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Recognizing Benefits, Cable Industry Is Reaching Out toEducation Market

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When students in New Orleans are unable to untangle the intricacies of a differential equation or to decipher the antiquated English of Beowulf, many turn to an unlikely source for help with their homework.

Rather than telephoning a classmate or conferring with a parent, they tune in to Channel 48 on their local cable-television system.

Three days a week, the channel, which carries programming produced by the New Orleans school system, broadcasts a "homework hot line," staffed by honor students who field telephone inquiries.

The on-the-air tutors often spend as long as 20 minutes sketching out the answer to a particularly complex mathematical problem, all the while interacting with the student at the other end of the line.

"That particular program has been a joy to work with," said Barbara A. Barrett, the cable-television coordinator for the 84,000-student district. "The kids relate to kids, and they aren't intimidated by other kids answering their questions."

The New Orleans public-access channel, like others operating across the country, represents the bright, community-spirited face of the cable industry and the pains to which many national and local cable operators go to act, in the words of one industry observer, as "good corporate citizens."

Indeed, the evidence is growing that the cable industry recognizes the benefits to be gained through reaching out to the education market and has, within the past few years, begun to take schools seriously as an outlet for programming.

Commercially produced cable-television programming has made rapid inroads into the nation's classrooms, and cable operators have worked to increase the number of schools and classrooms receiving cable service.

At the same time, however, critics worry that the industry's increased activity and interest in education are motivated not so much by its desire to provide a community service as by its own self-interest.

Specifically, they charge, the cable industry's new courtship of educators stems from its effort to combat Congressional pressures to regulate an industry that has been criticized for overcharging customers and choking off its competition.

Rapid Growth

Cable televison first became commercially viable in the 1940's, primarily as an "antenna service" for those in small towns and rural areas who could not receive broadcast programming.

It was not until the mid-1970's--when such cable-exclusive services as Home Box Office and Ted Turner's Atlanta-based WTBS entered the market--that the medium began to be taken seriously as an alternative to broadcast programming.

During the past 15 years, however, the numbers of both cable operators, those who provide local cable service, and cable programmers, those who produce or distribute the material seen on the air, have rapidly proliferated.

The rapid expansion also fueled one of the first and longest-lived cable ventures into the education market--"The Learning Channel"--which was founded in 1980.

Today, cable programming reaches approximately 53 million homes, or about 58 percent of all households, an increase of almost 20 million homes in the past five years, according to a recent study by the federal General Accounting Office.

And a recent poll commissioned by Nickelodeon--a subsidiary of mtv Networks, which carries programming primarily aimed at children and teenagers--indicates that 43 percent of teachers have access to cable television at their schools.

The poll, a telephone survey of 811 teachers of 5th- to 8th-grade students conducted by the research firm of Yankelovich, Clancy, Shulman last May, also found that 96 percent of teachers have access to television sets at their schools and that 95 percent have access to video-cassette recorders.

The poll also indicated a certain ambivalence among teachers toward the merits of cable-television programming. Twenty-five percent of the respondents said they used their television sets "once a week or more," and only 17 percent reported they used cable television as frequently.

In addition, 32 percent of the respondents said they "hardly ever" or "never" used their television sets, while 57 percent made the same claim for cable television.

Even so, a recent survey by the National Education Association indicated that hundreds of thousands of teachers nationwide use three cable programs--"Assignment Discovery," "cnn Newsroom," and "A&E Classroom," all of them less than two years old--as classroom aids.

For large school districts, such as New Orleans and Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland, and small, such as the Millcreek Township School District in suburban Erie, Pa., cable television has proved an indispensable medium for obtaining, creating, and distributing educational programming.

At Belle Valley School in the 6,500-student Millcreek district, each classroom has been wired to distribute cable programs produced in-house as well as those transmitted from outside the school over the local cable system's lines, according to a district official.

'A Supportive Company'

And in New Orleans, the homework hot line is only one component of school-related programming that the district has created, or culled from commercial sources, for distribution over a cable channel "exclusively dedicated" for educational use by Cox Cable Communications, which holds a franchise from the city government.

The district is able to "downlink" programming from two satellite4dishes it owns and distribute it over the system.

Ms. Barrett said the channel also carries instructional programming as well as live cablecasts of school-board meetings and programming devoted to staff development.

The channel is available to more than 78,000 home subscribers on the Cox system, which, according to one estimate, is the nation's fifth-largest mso, or multiple-system operator, with 1.5 million subscribers nationwide.

And, as a result of a clause in the franchise agreement that requires the company to make service available to schools, programming can also be distributed to virtually every building in the district.

"We have a very supportive cable company," Ms. Barrett explains.

An Untapped Market

Even in the infancy of the medium, many cable franchise agreements carried provisions requiring cable operators to make their basic Continued on Following Page Continued from Preceding Page

service available to schools.

But the kind of extensive services available to students and educators over the New Orleans "public access" education channel still seems to be the exception.

Analysts say there are many reasons school districts have not taken more steps to embrace the educational potential of the cable industry.

For one thing, they say, in the early days of cable television's development, school boards showed great indifference to cable's potential.

And frequently, while cable operators may have met the letter of the law in providing a single cable "drop," or connection, to their area schools, districts often made an insufficient commitment to build a truly effective distribution system.

The problem, industry analysts note, is the large sums of money it takes to carry a signal to all classrooms within a building.

The Dallas Independent School District, for example, has embarked on a multiyear project to wire all classrooms in its 235 schools with both cable and data-communications telephone lines.

Once the work is completed, each classroom will have access to 30 cable-television channels. The project's pricetag is expected to reach $3.8 million.

