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Video: The Battle over Classroom TV

5 minute read
Richard Zoglin

The beleaguered high school teacher played by Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle finally got through to his unruly inner-city class by showing them a movie. “What’s the answer — visual education?” marveled a fellow teacher after the breakthrough session. “Partly,” Ford replied. “If you can just get them stimulated . . .”

Times have changed. Today the issue is not whether visual education (via flickering projector or state-of-the-art VCR) can stimulate students. The question is who should do the stimulating, and at what cost. With the debut of a controversial newscast for teenagers, a fierce battle has been joined over TV in the classroom.

Channel One, the latest brainchild of Knoxville media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, began daily broadcasts last week to 400 junior and senior high schools. (An additional 2,500 have signed up, and will be on board by late May.) Each twelve-minute show provides a digest of the previous day’s news, tailored for teens. Few educators dispute the value of such a show in teaching kids about world affairs. Nor do they deny the appeal of Whittle’s sales pitch: for every school that agrees to take Channel One, Whittle will donate the satellite and video equipment needed to receive it. The problem, for many, is how Whittle plans to make money from all this: each show is laced with two minutes of commercials.

The notion of commercials in the classroom raised a furor when it was introduced last year. It also inspired a shrewd countermove by Atlanta cable kingpin Ted Turner. Starting last September, Turner’s Cable News Network began offering a classroom newscast of its own, without commercials. (Time Warner Inc. owns 18% of CNN’s parent, Turner Broadcasting Co., and 50% of Whittle Communications.) The 15-minute show, CNN Newsroom, is telecast each morning at 3:45; schools with cable can tape it and play it back later in the day. Turner’s nonprofit venture does not offer free equipment, but many cable operators have agreed to connect noncable schools gratis if they sign up for CNN’s program. More than 7,500 schools have enrolled thus far, though only half of them are actually using the show in classes.

The two programs resemble each other only superficially. Each is fronted by a young team of male and female co-anchors. Each provides a quick recap of headlines along with a few lengthier reports. But Channel One is slicker, faster-paced and more customized for its young audience. Last week’s stories, for example, included a look at what military-budget cuts could mean for teenagers who want to enlist, a report on the outcry against satanic rock lyrics, and interviews with young West Berliners. The show’s approach seems geared mainly for younger teens; the ads, however, hawk Gillette razors along with Nike shoes and M & M’s candy.

CNN’s entry is both more substantial and more of a patchwork. Stories are a combination of fresh material and recycled pieces that have aired on CNN earlier in the day. A report on the Soviet elections, for example, began with narration by anchorman Brian Todd, who carefully defined such concepts as perestroika. But then came a report from Moscow correspondent Steve Hurst, who tossed out phrases like “party apparatchik” without further elaboration.

The content of both shows, however, has been overshadowed by the debate about commercials. Several prominent education organizations have denounced Channel One for bringing ads into the classroom. Officials in New York and California have barred the show from state classrooms. “We felt that we had no right as educators and policymakers to provide Whittle a captive audience to which he could sell,” says Martin Barell, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. Others balk at Whittle’s demand that schools guarantee a certain percentage of students will watch the show daily. “If you mandate that kids watch it, you really have a problem with who controls the curriculum,” says Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction.

Whittle has fought back vociferously. In a series of full-page ads in the New York Times, he attacked state bureaucrats for overruling local principals, teachers and parents, who Whittle claims support Channel One. On the matter of commercials, Whittle argues that kids see thousands of TV ads each year and that two minutes more a day is a small price to pay for a show that will enhance their meager knowledge of world affairs. “I don’t see why we can’t bring ((commercials)) into the service of education,” he says. “It’s a reasonable trade-off.”

So far, both shows are getting mostly high marks from their customers. Carrollton High School in northwest Georgia last fall selected 30 students to participate in a course built around CNN Newsroom. The result, says principal Pat Wright: “We have some pretty strong data that these kids are more apt to know what’s going on in the world.” Joe Mancini, principal of Bishop Ready High School in Columbus, which subscribes to Channel One, praises the show’s emphasis on geography and world events. As for the ads, he says they will be discussed in class along with the news: “What better way to produce discriminating consumers than to have the students watch commercials with some faculty members?” No word yet on whether the students are buying more Nike sneakers — or how many 13-year-olds are shaving.



Schools signed up 7,500 2,900

Length of show 15 min. 12 min.

Commercials None 2 min.

Selling point CNN Free video

credibility equipment

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