Whittle Sweetens Its Offer With Additional Services

By Mark Walsh — June 14, 1989 4 min read

Whittle Communications officials said last week that they would proceed with plans to offer their advertiser-supported “Channel One” news program for students to schools nationwide, although with several changes the company hopes will allay its critics.

The announcement came despite strong opposition from major national education organizations and mounting efforts by public-education officials in several states to discourage districts and schools from signing up for Whittle’s offer of free video equipment in exchange for showing daily broadcasts of “Channel One,” which contains two min4utes of advertising.

Whittle officials said that in addition to its 12-minute news show aimed at teenagers, the company would also offer a channel for instructional programming without advertising and a channel for teachers.

The officials also said they had moved up the national starting date from the fall of 1990 to next March.

“We have listened to the educators, parents, and students,” said Christopher Whittle, chairman of the Knoxville, Tenn., media company, at a news conference in New York. “We are offering them what they tell us they need and want--a comprehensive package of educational programming and technology.”

Whittle test-marketed the news8show at six schools this spring. Last week, it released opinion surveys and test results it said showed that teachers and students liked “Channel One” and that students learned from it.

The news show, fashioned by a former producer of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” offered a slick, fast-paced report on the day’s news, as well as special week-long reports, all geared to the teenager’s perspective.

Competition Emerging

From a business standpoint, Whittle’s plan is considered risky.

A competing show that carries no advertisements, for example, will begin in August on Ted Turner’s Cable News Network. Although Mr. Turner is not offering schools thousands of dollars in equipment to carry his show, it would provide an alternative to schools wishing to sidestep the controversy over advertising.

Meanwhile, beginning in the fall, the Discovery Channel, another cable network, plans to offer daily documentaries for use by teachers in the high-school curriculum.

Whittle has said it will spend from $200 million to $225 million to provide a satellite dish, video recorders, and television sets for virtually every classroom in 8,000 high schools. Middle schools may also participate, but secondary schools are targeted.

In a significant shift, the company will not require participating schools to make every student watch Channel One each day, as it did dur4ing the seven-week pilot test.

Instead, Whittle officials said last week, schools can designate how many classrooms will be wired for the program, “as long as it is financially feasible,” said Ed Winter, executive vice president of the company. Also, the package will not be limited to schools with enrollments of 500 or more.

Even with those changes, Whittle officials say they are confident it can deliver an attractive audience of millions of teenagers to advertisers that reportedly will include Levi Strauss & Company, M&M/Mars, McDonald’s Corporation, and the U.S. Army.

“We are betting the ranch on this,” Mr. Winter said, noting that the first two years are not expected to be profitable for the venture.

Officials expect to have about 1,000 schools hooked up for the target start next spring and to expand in phases to 8,000 because of the enormous task of supplying all the hardware that will be needed.

Of Whittle’s two new proposals, the “Classroom Channel” will reserve more than 25 hours per week of satellite time over the “Channel One” apparatus for noncommercial educational programming, to be determined by a nonprofit advisory board set up by the company.

The company last week said it would also wire teachers’ lounges in schools for an “educators’ channel,” which could offer in-service and education news programming.

‘Basic Concern’ Remains

Critics of “Channel One,” who deride its advertising to a captive teenage audience and question its value as a current-events curriculum, did not seem last week to be swayed by the firm’s proposed enhancements.

“It certainly doesn’t remove our basic concern,” said Jay P. Goldman, spokesman for the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of many educational organizations that have taken formal positions against the Whittle idea. “The fact remains there will be commercials broadcast to public-school classrooms.”

Peggy Charren, president of the watchdog group Action for Children’s Television and the most outspoken critic of “Channel One,” said she remained concerned that Whittle was advancing the idea that the answer to schools’ problems is to provide video equipment and news shows.

“The schools were not screaming for a TV monitor in every classroom,” she said. “If that is such an enormous need, we should fill it. We should make that our goal.”

But one critic of “Channel One,” Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said he was “encouraged” by the changes.

“This is a far better direction for Whittle to take,” he said in a statement, which also reiterated his reservations about the advertising.

Scott D. Thomson, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and another leading critic of the Whittle plan, was unavailable for comment late last week.

Whittle may face a stiffer challenge from state education officials.

Led by California and New York, several states are now examining their laws for provisions that make showing commercials in the schools unconstitutional or illegal.

Mr. Goldman said that at least seven other states have issued or are considering advisories to districts, either telling or urging them not to sign up with Whittle. They include Alabama, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Washington State, and Wyoming.

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 1989 edition of Education Week as Whittle Sweetens Its Offer With Additional Services