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Bolstering Its Educational Credentials, Discovery To Buy

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Learning Channel By Mark Walsh

The Discovery Channel has bolstered its image as an education-oriented cable-television company with the announcement this month that it will buy the Learning Channel.

Discovery, based in Bethesda, Md., announced Feb. 14 that it had agreed in principle to buy the 51 percent stake in the Learning Channel owned by Financial News Network Inc. and Infotechnology Inc.

Discovery will pay approximately $12.75 million for the stake, officials said, and it will reportedly pay another $12.75 million for the remaining 49 percent stake held by the Learning Channel's managers and employees and the nonprofit American Community Service Network.

The Learning Channel, based in Arlington, Va., is available in more than 20 million cable-television homes with its 24-hour mix of college telecourses, hobby and "how to" shows, and other instructional and educational programming.

The channel developed out of the regional Appalachian Community Service Network, which provided telecourses to remote mountain areas; its name was changed to the Learning Channel in 1980.

The channel's "Electronic Library" provides teachers with two hours of noncommercial programming for use in the classroom, and it has been one of the few television channels--cable or broadcast--to offer a news magazine program devoted solely to education issues. That program, "Education Today," has been hosted by the journalist John Merrow.

The much larger Discovery Channel, available in 54 million cable-television homes, also has a weekday block of programming intended for use in the classroom--"Assignment: Discovery"--that was launched in the fall of 1989.

The bulk of the channel's programming is documentaries on nature, science and technology, history, and geography.

Implications Unclear

It was unclear last week what effect the purchase would have on programming, except that the two channels would probably remain separate.

John Hendricks, chairman and chief executive officer of Discovery, said in a statement that his company is "developing a plan to dramatically strengthen the programming of the Learning Channel."

"Discovery brings both the financial assets and commitment to ensure that the valuable promise of the Learning Channel's name will be fully realized," he said.

Eric McLamb, vice president for communications at Discovery, said the Learning Channel's programming strategy would be evaluated over the next few months, but that "we are going to stay two networks."

Harold E. Morse, chairman and chief executive officer of the Learning Channel, said in a statement that because of Discovery's stronger financial assets, his channel "will have more resources with which to serve its viewers."

Dale Mann, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said the presence of cable channels like Discovery and others is likely to grow in classrooms.

"All the controversies about commercials and the numbing effects of TV to the contrary, classroom teachers understand they need help, and they are reaching out for programming they can get on a TV cart," said Mr. Mann, who recently completed a survey of teachers on their use of cable television for instruction.

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