Stealth TV

At Clifton High School, a mostly white, working-class institution in suburban New Jersey, it's time for second period--and for Channel One, a public-affairs TV broadcast available exclusively for school viewing. Mounted high in a corner of every classroom--as omnipresent an icon as the American flag--is a large-screen television set, provided by Channel One. The face on the screen is that of school principal William Cannici. Speaking into a microphone, he tries a few jokes, then announces student vocational-award winners. In Mrs. Rossi's Spanish class, restless students begin talking among themselves. Suddenly, the teacher shushes her charges: It's show time.

The hip-hop music starts. Heads bounce to the beat. Cut to two young, fashionably dressed anchorwomen, one white and one black. First up in the news is a tough sell to almost any viewership: the census. Point: Without an accurate count, schools can't get their rightful aid. The census form flashes on the screen. "Hey, I got that!" remarks a student. Channel One's reporter interviews a census spokesperson, a sexually ambiguous-looking woman with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. "What the heck is that?" a student in the back of the room asks with a chortle.

Time for a commercial break. Teens snowboard and dirt-bike their way through the Mountain Dew life (170 calories, 46 grams of sugar per can): "Do the Dew!" Then a Twinkies spot (150 calories, 14 grams of sugar per two-pack).

Back to the news. As a story airs about the pope's groundbreaking mea culpa over the Catholic Church's transgressions toward the Jews, much of the class is deep in chitchat; the teacher tries, without success, to silence the talk. Other students appear to be doing their homework. Two young women are checking their makeup, and four are resting their heads on their desks. Not one person has a comment about the story, described by The New York Times as "the most sweeping papal apology ever."

Another commercial break. As the first frames roll, a student shrieks, "Pokémon!" Declares another: "I need to get that." Next ad: Join the Marines. One viewer chimes along with the script: "The Few. The Proud... ."

For 10 years now, the folks behind Channel One have been able to offer advertisers a dream demographic: a captive audience composed of nearly half of all American teenagers. (And they truly are captive, as Carlotta and D.J. Maurer, two students at Perrysburg Junior High School in Ohio, can attest. Their refusal to watch Channel One in school bought them a day in the Wood County Juvenile Detention Center.) On the condition that all teachers will air and all students will watch its daily satellite-broadcast programs, Channel One lends television sets and other equipment to schools. The company, which claims to reach a teen market 50 times larger than MTV's, profits by selling two of every 12 program minutes for commercials coupled with call-in contests and cool banter.

As noxious as these school-sanctioned ads are, Channel One's success is part of a larger trend toward in-school marketing: Textbook manufacturers insert proprietary brand names into math equations, corporations provide book covers emblazoned with their logos, soda companies entice school officials into signing deals for on-campus product exclusivity, and companies donate computers that have the ability, in some cases, to track the online behavior of individual students. A whole new industry of consultants has sprung up to help corporate clients position their products in schools.

Even in today's thoroughly commercialized environment, there is something especially insidious about school-endorsed product pushing. For one thing, schools are supposed to offer a haven from the worst the world has to offer. We authorize metal detectors and locker sweeps to prevent deadly violence on campus. But there are other dangers to impressionable minds. Channel One's hyperkinetic blend of "current-affairs broadcasting" and carefully targeted commercials blurs the line between fact and fiction, between reporting that at least tries to be objective and the self-serving rhetoric of the advertising business. Unquestionably, young people lack the media "literacy" skills necessary to understand fully what they are dealing with: A recent study cited in Education Week shows that ninth-graders who watched ads in which professional athletes endorsed products thought the athletes had themselves paid for the ads.

Channel What?

Few American adults have ever heard of Channel One--a remarkable fact, considering that one in four middle and high schools now broadcasts it and an estimated 40 percent of all high school students are compelled to watch its programming every single school day. Perhaps parents do not know about Channel One because their kids (some eight million of them, in 12,000 schools) do not tell them about it. As for the key American institutions--governmental, educational--that might be expected to raise an alarm, they have mostly been looking the other way.

Last fall the first-ever government study of commercialization in the schools was published. The General Accounting Office (GAO) report, requested by two Democrats--Representative George Miller of California and Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut--notes that in-school marketing is dramatically on the rise and that deals between schools and companies are being made on a district-by-district basis. Local educators are not equipped to negotiate with crafty marketers bearing freebies, much less to address the larger educational issues. While the GAO study was being circulated, the Federal Trade Commission released a report specifically condemning the marketing of violent content to underage children.

In some ways, the "new" political interest in protecting our children from the onslaught of the marketers harks back to 1989, when Channel One was launched by entrepreneur Chris Whittle (later, in 1994, he sold the company to K-III Communications, now called Primedia). Initially, the service faced heavy criticism from liberal groups and from educational powerhouses such as the national Parent-Teacher Association, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), and various principals' associations; even the American Academy of Pediatrics frowned upon for-profit classroom television. But the well-financed company won over school system after school system, and effective opposition dried up.

