poor knowledge of news and current affairs.

Virtually every major national education group has condemned the venture, primarily--but not exclusively--because Channel One will subject students to commercials for candy bars, chewing gum, soft drinks, and other products.

Five such groups have endorsed a competitor to Channel One--Turner Broadcasting System's "CNN Newsroom," a commercial-free news show that airs on the Cable News Network to be taped for use in school.

Some 5,000 schools are said to use the show, which has the approval of the National pta, National Education Association, National School Boards Association, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and American Association of School Administrators.

Channel One's chief attraction for many schools is the fact that Whittle provides a satellite dish, video recorder, and television sets for most classrooms. Schools can keep and use the equipment for other purposes so long as they remain under contract to show the program and abide by Whittle's rules.

The Turner program does not guarantee video equipment to schools, but does pledge that local cable companies will provide free basic cable hookups and will attempt to help fund equipment.

According to Mr. Whittle, a separate Whittle-commissioned Gallup poll of teachers found that 85 percent said none of the rooms they teach in are equipped with permanently installed television sets or monitors.

State-Level Resistance

Following the lead of California and New York, which acted last year to put restrictions on the use of Channel One, education officials in several states have recommended that districts and schools not sign up for the program. Only two others, however, have adopted restrictions.

North Carolina officials began debating the issue last year after nearly 100 schools had signed contracts for Channel One. The state board of education adopted a regulation that effectively prohibits other districts from signing contracts with Whittle, or with any other program that forces students to watch commercials, a spokesman said.

In addition, no district that signed a contract may show the program during instructional time, and the contracts cannot be renewed after they run out in three years.

Whittle officials continued to sell Channel One to the schools there, and one district has signed a contract in a challenge to state officials' authority. The state board may meet in special session to decide what action to take, its spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the Missouri state board has decided that schools may show the program during lunch or extra time, but that they will not be able to count that time as part of the regular instructional day.

"If they choose to use it, they will have to make some accommodations in their schedules," said James L. Morris, a spokesman for the education department.

The New York State Board of Regents passed an outright ban on the program, while California officials voted to reduce state aid to schools for the time spent showing commercials to students. (See Education Week, May 31, 1989.)

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