Conservatives Join Effort To Pull the Plug on Channel One

By Mark Walsh — April 07, 1999 5 min read
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A recent Channel One news segment began with a lengthy report on Kosovo, as NATO was poised for its air campaign in Yugoslavia.

To help illustrate the situation, anchorman Gotham Chopra used images from war-related computer games, which are probably more familiar to his teenage audience than World War II newsreels.

“Of course, the real World War II was no game,” Mr. Chopra said in the March 24 report.

Channel One anchorman Gotham Chopra uses a computer game to help students grasp the unfolding crisis in Kosovo. The advertiser-supported television news program is broadcast to 12,000 schools.
--Channel One

World events such as the Kosovo crisis make the advertiser-supported television news program for schools as relevant as ever, the show’s supporters say.

But Channel One’s critics--including a growing number of conservatives--are stepping up their campaign to rid classrooms of the 12-minute daily program.

“Channel One has a big problem on its hands,” said Gary Ruskin, the director of Commercial Alert, a Washington advocacy organization that is affiliated with Ralph Nader.

Channel One has long faced criticism in liberal quarters for its introduction of television commercials into the classroom. Now, conservative organizations are increasingly joining the fight.

“I don’t see any value in it at all,” Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Eagle Forum, said in an interview last week. The Alton, Ill.-based conservative group is asking Congress to hold oversight hearings on Channel One and is urging advertisers to drop their support of the program.

“I’m offended by the whole idea of having commercial television in the classroom,” Ms. Schlafly added. “It’s really just entertainment and advertising. Its purpose is to keep your attention until you get to the commercials.”

But the show’s producers, and some of the educators who use it, say it is more important than ever to have current-events programming that is specifically tailored for young people. The knocks against Channel One are shopworn and haven’t taken hold, the supporters say.

“If you are to believe our critics, you would have to believe we have duped every educator out there who uses our program,” said Paul Folkemer, the executive vice president for education at Channel One. “I don’t believe that’s true.”

12,000 Schools

Channel One was test-marketed 10 years ago and was rolled out nationally in 1990 by Whittle Communications, the former media empire of Christopher Whittle, who is now the president of the Edison Project school management company. Whittle sold Channel One in 1994 to K-III Communications Corp., now known as Primedia Inc.

Participating schools receive a satellite dish and classroom television monitors in exchange for showing the program. Schools agree by contract to show Channel One to 90 percent of their students on 90 percent of school days.

Other TV news sources for classrooms have come along since Channel One, notably the commercial-free “CNN Newsroom” produced daily by the Cable News Network. But CNN does not outfit schools with video equipment for watching its show.

Channel One is broadcast to 12,000 high schools and middle schools across the country, and it claims a regular viewership of 8 million students. Because it reaches teenagers in the classroom, the channel is able to charge advertisers a premium rate of as much as $200,000 per 30-second commercial.

The show faced heated criticism in its early years, mostly from the political left.

“Now, it’s quite a coalition of groups from all over the political spectrum,” said Jim Metrock, the president of Obligation Inc., a Birmingham, Ala., group concerned about the media’s influence on children.

Ms. Schlafly’s organization was upset that U.S. Rep. Dennis J. Hastert, R-Ill., gave his first interview as the speaker of the House to Channel One. She also blasted the Republican National Committee for touting the interview, saying the RNC’s promotion was as offensive to “conservative, pro- family people” as if it had bragged that the speaker gave an interview to the Playboy Channel.

The Washington-based Family Research Council, formerly headed by Republican presidential candidate Gary L. Bauer, has criticized Channel One for using the music of the rock group Marilyn Manson, and for promoting condom use in a story on the program’s World Wide Web site.

Mr. Folkemer of Channel One said an instrumental segment of Marilyn Manson music was used once on Channel One but has not been repeated. The condom information was presented in a report on AIDS, he said.

“We understand the issues our teenagers face,” he said. “It is appropriate for us to present information about AIDS to our students.”

Hearings Sought

The coalition opposed to Channel One has moved on two fronts recently.

In January, it sent letters urging the show’s frequent advertisers to drop their ads. The targets of the letters included the Walt Disney Co., the Procter & Gamble Co., Warner Bros. Television Inc., and RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp.

Mr. Ruskin of Commercial Alert said that no advertiser had agreed to stop advertising and that only one company--Nabisco--had formally responded to the request.

“We do not believe evidence supports the charge that two minutes of daily advertising is putting our children’s future at risk,” the company said in a letter to Mr. Ruskin.

On the other front, U.S. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., has been seeking for more than a year to put Channel One under the spotlight of congressional oversight hearings.

“I believe we must take a close look at the level of commercialization that has penetrated the public schools,” Sen. Shelby said in a letter to his colleagues last year.

Last month, the senator renewed his request in a letter to Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for the Republicans on the committee, said a broader hearing on commercialization of schools could be scheduled within the next two months.

Channel One, meanwhile, recently hired a well-connected Washington lobbying firm to represent its interests.

“I don’t think this is an issue for the federal government,” said Jeffrey H. Ballabon, a spokesman at Channel One’s New York City headquarters. “The people criticizing Channel One are political operatives. Channel One creates educational television.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1999 edition of Education Week as Conservatives Join Effort To Pull the Plug on Channel One


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