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Whittle To Ask To Exceed Daily Limit for Ads on Channel One

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Whittle Communications will ask subscribers of Channel One for permission to include more than the current contractual limit of two minutes of commercials per day on the classroom news show, a company official said last week.

The official stressed that Whittle would show no more than 2.5 minutes of commercials on any given day and that the extra 30 seconds would only be sold to make up for shows for which it did not sell out the two minutes of advertising.

"It is not even remotely an attempt to expand time on Channel One,'' said Jim Ritts, the president of network affairs for the Whittle Educational Network. "We would like to have this flexibility.''

Mr. Ritts said Whittle this summer will gauge school districts' reaction to the proposed change, which would take effect next school year. The daily length of the Channel One show would not expand beyond the current 12 minutes, he said.

"They will guide us as to whether we will'' make the change, he said. "But this is not an effort to expand the amount of advertising that runs on Channel One throughout the school year.''

Many educators have been criticizing the presence of commercials on the daily news show since the program was first tested more than four years ago. The proposed change would likely provide new ammunition to Channel One opponents who argue that television commercials aimed at teenagers have no place in public school classrooms.

"Right from the beginning, we have described this as a classic example of a slippery slope,'' said William L. Rukeyser, a special assistant to the state schools superintendent in California. "This is akin to allowing a multinational company to strip mine in a national park. Naturally, the company is going to try to get a few extra tons of coal a day.''

Mixed Reaction

Whittle says it has an audience of about eight million students in close to 12,000 secondary schools. The company charges $157,000 per 30-second commercial. With a total of two minutes of advertising available on 194 daily broadcasts, Whittle's annual revenue potential from Channel One is close to $120 million.

The privately held Knoxville, Tenn.-based company confirms those figures, but does not release financial results.

Mr. Ritts said Whittle is seeking the contractual change because it does not sell out its advertising on each show and is limited in the ways it can make up for such lost revenue.

He stressed that some shows on big news days have skipped commercials altogether, and that the network has provided commercial-free bonus programming to cover such events as space-shuttle launches and the Presidential election.

"On some days during the Gulf War and the Los Angeles riots, we ran programs with no ads at all,'' Mr. Ritts said. "Is it unreasonable for us to compensate for that?''

Over the first 600 shows, Channel One has averaged about 1.85 minutes of commercials, or about one minute, 51 seconds, he said.

Mr. Ritts acknowledged that on two days in April, Channel One carried an extra 30 seconds of commercials as a test. He said the company polled some principals before carrying out the test.

"All the early indications have been, 'No, that's not unreasonable,''' he said.

Officials in districts that use Channel One had a mixed reaction to the proposal last week.

"It would be a concern, but it wouldn't bother me to the point that I would withdraw'' Channel One, said Gary Sharp, the principal of Pryor (Okla.) High School.

"Our students are much more informed with Channel One than without it,'' he added. "When the commercials come on, our students don't watch it. If I was a paid advertiser, I would be concerned. But they run the same commercials too many times. They get boring.''

Phil Cozzie, the assistant superintendent of the Widefield, Colo., school district, said he would consult with the principals of the four schools in his district that subscribe to Channel One.

"This is something we would have to look at carefully,'' he said. "'I'd be worried about the creep [upward]. First you have 2 minutes, then three. Where do we draw the line?''

Legislative Action

Meanwhile, bills that would affect Channel One were being considered last week by lawmakers in New York State and California.

In New York State, where the board of regents has banned Channel One from the public schools, the Assembly education committee passed a bill that would allow districts to sign up for the show. But legislative observers believe the bill faces dim prospects for passage on the Assembly floor.

In California, a bill that would bar districts from signing contracts for programs that include advertising, such as Channel One, was to be considered late last week in the Senate. A similar measure was defeated two years ago.

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