Switch Off Channel One

August 21, 1992

You have to admire Whittle Communications, the promoter of the in-school television program known as Channel One. For cash-strapped school systems, Whittle makes an offer that is hard to refuse: Use our 12-minute newscast every school day and we'll supply your system with satellite dishes, video recorders and television sets.

Baltimore City's resource-poor school system has signed up with Whittle. This fall, Channel One will premiere in all of the city's middle and high school classrooms. Every morning, Whittle will deliver by satellite a 10-minute news program with two minutes of ads to each of these classrooms.

While we have supported corporate-school partnerships in the past, this is one project that should be abandoned. In other partnerships with the city's public schools, both the corporations and the schools have benefited equally. Businesses have improved their public image by donating supplies, money or personnel. In return, school children get instruction or materials they might not otherwise receive.

Trade-offs are expected in these arrangements. With Channel One, it is difficult to see how children benefit. They will get more of what is already available on any number of television channels -- mind-numbing news coverage and slickly produced advertising. Channel One doesn't even achieve its purported purpose of interesting children in the news, according to a University of Michigan study released in April. The study concluded that children who watch the programming are only slightly more familiar with current events than those who don't.

Let's not kid ourselves: Whittle is the real beneficiary in this arrangement. The company is able to guarantee advertisers a captive and -- early in the morning -- attentive audience. Whittle, which has been running into financial trouble of late with some of its other ventures, currently derives most of its revenue from Channel One.

Baltimore City school children come out big losers in this arrangement. Kids who already watch too much television and are bombarded by too many commercials will be spending precious time in school watching more television. While 12 minutes a day doesn't sound like a lot of time, over the school year it adds up to 36 hours. Certainly there are more fruitful activities on which that valuable classroom time could be spent.

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