Of late, none of the major teachers' or school administrators' organizations has seemed willing to mount a serious challenge to Channel One. Two years ago, NEA officials told Channel One critics that while the association remains opposed to the service, removing it from America's classrooms was not a priority. The AFT offered a similar line. And the National Association of School Principals rebuffed Channel One opponents several times when they requested a meeting. As a result, the battle against Channel One is being waged by several tiny public-interest groups and through scattered, small-scale parent uprisings. The educational establishment apparently believes that the issue lacks urgency.

Governmental bodies tend to accept the claim that the free equipment and the "news value" of Channel One more than make up for any downside; besides, the argument goes, local governments can address the matter if they so choose. Even the GAO report declares that it is impossible to differentiate the effects of bombardment by Channel One from those of the commercial messages directed at young people outside school hours. Although the GAO researchers were undoubtedly well-meaning, such a claim is a cop-out: Many in-school marketers specially design ads, promotions, contests, and the like to track the impact of their sales pitches.

Can anyone doubt that the ads on Channel One are grossly out of place in an academic environment? Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media and culture at New York University who studied Channel One's content in 1997, concluded that its commercial messages reinforced bad body image, emphasized the importance of buying things, and glamorized boorish and loutish behavior. To ensure "stickiness," the ad campaigns often feature interactive components. One that I saw urged students to watch a film called Never Been Kissed, then to call in and answer questions about the movie's content in order to qualify for a chance to win a $500 shopping spree and a watch.

Rather than defend the indefensible, Channel One insists that the ads are not what matters. At the company's Madison Avenue headquarters, sleek, gunmetal-silver placards fit for the starship Enterprise proclaim "Education" and "Our Missions: To Inform and Empower Young People." These displays imply that the ads are a necessary evil that makes possible a bounty of fresh educational content and free equipment. Indeed, in a meeting with me last year, Channel One officials sought repeatedly to focus attention on the educational merits of their product. The company has been able to orchestrate favorable publicity ranging from a laudatory New York Times op-ed by a Catholic priest who is also a principal in a Channel One school to supportive statements from the ordinarily populist Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

Company executives claim that the broadcasts hold students' interest because they deliver important information in an appealing manner. (The students appear to identify with the youthful newscasters as stars; indeed, one of them, Lisa Ling, has moved on to anchoring a commercial-network morning show.) The solution to disaffection among youths, say executives, is to deliver a product that shows them how world affairs are relevant to them and their families. "We go to Kosovo and talk to kids who are their age," said Susan Tick, an outside PR representative for Channel One. "You don't connect with them otherwise."

Even by these standards, the compilation tape Channel One gave me was not impressive: It included a segment summarizing the Bill Clinton impeachment situation, delivered at a rapid-fire pace that seemed harder for an average teen to follow than a conventional news broadcast. The commentary is often self-promotional, with Channel One correspondents and anchors gushing about how they've gotten to travel to exotic places, and with interviewed students identified as attendees of "a Channel One school."

If we are to accept Channel One's request that it be judged on its news content, we have to face the fact that there just isn't much there. Of the 10 minutes of "news," only two to three minutes is breaking news, according to William Hoynes, a Vassar College sociologist who studies the intersection of media and education. The remainder is a hodgepodge of contests, self-promotion, light features and profiles, music intros, and pop quizzes. And Hoynes concludes that even those paltry hard-news minutes frame the issues in rigid terms that do not promote original thought or critical thinking.

Not surprisingly, Channel One doesn't offer any statistics to prove that its programs benefit students. "We have attitudinal studies showing that teachers believe it to be productive," said Jeffrey Ballabon, a Channel One executive vice president. "They know kids don't read newspapers. They also don't watch the evening news." Perhaps the citation of "attitudinal" evidence is necessitated by the findings of one study the company did commission: A 1994 University of Michigan analysis found that students performed just 5 percent better in high schools that aired the programs and 8 percent better in participating middle schools--and then only in an "exemplary" (read: highly atypical) environment in which the teacher actively sought to incorporate the broadcast content into the class and made sure the students were paying attention. There was no measurable increase in discussion of news outside the school or in efforts to seek out additional information from outside news sources.

Nevertheless, most administrators and teachers seem to love their Channel One. With good reason: The company provides TV sets and a broadcast system that the schools use for their own purposes, including the principal's morning addresses. "Our district is not a real wealthy district," explains Lawrence Westerfield, principal of Mt. Healthy South Middle School in Cincinnati, Ohio, which airs Channel One. If you want the technology, says Westerfield, "you have to count on advertisers to pay."

