Classroom Advertiser To Send Its Message Over Television

By Mark Walsh — January 25, 1989 4 min read

The company that pioneered the placement of advertiser-supported wall posters in American schools is now targeting students with the most powerful medium of all--television.

Whittle Communications, a Knoxville, Tenn., company known for its media innovations, last week announced plans to test a daily 12-minute news program that would be beamed into high-school classrooms via satellite.

The company plans to provide a satellite receiver, videocassette recorder, and television monitors for free to five or six pilot schools, with costs of the venture covered by the sale of two minutes of air time per program to national advertisers.

If all goes well with the test this spring, Whittle envisions selling the idea to the nearly 20,000 high schools in the United States. The projected teenage audience would be 6.5 million in the first year.

“Schools have an enormous need for technology and programming,” said Christopher Whittle, chairman of the company. “The only place the funding for that is going to come from is the business community.”

Blatant ‘Commercialization?’

The proposed introduction of advertiser-supported television into American classrooms has prompted criticism, however, from educators and others who see it as inappropriate.

“This is something that school systems should fight tooth and nail,’' said Peggy Charren, president of the watchdog group Action for Children’s Television. “This is the first time I have seen commercialization of education so blatantly.”

One of the major attractions of the concept for schools could be Whittle’s plan to donate to each participating institution an estimated $50,000 worth of electronic equipment. The hardware would enable participants to receive the program and broadcast it on monitors throughout the school.

William J. Gubbins, vice president of Whittle, estimated that schools would get approximately one television monitor for every 23 students.

“That means pretty much one in every classroom,” he said. The schools would receive the program by satellite each night. Then the principal or teachers could screen it before showing it to students. If they deemed a portion inappropriate, they would be free not to show the program that day.

The schools would also be able to use the closed-circuit television system provided by Whittle to show other educational programming.

“We have looked long and hard at this, and there is no other way to pay for the technology without advertiser support,” Mr. Gubbins said.

Fast-Paced News Video

The program, to be called “Channel One,” will be a cross between NBC’s “Today” show and MTV, company officials said. Youthful anchors will introduce fast-paced reports about world and national affairs tailored to a teenage audience.

“Every effort will be made to connect news events to the lives of young people,” said Mr. Gubbins. For example, a story about tensions in the Middle East, he said, might show the relationship to higher gas prices for American teenage drivers.

Features such as “fast facts” (“arachibutyrophobia is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth”), and pop-quiz questions will be interspersed between the longer reports and the two minutes of advertising, which the trade magazine Advertising Age says is likely to include spots from McDonald’s, Converse, and the U.S. Army.

Ads for alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, and condoms are among those that would not be accepted for the program, company officials said.

The program will be produced by Susan Winston, a veteran of morning television programs on both CBS and ABC.

‘Serving as a Lab’

The $5-million test of “Channel One” will begin March 6. Some 8,000 to 10,000 students at five or six schools will see original editions of the program every day for five weeks.

Stan Jasinskas, principal of Eisenhower Middle School in Kansas City, Kan., one of the pilot schools, said the program will be shown when students are in their morning 25-minute study hall.

“We’re serving as a lab,” he said. “We’re going to monitor it. We haven’t surrendered any kind of curricular decisions.”

Mr. Jasinskas said he was not concerned about commercial television creeping into the classroom setting. “Some think of commercials coming into the building as evil,” he said. “But I think we can use them as an educational tool.”

If it works as intended, the program should stir interest among students in current affairs, the principal predicted.

“Rarely is a kid going to turn on ’60 Minutes,’” he said. “They are going to go for more couch potato stuff. The idea of this is to try to train them to be more responsible in their TV viewing.”

Advertising vehicles produced by Whittle are already a familiar sight in more than 10,000 schools. The company developed the concept of wall media--poster-sized “magazines” placed on school walls, with news and information of interest to students and several panels of advertising. (See Education Week, Oct. 19, 1988.)

Whittle’s “Big Picture” wall poster is published 10 times a year for elementary-school students, while “Connections” reaches high schools 14 times a year. The company also distributes GO! Girls Only, a magazine for junior-high-school girls.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Classroom Advertiser To Send Its Message Over Television