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Whittling the School Day Away

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Earlier this year, the New York State Board of Regents reaffirmed its ban on Christopher Whittle's "Channel One,'' asserting that students shouldn't be treated as "commodities to be exploited.'' A bill that would have banned Channel One from California's public schools was defeated in a close vote this past summer in that state's assembly and will be reconsidered next year. Clearly, the Channel One controversy is far from over.

Now present in over 40 percent of the nation's secondary schools, Channel One is the advertising service that requires schools to show students two minutes of advertising each day along with a 10-minute news program. Mr. Whittle tempts schools into this arrangement by lending them free video equipment, typically worth $30,000 to $50,000, and then selling the national audience of eight million students to advertisers at the rate of $157,000 per half-minute, for a gross of $628,000 every school day. Already earning well over $100 million a year, it's no surprise that Mr. Whittle has poured an estimated $2 million into intensive lobbying efforts in New York and California.

Eager to tap into the $200 billion teenage market, advertisers line up to buy time on Channel One because it provides them with a captive audience. Knowing that nearly the entire audience is between the ages of 13 and 17 makes it that much easier to tailor ads for optimal impact. And unlike TV ads in the home, Channel One guarantees advertisers complete freedom from competitors' messages--Mars candy need never fear that students will hear about Hershey's in the exclusivity of the Channel One advertising environment. Then there's the halo effect from selling in school, where the authority of the school and teacher melds with the messages in the ads.

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if instead of supplying equipment, Mr. Whittle had offered to donate money to schools so long as teachers instructed students each day in the virtues of Mars Bars, M&M's, and Fritos? Such an arrangement would have been unacceptable, yet a development not terribly different--having the same teacher show students state-of-the-art TV ads designed to persuade them to buy these same products--is now considered perfectly acceptable in some quarters.

But there are other problems. Schools aren't warned before signing up with Mr. Whittle that Channel One whittles away at more than 12 minutes of each school day. Not only does Channel One promote additional programming offered later the same school day, but some of its advertisers try to persuade students and schools to get directly involved in advertiser-sponsored activities.

As just one example, Mountain Dew--a soft drink with nearly the highest caffeine content of any drink on the market--recently announced a "Get Vertical'' competition in which each Channel One school could send in a video of its "most awesome vertical sports move,'' a clever way to get students, under the auspices of their school, to enact the soft drink's slogan and mimic the powerful, jumping jolt that Mountain Dew ads suggest their product will produce. Mountain Dew promises to show the best video on Channel One.

In an era of increased attention to proper nutrition, one must question whether schools should use classroom time to promote caffeine drinks and high-fat, sugar-laden food products to their students. Meanwhile, a study this year by Bradley Greenberg and Jeffrey Brand of Michigan State University has shown that Channel One students are significantly more likely than non-Channel One students to report materialistic attitudes (Journal of Communication, Vol. 43, No. 1, 1993).

And contrary to Mr. Whittle's claims, Channel One does not deliver "10 minutes'' of news. Hard news accounts for only a few minutes each day. The rest of the time is filled with greetings, quizzes, and feature stories, some of which are P.R. pieces for products or new TV shows and movies aimed at teenagers.

Ultimately, the controversy over Channel One raises the critical question of what educational standards we are prepared to settle for now and what our children will settle for in the future. If two minutes of advertising are considered acceptable in the 1990's, why won't Channel One students, who will begin to become parents and teachers in the next few years, be prepared to accept even more advertising when it is their responsibility to run the schools? Indeed, Mr. Whittle is already seeking to expand to 2 minutes of ads, for another $157,000 in revenue each school day.

And once Mr. Whittle gets his system into most U.S. schools and the controversy dies down, what's to stop him from expanding the advertising time even further, threatening to remove the equipment if a school doesn't comply?

Here lies the crux of the problem: the underfunding of public education that permits an advertiser such as Mr. Whittle to get a toehold in the schools in the first place. After all, schools are clearly motivated by the equipment, not the Whittle news service. A school could just as readily show students CNN "Newsroom,'' afree service that has no commercials,and that is already available to more schools than Channel One. Unfortunately, many schools do not have adequate equipment, and that's how Mr. Whittle makes his sale.

But there's no free lunch. Two minutes of advertising multiplied by 180 school days equals six hours, or one full school day, per year, devoted to commercials! The cost to taxpayers to fund one such day in a typical school of 2,000 students runs between $40,000 and $80,000. Ironically, such a school could purchase its own televisions for nearly every classroom for under $30,000, less than what Mr. Whittle claims he pays. Indeed, most any school could outfit itself with better equipment than Mr. Whittle offers for less than one-quarter of 1 percent of its current annual operating budget, a small price to pay for commercial-free schools.

The Channel One controversy is at a critical juncture. If California soon joins New York in banning Channel One, the nation's two most populous states will have made a powerful statement about the proper mission of schools and who should control them. Instead of voting to permit Channel One in a state's schools, legislators ought to be voting to provide more aid to public education.

Robert Kubey, a psychologist and professor of communication at Rutgers University, is a native Californian. He has just completed a study of media education as an Annenberg scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Television and the Quality of Life and the forthcoming Creating Television.

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