Channel One Debut Wins Viewer Plaudits, But School Groups Pan 'Commercialism'

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Billerica, Mass--Channel One, the controversial new television program forteenagers, came to Billerica Memorial High School in this Boston suburb last week, brought to students by Snickers candy bars, Head and Shoulders shampoo, and Levi's jeans, among other advertisers.

And the viewers here liked it.

The school is one of six sites for a seven-week pilot test of the classroom news show, developed by Whittle Communications of Knoxville, Tenn.

In the premiere, which was beamed from Los Angeles to a satellite dish at each test site, students saw a slick, fast-paced program that included reports on the Eastern Airlines strike, death threats against the author Salman Rushdie, and concerns of teenagers in the Soviet Union.

The program also reported on itself, highlighting in one segment the controversy Channel One has touched off in educational circles and elsewhere.

Because of the escalating debate over its ethical and educational merits, the commercial venture's launching was news not only on Channel One, but also in the national media. The test here attracted news crews from several Boston television stations, the ABC program "Nightline," and Newsweek magazine, not to mention the four reporters deployed by the Billerica Beat, the student newspaper.

Whittle plans to spend $5 million to test the program before 10,000 students in the six schools, which include, in addition to Billerica, Eisenhower Middle School in Kansas City, Kan.; Mumford High School in Detroit; Central High School in Knoxville; Gahr High School in Cerritos, Calif.; and Withrow High School in Cincinnati.

In exchange for a donation from Whittle of roughly $50,000 worth of equipment, including the satellite dish, a videocassette recorder, and a 25-inch television monitor for virtually every classroom, school officials have agreed to make the daily program mandatory viewing for students. To recoup its costs and make a profit, Whittle will sell two minutes of advertising for each show.

If the pilot is successful, the company hopes to go nationwide with the program in 8,000 schools by the fall of 1990, giving advertisers a highly efficient medium to reach the lucrative teen market.

Estimated cost for the full effort would be $250 million, but Whittle would take in advertising revenues of more than $40 million a year.

'A Superficial Hodgepodge'

In recent weeks, a number of major education groups, including the National pta, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the American Association of School Administrators have joined the debate over the program's commercialization of the classroom.

Some have further condemned Channel One as not educationally sound. Most of the national groups have urged local officials not to participate in the program.

"After viewing it, what we have is a very superficial hodgepodge of facts and news," said Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the secondary-school principals' group. "It's a case of trying to teach social studies in 90-second sound bites."

Leaders of the two major teachers' unions have also expressed reservations. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has said the 12 minutes a day for the program add up to one hour a week that will push some other valuable lessons out of the curriculum.

Howard Carroll, a spokesman for the National Education Association, said the union was willing to wait for the test's completion before passing judgement. But he added that "we have problems with the fragmentation of teachers' teaching time."

Peggy Charren, president of the advocacy group Action for Children's Television and one of the most vocal critics of Channel One, has called for school districts to establish "Whittle-free zones."

"It's an advertiser's dream to have the message on both sides of your commercial something the kids are going to get tested on," she said last week on "Nightline."

But Christopher Whittle, the energetic young chairman of Whittle Communications, has launched a counteroffensive to the criticism that has included an op-ed piece and a series of full-page ads in The New York Times. The ads seek to recast the issue as one of business offering an innovative partnership to education.

"Here's a list of everyone willing to donate $250 million to schools," reads the headline of one of the ads, next to a blank list.

In an interview, Mr. Whittle said last week that he had been dismayed at how many critics have rejected the program without having seen it. "It's been a 'shoot first, ask questions later' approach," he said.

He added that, while the critics have been agitated by the idea of 120 seconds of advertising on the program, the typical teenager sees up to 100 different commercials on network television each day, so four more are nothing to fear.

Critics--particularly the spokesmen for education groups opposing the venture--counter that the advertisements on Channel One will be shown to a captive audience.

But Mr. Whittle maintained last week that "the students kind of look at everybody when the advertising issue comes up and yawn."

