Education Commentary

On Commercial Television in Schools: Channel One Creates Opportunity For ‘Mutually Beneficial’ Relationship

By William S. Rukeyser — March 22, 1989 6 min read

The resources currently available to American teachers are not keeping pace with the new burdens being placed on them by changes in society. In seeking the means to address teachers’ threadbare situation, schools should continue to explore with businesses ways of forging acceptable and mutually beneficial relationships.

Channel One, a daily news and information program for secondary schools that Whittle Communications is now testing in six schools, promises to bring corporate funds to the aid of teachers on an unprecedented scale.

But the program is controversial. Some critics would like to stifle Channel One before it has a chance to demonstrate its educational power.

We urge everyone to withhold judgment until the test results are known. The possible benefits to a generation of students are too big for casual dismissal.

While government at all levels can do more for the schools, it’s clear in this age of yawning deficits and taxpayer revolts that an increase in government support commensurate with the educational need is wishful thinking.

The only other sector with the wherewithal--and the will--to make a major difference in the finances of the schools is business. Corporations are interested in young people as customers, of course, but they also have an immense stake in young people as employees of the future.

In seeking support from business, educators have traditionally asked for philanthropic funds. In fact, quite a few of the current projects fashionably referred to as school-business “partnerships” fall into this category.

But charity is a limited source: Companies allot well under 2 percent of their pretax profits to philanthropy. Takeover threats, leveraged buyouts, and other pressures to maximize short-term profits argue against a much more open-handed atmosphere. Tapping business in a more ambitious way will require innovative thinking.

The concept of Channel One originated with teachers. Whittle magazines and wall-poster magazines are distributed in more than 17,000 schools. In conversations with teachers in these schools, we heard urgent requests for imaginative materials to help teach world events in a manner that would engage teenagers and link the news to geography, history, and science.

Accordingly, Channel One is a 12-minute, network-quality news program--with big differences. The anchors are young people much like those in the audience. Every segment has clear educational significance, and every segment views world events from a teenage perspective.

Proposals for this kind of program have been floated for years, but a lack of funds and technology has kept them from materializing. Only 3 percent of U.S. school districts have satellite dishes. A typical school has one television set on a rolling cart for every 10 classrooms.

At no charge to the schools, Channel One provides the daily program and all of the equipment needed to receive and air it. Each participating school receives a color TV monitor for almost every classroom, as well as a satellite dish and a videotape recorder. Whittle Communications will install and service the whole system, which is then available to the school for other purposes.

Channel One will be the principal source of news for a large part of the audience. Though more than three and a half million teenagers become eligible to vote each year, many do not watch or read the news regularly.

Each program begins with a two-minute rundown of the day’s headline stories, using animated maps to pinpoint the locale of each story. The headlines are followed by an extended “Focus” segment adding a4teenage or overtly educational perspective to one of the top stories.

The centerpiece of each day’s show is an installment of a five-part series on a special subject--adding up, over the week, to a quarter of an hour of TV journalism on this topic. For example, such segments might treat teenagers in the Soviet Union, the environment, or careers of the 1990’s.

The final portion of the program is devoted to features on such topics as health, money management, and technology. From time to time, we will examine a major historical event through the prism of pop culture.

Interspersed among the segments are short educational features, plus four 30-second commercials.

The two minutes per day of commercials pay for the program and all the equipment. If the pilot test succeeds and Channel One goes national in late 1990, we expect 8,000 to 10,000 schools to participate. At that size, providing the system would cost $80 million to $100 million a year, or about $12 per student.

While Whittle would be delighted to provide the service commercial-free to the schools in return for a fee, payments of that size far exceed the means of almost all schools. Nor do we see any prospect that corporations would put up such sums in return solely for brief mentions of their largesse.

The realistic question is whether schools should have access to this kind of news programming and equipment. To argue that the service is fine but that the commercials are unacceptable is to beg the question.

The advertisers on Channel One will include makers of jeans, toothpaste, sneakers, soft drinks, and similar products already heavily marketed to teenagers. The commercials will be advertisements the audience has seen at home.

All commercials will be reviewed for content; any deemed likely to be offensive in school won’t appear. Ads for inappropriate or especially controversial products will be rejected. The advertisers will have no control over the program content.

Advertising in school is not new to teenagers. It appears everywhere from scoreboards to rulers. It apel10lpears in library copies of magazines and newspapers that teachers rightly encourage students to read. It appears in television programs that teachers tape off the air and show in class.

Students will pay closer attention to the 10 minutes a day of Channel One that they haven’t seen before than to the two minutes they have.

And while concern about what is put before “captive audiences” is understandable, students will, as ever, choose whether or not to listen and watch. As a Kansas educator commented to us, “If captive audiences were really so great, no kid would ever fail a test.”

Some critics say that nothing can be taught in 10 minutes of news and features. In this view, Channel One will simply waste valuable class time.

But the program is not a teacher--it is a resource. It will be a launching pad for classroom discussions the rest of the day. Those 10 minutes will resonate through the other 400 minutes of the academic schedule.

If Channel One were no more than a scheme to beam commercials into the classroom--or, as one critic charged, “social studies by 90-second sound bites"--it would stand no chance of being accepted by the schools. Our pilot test will challenge every aspect of the program. We will rigorously measure how well students retain information conveyed in the program, and we will adjust to reactions from teachers, students, and parents.

Joe Zesbaugh, president of the Pacific Mountain Network, an association of public-television stations in 13 Western states, put it this way in early March: “This system could be infinitely valuable to our schools. In education we are all looking for big, innovative ideas. If we are to expect financial support from the private sector, there must be some give and take.”

And last summer, Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, observed: “A nation at risk will be saved only by a nation of risk takers.”

What is being tested right now is whether the ratio of risks to rewards in Channel One is right for the schools and the students. The answer will tell a lot about the outlook for vigorous partnership between business and the schools.

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 1989 edition of Education Week