A dose of propaganda with no education value . . . Channel One comes to the city

Mark Crispin Miller

September 09, 1992|By Mark Crispin Miller

CHRISTOPHER Whittle has brought his traveling road show to the secondary schools of Baltimore. Thanks to his salesmanship, and the severe impoverishment of public education, the teen-agers in this city this fall are required to spend 12 minutes of every school day gaping at the latest broadcast of the controversial Channel One -- a lite, speedy mix of news bits (two to three minutes), magazine show featurettes (seven to eight minutes) and -- above all -- slick commercials (two minutes).

This will amount to 36 hours of classroom time per year -- six full school days -- devoted to a so-called "news and information program" that, according to every available study, has almost no educational value.

You have probably heard nothing of this plan. Our school board has not publicized its deal with Mr. Whittle, nor have the media reported it. The arrangement must now become the subject of open debate, because, if uncontested, it will only worsen the education of our children.

Whittle Communications is a high-profile media company based in Knoxville, Tenn. It is owned partly by the media colossus, Time Warner Inc., partly by Philips Electronics, a multinational conglomerate based in the Netherlands, and partly by Chris Whittle, who has gotten very rich by finding new ways to insert bright, punchy advertising into places that, by and large, had always been ad-free: doctor's lobbies, laundromats, hard-cover books -- and public schools. Mr. Whittle was a pioneer at bringing corporate advertisers into the halls of education, through mini-billboards, posters and various special magazines. Begun in 1989, Mr. Whittle's Channel One has proven, for the advertisers, an especially alluring package, providing them with unrestricted daily access to a vast captive audience of young consumers -- as of 1992, some 8 million students in about 12,000 schools.

Mr. Whittle's deal involves a simple trade-off: class-time for video hardware. The school must arrange to have all its students sit through every daily broadcast from start to finish. (Teachers may not control the broadcast, which must be fed into all classrooms from a centrally located VCR.) In return, Mr. Whittle provides each school with a satellite dish, two VCRs and a 19-inch color TV set for every classroom, and also sees that the equipment is properly installed and serviced. The school does not own this hardware, but gets to use it only for as long as the school agrees to enforce those daily viewings.

Thus the video equipment is not "free," as Mr. Whittle claims, but only borrowed -- and we all pay for it anyway, with the tax dollars that maintain those classrooms and support the daily schedule. We pay, in other words, for Chris Whittle's business enterprise, which makes him millions in ad revenues, and which provides the big advertisers with a clear shot -- day after day -- at our children's minds.

Such payment might be worth it if Channel One provided any pedagogical assistance -- but it does nothing of the kind. Its minimal news stories are not so much enlightening as dizzying, recited, by the show's teen hosts, in an accelerated babble that would tax anyone's comprehension, and made even more bewildering by Channel One's relentless, pointless visual din (such as we also see, of course, on regular TV).

Out of this audio-visual mess, it is (not too surprisingly) the ads alone that make a coherent impression -- as this exchange, noted by a Milwaukee teachers' group, makes all too clear:

Who remembers something that was on today's newscast?

Silence. Hesitantly, Pat raises his hand.

"This Snickers commercial," Pat says.

"Why do you remember that?"

"Because it's candy," Pat answers.

Indeed, several recent studies indicate that, while the show's news bits have taught the viewers little, the commercials have hit home. Channel One's "effect on the measured current events knowledge of the average viewer was quite small," concludes a study from the University of Michigan -- a report subsidized, optimistically, by Whittle Communications. According to another study, conducted at Michigan State, the viewers of Channel One tend not to delve more deeply into current events: "Students with Channel One did not report greater use of other news media such as daily newspapers, weekly news magazines and local and network TV news." Meanwhile, those students "reported more materialistic attitudes than nonviewers" and "were more likely to want what was being advertised."

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