Channel One, the for-profit television service for school classrooms, backed down last week from an offer to pay $500 fees to teachers who persuade schools to sign up for the program, company officials said.
Instead, the company plans to pay the fees directly to the schools of teachers who succeed in getting other schools to use the program.
Channel One retreated from the teacher-bonus plan after advocacy groups that have long opposed the company’s foray into schools decried the offer, arguing that it would turn teachers into marketing agents and violate ethics rules in many states.
“It’s a corruption of teachers,” said Gary Ruskin, the director of Commercial Alert, a Washington-based commercialism watchdog.
Commercial Alert and the Birmingham, Ala.-based Obligation Inc., another watchdog group, sent letters in late August to the attorneys general in all 50 states, urging them to investigate the Channel One promotion.
Other anti-commercialism groups suggested that teachers who might have accepted the $500 awards would have been engaging in ethically questionable behavior.
“It essentially asks the teacher to use a public position for private gain,” said Alex Molnar, the director of the Commercialism in Education research unit at Arizona State University.
Jeff Ballabon, the vice president for public policy at Primedia Inc., the New York-based media company that owns Channel One, said that no $500 fees had yet been paid to any teachers, but that the planned “honorarium” was a way to thank teachers for what they do anyway: talk up the merits of Channel One.
“Teachers [who use Channel One] are our best advocates,” he said.
But he said the company decided to revise the promotion after realizing that some states or districts might prohibit teachers from receiving the money. “Rather than create disparities,” he said, “we’ll give the money to the school” of the teacher who signs up another school.
Moreover, he said, Channel One would first verify that giving the money to a school did not violate any local ethics rules. “Channel One doesn’t want to do anything inconsistent with educational missions or ethics,” Mr. Ballabon said.
States Raise Questions
The basic formula of the Channel One service has not changed since it was launched in 1990. A school signs a contract with the company promising that during every school day, students will watch at least 90 percent of Channel One’s 12-minute daily news program, which includes two minutes of commercials.
In return, schools receive the use of a television set for every classroom and a network to link them to a Channel One satellite dish, which receives the programming.
About 12,000 high schools and middle and junior high schools serving roughly 8 million students use Channel One, Mr. Ballabon said.
Jim Jackson, the director of the division of management systems for the Kentucky Department of Education, said he questioned Channel One officials about the teacher-payment offer last week on behalf of the department.
“We’ve got a statute that prohibits any district employee or school employee from receiving a direct benefit for any services worth over $25,” Mr. Jackson said.
Informed that the company was scrapping the promotion, Mr. Jackson said that if it hadn’t, state officials likely would have sent out an alert to school districts across the state, “and I don’t think Channel One would have wanted that.”
In Colorado, Deputy Attorney General Ken Lane said that a teacher’s acceptance of such money could potentially violate his state’s code of ethics for public employees.
He said Channel One’s offer to teachers simply didn’t “smell right.”
The company’s decision to pull back from direct payments to teachers came on the heels of an abrupt halt to a marketing experiment involving teachers by the Minneapolis-based cereal giant General Mills.
Over the summer, General Mills paid 10 Minneapolis-area elementary school teachers a reported $250 a month to put wraparound advertisements for a sweetened cereal on the cars they drive to school. The company canceled that program before the start of classes, after stories about it appeared in newspapers.
General Mills spokesman Greg Zimprich said the experiment was “cancelled primarily because it was such a small-scale test it would have been very difficult to evaluate.”
Channel One offers other promotions in addition to the one it recently scrapped, but they are all directed at schools, not individuals.
For instance, schools that assemble teachers to watch a video about using the service, tune up and test their systems before the first day of school, and use Channel One on the first day of school may enter sweepstakes to win $2,500 or $10,000.
Entering any of those contests requires schools to provide information about how the school uses Channel One.
James T. Metrock, the president of Obligation Inc., suggests such cash-award programs help Channel One marketing experts collect data to show to advertisers.
“Channel One always has had problem of verifying and confirming audience share and audience size for their advertisers,” he said.
Channel One’s Mr. Ballabon dismisses that claim. He said the company was simply “rewarding loyalty.”