April 04, 2001 2 min read

More TV: DirecTV, a nationwide satellite-broadcasting service, has announced that it will sign up as many as 50,000 schools for a free package of channels to be used in classrooms.

In doing so, the division of the El Segundo, Calif.-based Hughes Electronics Corp. is trying to match, if not surpass, the free television service that the cable TV industry already provides schools. DirecTV, first launched in 1994, has been luring residential cable subscribers to switch to its pizza-sized satellite dishes and similar program offerings. Having its product used in local schools fits into that strategy, company officials say.

The 60 channels in the school package include the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, CNN, C-SPAN, Nickelodeon, two versions of the music channel MTV, and three versions of the all-sports network ESPN.

But the implication of the offer’s fine print is that the programming is provided for serious learning, not leisure: The premium-movie channels HBO and Showtime are excluded from the package, even for a fee. Programming is allowed only in classrooms or libraries—no lobbies, lunchrooms, or administrators’ offices.

And it’s not exactly free. Each school must buy and install the company’s “multisatellite” system for about $200. One early user of the package is the 648-student Smylie Wilson Junior High School in Lubbock, Texas, which has been a pilot site since fall 1999.

“Our building is one of those known for, ‘Let’s try it out and see if it can work,’ and the other [Lubbock schools] feed off of that,” said Melissa A. Wade, an assistant principal.

Teachers videotape programs that fit into their lesson plans, or in some cases air them live. During last fall’s presidential vote-counting brouhaha, for example, social studies and history teachers left the news channels on all day.

Typically, schools put their DirecTV connection in one place, such as a library, but Wilson Junior High has found a creative way to get it into every classroom as well.

After getting DirecTV, Wilson administrators also signed up with Channel One, which supplies televisions to all of a school’s classrooms and wires them together in a schoolwide network connected to the Channel One satellite dish. The school must have all its students watch 10 minutes of Channel One news and two minutes of commercials daily.

But in a few minutes’ work, a technician wired the systems together, so DirecTV goes everywhere Channel One goes.

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—Andrew Trotter

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2001 edition of Education Week