Yet there is evidence that the schools aren't getting a very good deal. A 1998 study co-authored by Alex Molnar, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, concluded that broadcasting Channel One takes up six or seven days of instruction over the school year and costs American taxpayers $1.8 billion annually. Molnar, who heads the Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation, compared the average cost of 12 daily minutes of a secondary school's time, or about $158,000 a year, with the total value of Channel One's equipment ($17,000) and the annual rental value of the equipment ($4,000). Even the value of the time spent watching the two minutes of commercials ($26,000) exceeded the value of the equipment. And those Channel One minutes add up. A child who views the shows from sixth grade to graduation will lose seven weeks of school time.

Ad Nauseam

Despite Channel One's self-proclaimed educational mission, the company offers a different story to advertisers. As Channel One's then-president bragged to a youth marketing conference in 1994, "The biggest selling point to advertisers [is that] ... we are forcing kids to watch two minutes of commercials... . The advertiser gets a group of kids who cannot go to the bathroom, who cannot change the station, who cannot listen to their mother yell in the background, who cannot be playing Nintendo, who cannot have their headsets on." Channel One continually conducts surveys about the spending patterns of teens; and its Web site, heavily touted on the shows themselves, provides an ideal means of obtaining direct feedback from the students.

Channel One also makes much of its public-service announcements, including those warning students to resist peer pressure to take drugs. Meanwhile, it airs ads stressing ways to be cool and brags to advertisers that controlled viewing in the classroom is the ideal way to play on teens' insecurity and desire to fit in.

Channel One makes a lot of money--$346 million in 1999 ad revenues--for its financially troubled parent company, Primedia, which reported a net loss of $120 million that year. With an estimated $200,000 price per 30-second ad (a rate comparable to the major networks'), Channel One is a crucial element in the company's future strategy. In its 1999 stockholder report, Primedia declared: "Our products serve highly specialized niches and capitalize on the growing trend toward targeted rather than mass information distribution. Many of the company's products, such as ... CHANNEL ONE NEWS, ... afford advertisers with an opportunity to directly reach niche market audiences. CHANNEL ONE NEWS has no direct competition in the schools [my emphasis] but does compete for advertising dollars with other media aimed at teenagers."

With so vast a market at stake, Channel One has not been reluctant to spend in order to protect its franchise. When Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, an ally of the ragtag band of Channel One opponents, initiated Senate hearings in 1999, Channel One dumped almost $1 million into a lobbying effort led by former Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed and the powerful law firm of Preston, Gates, and Ellis--and effectively kept a lid on further action or hearings. Last spring a Shelby-sponsored sense-of-the-Senate resolution opposing commercialization of the schools was blocked by Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and heavy lobbying by Reed and former New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato. The company has other means of winning support: Channel One's Ballabon insisted on faxing me a mound of positive letters; several from students mentioned free trips to Channel One's Los Angeles production studios.

Lined up against Channel One's PR juggernaut is a spirited and diverse coalition that includes Professor Molnar's group; Ralph Nader's D.C.-based Commercial Alert; the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, located in Oakland, California; and Obligation, Inc., a group from Birmingham, Alabama, headed by Republican businessman Jim Metrock. When Metrock found out that his children were watching Channel One, he did his own study; he's been a committed opponent ever since. He has helped recruit a number of socially conservative groups--like Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and James Dobson's Focus on the Family--some of which are more concerned with what they perceive as risqué content than with commercialism per se. In addition, Channel One's critics convinced the 15.8-million-member Southern Baptist Convention to pass a resolution in 1999 opposing the enterprise.

That's about it on a national scale. Channel One likes to keep the battleground local, where school officials often lack the training and policy sophistication to ask tough questions about content control and educational philosophy. Thus far, only one state, New York, has banned Channel One from the public schools.

Still, a few small districts have voted to bar Channel One, and Metrock says that some teachers in schools contractually obligated to show the programs are nevertheless switching them off. The company has apparently responded by warning errant schools that it will its yank equipment. And Channel One has now retained Nielsen Media Research to measure student viewing in 1,500 schools.

Sooner or later, it seems, educational advocates are going to have to make Channel One and its ilk a priority. If we are really on the brink of a top-to-bottom reconstitution of American education, then surely the intrusion of corporate products must be addressed. And enthusiasm for these new methods of "improving" the educational experience bears scrutiny if the letters of support from teachers and principals that Channel One's Ballabon forwarded to me are any evidence. Many contained the sorts of appalling errors--in spelling, grammar, syntax, and exposition--that these educators are supposed to be helping students avoid.