Students Liked 'Fast Pace'

In fact, at last week's trial run at Billerica High--a mostly white, middle-class school with an enrollment of 1,600--students reacted positively to the news program and were mostly indifferent to the ads.

"I thought it would just be a boring newscast, but I liked it," said Kim Yeomans, a junior.

Michael DiBiasio, a senior, called it "well suited for teens."

Its fast pace, he said, "is intended to keep students' attention."

Steve Bowman, a junior, said that most students would normally be "talking or sleeping" during homeroom, the period the program is shown. Of its four ads, he said, "you see those commercials every day" on network television.

Several students pointed out that the attention levels of their classmates seemed to decline during the ads, then increased when the youthful, casually dressed anchors--Lynn Blades and Ken Rogers Jr.--returned to the screen.

Billerica's principal, Thomas Sharkey, stressed that since the program is being shown during the homeroom period, no time devoted to the curriculum has been reduced.

"This will serve as a catalyst for discussion of the curriculum," he argued.

Carlotta McCarthy, a teacher who is the school's aft representative, agreed, saying Channel One would serve as a "jumping off spot in the morning to stimulate discussion."

Charles Helling, who was among several parents invited to view the premiere, said he thought the program was well tailored to his freshman daughter and her friends.

"My daughter prefers the news she watches on MTV [a cable channel catering to the teen market] because it is fast, not wordy and drawn out," he said.

Several students said they doubted whether their classmates spent a lot of time with a newspaper or watching the evening newscasts.

"I watch the news and I try to read the paper, but I don't think most kids do," said Kerri Walsh, a sophomore.

But one Billerica teacher expressed concern over the intrusion of paid advertising into the school.

"The commercials bother me because they carry a message I am trying to fight in the classroom," said John Desmond, a social-studies teacher. He tries, he said, to promote social awareness as an antidote to the materialism prevalent in the advertising messages.

One participant in the test last week voiced stronger concerns about one of the first ads to appear in the Channel One broadcast. Robin Oden, the principal at Detroit's Mumford High School, objected to the Levi's ad because he felt it had "sexual overtones."

Whittle officials have agreed to drop the ad, which mixes shots of a boys' choir with several romantic scenes of teenage couples.

Meanwhile, some advertisers are said to be shying away from the project because of the criticism it has drawn. They reportedly include the athletic-shoe firm Converse.

But Dan Chew, marketing manager for Levi Strauss & Co., said innovative media projects like Channel One are usually controversial.

"The consensus here was that it was well done," he concluded. "The appeal for us is that the news is presented from teenager to teenager, instead of adult to teenager."

Although the jeans-maker plans to carefully analyze results of the pilot, the program would seem to offer, Mr. Chew said, "an efficient way to reach our primary target market, which is 14- to 24-year-olds."

'Seducing' Poorer Districts?

But critics have not focused solely on the commercials. Several question the educational value of the news program itself.

"It struck me as sort of a 12-minute MTV version of 'Good Morning America,"' said Bella Rosenberg, assistant to the president of the aft

Asked Patricia Albjerg Graham, dean of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education: "Is this the best way to become informed about current events in the world?"

"If the point of this is to inform young people," she said, "it may be a good entry point to get them interested. But it certainly does not replace serious study of geography, history, politics, and government."

Some have suggested that, if Channel One goes to national distribution, it would be poorer urban or rural districts that would be most easily seduced by the offer of free equipment.

"There really is a tradeoff," said Helen Boehm, an educational pyschologist in New York who monitors children's advertising. "My child didn't see the Inauguration because there was no television set available at the school. The idea of access to that technology is very exciting."

Mr. Whittle said the pilot schools have already found new uses for the equipment, including the airing of science programs and production of a school news service.

In addition, Whittle announced last week that the Pacific Mountain Network, which represents public-television stations in 13 Western states, would send educational programming over the Channel One system free to the pilot schools.

But Billerica officials insisted that the notion that schools had been "seduced" by the offer of hardware was "very superficial."

"If the program has merit, schools will have an interest in it, even if they are already wired up and have video equipment," said the assistant principal, Kim Greenwalt.

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