Readin', writin', and the hard sell


October 08, 1990|By Jean Marbella

In a world of celebrity endorsements, movie-merchandise tie-ins and concert tour sponsorships, the schoolroom seemed like one of the last commercial-free zones left in the country.

But now, in about 31 Maryland schools and a total 4,700 nationwide, the subject of current events comes with a word from our sponsors -- Nike, Clearasil, Burger King and the like.

They advertise via Channel One, a 12-minute news broadcast that has become required viewing during school hours for some 3.2 million middle and high school students, even as many educators decry its use. While supporters see the show as an appealing way to reach students demonstrably uninterested in world events, opponents claim it is a tool to market products to an already label-conscious, TV-dominated generation.

While Channel One refused to identify which Maryland schools have hooked into the system, many are believed to be private schools. Only one public school system -- St. Mary's County -- is known to have signed up.

But students and teachers at schools that have received free televisions and equipment in exchange for daily viewing of Channel One largely applaud the show.

"I don't think kids watch the news or read the paper on their own. They might read sports, but it stops there. They need to be sensitized to world events," said Brother Paul Coco, associate administrator at Cardinal Gibbons School, one of nine Catholic schools in the Baltimore and Annapolis areas to get Channel One.

"Kids don't know where places are in the world. Channel One starts every broadcast with a map, then zooms in on the location of the story. The stress on geography helps the kids become more globally aware."

Several students interviewed in one homeroom at Gibbons said they didn't follow the news before the school started showing Channel One and extending the school day by 15 minutes to accommodate it.

Since September, the 320 Gibbons students start their day with the TV in their homeroom flickering on. A student council representative leads them in prayer and pledge to the flag and then reads a bit of school news -- money is due for an upcoming Kings Dominion trip, the school "crushed" Northern in a recent match.

Then, with a rush of colorful, fast-cutting graphics and video images, anchor Michele Ruiz introduces the program. The broadcast seemed quite professional, if cursory. A recent program featured several top news stories (2 Live Crew, the latest on the Persian Gulf) and longer features on Louisiana senatorial candidate David Duke and college selection tips. Four commercials -- for Trident gum, Magnavox personal computers, Three Musketeers bar and a Nike anti-drug spot -- took up two of the show's 12 minutes.

The program's brevity and youth orientation -- the reporters and anchors themselves are all in their mid-20s -- make it more appealing than regular television and newspapers, the students said.

One said the network news was hard to comprehend because of the "big words," but Channel One "breaks it down." And others said they just don't read newspapers.

"They prolong everything. They make everything too long," said 14-year-old Jeremy Jeffra. "This shortens it down."

"I think this is different from the regular news programs," said Rocky Marcantoni, 14. "It talks about things people are interested in. They talk about schools. Last week they had something on gangs."

The Knoxville (Tenn.)-based Whittle Communications -- which owns waiting-room magazines, books and other televised programs that mix advertising into their informational content -- provides Channel One via free satellites and TVs to the schools that agree to show the program at least 90 percent of the time. School staff can preview the broadcast and opt not to show the program that day for up to 10 percent of the time, but Whittle spokesman Gary Belis said that rarely happens. Whittle also transmits longer educational programs that schools often tape for future use.

hTC Critics, however, say that Channel One is not about education; ++ it's about marketing.

"School should be the one place where no one is trying to sell you anything," said Peggy Charren, president of the advocacy group, Action for Children's Television, "where it's not what you wear or what you buy, but who you are and what you know."

Mark Crispin Miller, media studies professor at Johns Hopkins University, said the entire program, not just the two minutes of actual commercials, is a commercial.

"What struck me was the marked pro-business bias," said Mr. Miller, who has seen tapes of the program. "People say, 'At least students are getting a sense of the world,' but it's a very slanted view of the world.

"It's very fast, very gimmicky," he added. "If schools are for trying to teach children to learn and reason, well, this fights the ability to think. It is TV at its most hypnotic."

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