Were the topic ever to reach the national agenda, many vexing questions about education itself would be raised. For example, Channel One advocates contend that the broadcasts make it easier to teach young people about the news because the young hosts know how to speak kids' language. This, of course, suggests that adult educators (and parents, for that matter) are incapable of discussing the ways of the world in a compelling manner--a sentiment not everyone shares. And anyway, in an America awash in exhortations to buy and consume, shouldn't institutions of learning and discussion be free from the constant pressures toward superficiality and conformity?

Meanwhile, Primedia has announced a merger with the Internet company About.com, which has intricate business partnerships with pornography purveyors. Conservatives are upset by that, as they are with Senator Brownback, who is a leader in denouncing violence in the media yet enthusiastically backs Channel One, with its advertising for violent movies.

This year opponents are likely to concentrate on challenging the federal government's role as a major Channel One benefactor through its paid advertising for the armed services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. But if there's strong, broad, untapped sentiment against the juggernaut, it probably needs to coalesce fairly soon: Channel One officials told me the company looks forward to rolling out the programs in thousands of additional schools. ?

Kimberly Smith provided reporting assistance for this article.

Pop Quiz

Kathleen Ryan, a history teacher at Clifton High in New Jersey, believes that Channel One is a helpful supplement to her lesson plans. "Although the kids are like sitting ducks for the commercials," she says, "sometimes I see Channel One seeping through when they talk about the news."

Several anecdotal studies by groups critical of Channel One found that students retained virtually none of the news material when quizzed the following day but did remember most of the commercial content. (Channel One, sensitive to the criticism, has begun to offer schools additional, commercial-free programming on topics such as science, drug prevention, and sports.) Immediately after Clifton students viewed a Channel One news program, we conducted our own quiz on the broadcast and on general knowledge of current events. Here's what the students said.

Two females, ages 14 and 15 (interviewed together):

Q: For what is the pope apologizing?


A: He didn't say nothing about the Jews.

Q: What is the importance of the census?


A: I don't know why it is important. But it may help to know if someone needs help bathing.

Q: Can you recall the commercials?


A: [They can name all except for the Marines' spot.]

Q: Why were there riots in Seattle a few months ago?


A: Don't know.

Q: What does WTO stand for?


A: Isn't that wrestling?

Q: What is your favorite commercial on Channel One?


A: The Twinkie one where the raccoon gets hit by the truck.

Male, age 16:

Q: What do you think about the verdict in the Diallo case?


A: Those four cops were not charged with nothing, and they should be.

Q: What do you know about Bob Jones University?


A: Nothing.

Q: Why were there riots in Seattle a few months ago?


A: Something to do with jobs.

Female, age 14:

Q: What is the importance of the census?


A: So you know how many people are in the world.

Q: For what is the pope apologizing?


A: I don't know. He went to the Holy Land.

Q: What is your favorite commercial on Channel One?


A: I wasn't paying attention.

Q: What do you think about the verdict in the Diallo case?


A: The cops should go to jail.

Q: Name two Democratic presidential candidates.


A: Bush and Gore.

Male, age 14:

Q: What is the importance of the census?


A: To find out population. Something to do with the economy and Congress.

Q: For what is the pope apologizing?


A: Pope John Paul let all the Jews die.

Q: Name two Democratic presidential candidates.


A: Dole, McCain.

Q: What is your favorite commercial on Channel One?


A: The Nike one with the guy running.

Female, age 16:

Q: Why do you like Channel One?


A: I get to do my homework in class.

Female, age 15:

Q: What do you know about Bob Jones University?


A: Interracial dating. George Bush just spoke there.

Q: Where did you learn about this?


A: Mr. Grohl, my English teacher. He always talks about it.

Q: Name two Democratic presidential candidates.


A: I do not know.

Female, age 16:

Q: What is your favorite commercial on Channel One?


A: I like the sticky-film one. All the kids in my class always sing along together.

Q: Why were there riots in Seattle a few months ago?


A: No idea.

Q: What does WTO stand for?


A: No idea.

Female, age 18:

Q: What is your favorite commercial on Channel One?


A: The antidrug one. It's funny. People laugh at it.

Q: Why were there riots in Seattle a few months ago?


A: Don't know.

Q: Name two Democratic presidential candidates.


A: Gore, Bush. Don't know their first names. I am into politics but I can't remember.

Q: For what is the pope apologizing?


A: Pope Pius never stood up and did nothing. That is what the pope is apologizing for.

Q: How did you learn about this?


A: I'm Catholic. I just did a research paper on it.

Male, age 17:

Q: For what is the pope apologizing?


A: People don't believe in what he believes. Something like that.

Q: Name two Democratic presidential candidates.


A: McCain and Bradley.

Q: Why were there riots in Seattle a few months ago?


A: Trade organization or something. Workers.

Q: How do you know about this?


A: I saw it on the news at home.

Q: What is your favorite commercial on Channel One?


A: The guy running around with the boom box. Nike.

--Russ Baker and Kimberly Smith

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