Another problem is the added cost of maintaining a staff of trained personnel to operate the equipment, district officials say. Officials in New Orleans note, for example, that the city pays the technicians who broadcast school-board meetings.

Developments Nationwide

Yet, even if districts generally are not becoming cable-television producers, evidence from a variety of sources indicates that they are increasingly becoming cable users.

Spurred in part by the public perception that cable operators have not always acted in the public's behalf, many operators seem to be awakening to the educational and public-relations value of courting educators.

Several recent developments underscore the apparent increase in interest among school officials and the cable industry to enter into mutually beneficial partnerships:

More than 30 of the industry's largest and most powerful cable operators and 19 of its programmers are underwriting a non-profit organization to encourage educators to employ cable programming in their lesson plans and to unsnarl the copyright tangles that hamper the educational use of television programs.

The Cable Alliance for Education, which more recently became known as the "Cable in the Classroom" project, was chartered a year ago to act as a clearinghouse for educators interested in cable programming.

Under the alliance's plans, affiliated cable operators have pledged to provide by December 1992 free installation and basic cable-television service to all public junior and senior high schools located near a main cable line.

The New York State Board of Regents, in conjunction with the New York Cable Television Association, last month launched a "Cable in the Classroom" project, under which cable operators will donate $250,000 in videocassette recorders and television sets to 40 schools across the state.

As part of the "national demonstration project," the cable companies have volunteered to wire all of the participating schools to receive basic cable service. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1990.)

Nickelodeon announced early this month that it would air commercial-free blocks of programming for use as a teaching aid as part of its commitment to the alliance

The network said it would broad'Eureeka's Castle," a puppet show for preschool-age children; "Kid's Court," a courtroom program that examines children's issues; and "Kidsworld," a documentary series, in the commercial-free block.

The programs will be accompanied by brief "teachers' guides" produced by the network.

The San Antonio-based ti-in Network Inc., a leader in satellite-distributed education programming for the K-12 market, has begun a pilot project in cooperation with Jones Skycable Inc., one of the nation's 50 largest cable operators, to distribute its programs over cable television.

Ti-in officials are touting the project for its potential to vastly expand the geographic reach of the network's programming, particularly into urban schools.

'Consumer Revolt'

Cable officials say the industry's recent efforts to accommodate schools can be traced, in part, to its growing recognition of the importance of its public-service role.

Cable advocates point out that cable is a young, and until recently, rapidly growing industry.

"For many years, we really were a construction business," said Megan Hookey, assistant executive director of the cable alliance. "We really didn't have time to look back and say, 'What are we doing for the communities?"'

Consumer advocates argue, meanwhile, that the initiatives are designed to deflect criticisms that cable television has become an unresponsive monopoly in many communities.

And, they argue, the industry's interest in education is a result of the calls for re-regulation of cable television in the Congress, prompted by rapid rate increases in many areas in recent years and by public perceptions that cable operators were indifferent to quality service.

"There has been, certainly in some parts of the country, a significant consumer revolt," Andrew Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project, a consumer watchdog group, said at a recent Washington forum on "the future of cable."

Ms. Hookey denies such a connection, and points to the alliance's creation as evidence of the industry's commitment to the school market.

"Operators said, 'We've been working with schools all along; why not form a clearinghouse to make things easier for them?"' she said. "If they had created [the alliance] in the last six months, then that might have been a different story."

"But," she added, "it would not be fair to characterize this as only being created in response" to regulatory pressures.

'Good Guy Points'

But an article in the February edition of M.S.O., a cable-industry trade publication, argues that, to the contrary, self-interest is a major reason that cable operators should promote their services to schools.

The issue featured a cover photograph of a teacher using a television set overlaid with the question: "Can Cable Fulfill the Promise of TV in the Classroom?"

"Cable must ... be aware of a most powerful incentive: local and national political points for being the Good Guys who put poor schools on news/information/idea par with rich schools," according to the article, headlined "Promises, Promises."

The story also notes that "good corporate citizenship" on the part of cable operators might be useful in combating the efforts in the Congress aimed at re-regulating the cable industry.

Wiring schools to receive cable-television programming, the article argues, could serve as a powerful counterargument to the overtures of the nation's regional telephone com, or "telcos," to enter the cable-programming market.

The article also argues that the cable industry must recognize the fact that "both operators and programmers know that today's youth not only are tomorrow's leaders, they are tomorrow's subcribers."

A New Venture

Meanwhile, at least one educational programmer has seized on cable television as a new, powerful, and reliable medium for reaching students.

"I do think that the cable companies are trying to look at what their responsibility is to provide good, quality, educational access," said Lloyd Otterman, executive director of the ti-in Network.

Mr. Otterman noted that Glenn R. Jones, founder of Jones Skycable and the Mind Extension University, a 24-hour educational channel, has put "a great deal of money on the line" to serve the needs of students.

And although ti-in has been synonymous with satellite-delivered instruction since its inception in 1984, Mr. Otterman said a joint venture with a Colorado-based cable company will extend ti-in's reach to new audiences as part of an initiative to diversify the Texas-based company.

While ti-in still must pay to beam its signals to a satellite in earth orbit for distribution over the cable system, the costs to schools that receive ti-in's courses by cable are significantly cheaper, he said.

Establishing a satellite-receiving system at a school costs between $9,000 and $10,000, compared with the $1,200 it costs to establish an interactive cable hookup.

"It represents a lower-cost way of getting to the schools," Mr. Otterman said. "And it provides us the opportunity of offering educational programs to the home."

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