. . . And one that that Baltimore swallowed whole

Jerome Christensen

September 09, 1992|By Jerome Christensen

GARY Thrift, a Baltimore school administrator, calls Channel One a "gift." He must be joking. Chris Whittle has given nothing to the schools. All the equipment is on loan, subject to recall if any school has the nerve to shut off Channel One more than 10 times during the school year.

Mr. Whittle is no benefactor. He is a businessman who stands to make buckets of money on his classroom broadcasts. The schools have given Mr. Whittle valuable space, valuable time and, above all, a captive audience for his clients' commercials.

Perhaps Mr. Thrift calls Channel One a gift because he wants to hide the school system's failure either to seek competitive bids on this advertising concession or even to consider alternative vendors. True, he might claim that no competitive bid was legally required because no money changes hands. Technically, that may be true, but it has long been city policy to seek competitive bids on vendors who want to install concessions in schools, even when there is no money spent. That policy has the sensible aim of getting the best deal. The only recent exception is, not surprisingly, a contract with Mr. Whittle permitting him to post billboards in school hallways.

There is an alternative to Channel One. "CNN Newsroom" offers a daily current events cable broadcast that is intelligently designed for middle and high schools -- and is commercial-free. The only difference is that the Whittle firm supposedly offers "free" equipment with its programming. But it's a small difference. Not only is the technology not free; it's not worth much.

Mr. Whittle says the value of his equipment is about $50,000 per school. For example, Roland Park Middle School has received 40 monitors and a couple of VCRs along with a satellite dish and wiring. You could buy those TVs and VCRs at wholesale for $200 each. That adds up to $8,500, or roughly $750,000 for the system's 85 middle and high schools. Although it does cost money for the wiring and satellite dish, the only need for a dish is to receive Channel One. All other educational programming is on cable. The administration has kept it quiet that most schools already are wired for cable. Now, in a move sadly characteristic of the system's false economies, they're being wired a second time.

Let's imagine the worst. Let's imagine that in this financially strapped system there is a desperate need for truckloads of TV sets and that no business in Baltimore is willing to help provide them. What then? Here's a modest proposal with an eye on the bottom line:

Let's follow Mr. Whittle's example and eliminate the middle man. Let's rent our captive student audience to the highest bidder. The local demographics for the audience reached by Channel One and by the Fox network's "Beverly Hills 90210" are nearly identical: a potential audience of 48,000 12-to-19-year-olds for "90210," and 46,000 12-to-19-year-olds available for Channel One. The advertising rate for "90210" is $7,000 for a 60-second spot.

Double that for each day, multiply over 180 school days, and we come up with $2,520,000. That's big money, enough to buy hundreds of TV sets. Even half that sum would be far more than enough to buy what Mr. Whittle is willing to lend.

If we're going to commercialize the schools, let's do it by the rules and let's use our heads. Let's throw Channel One out, take competitive bids and make some real money. Baltimore may not be rich, but that doesn't mean we can't be smart.

Jerome Christensen teaches in the Film and Media Studies program at Johns Hopkins University.

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