Whittle Communications and Free TV’s For Schools

Imagine for a moment a hypothetical, joint project by the National Parent-Teacher Organization, the League of Women Voters and the National Urban League to provide seventh graders through high school senior’s a twelve minute free daily television program on American democracy in action. Imagine further that those schools accepting such a program must require all classes to watch the program except for students who individually ask to be excused.

How many of the thousands of public and private schools do you think would accept such an offer? Not many, I would guess.

But in the last two years, over 10,000 schools have agreed to give up twelve minutes a day and deliver a captive student audience to a commercial huckster called Whittle Communications that gives then 10 minutes of sponged news and lifestyle flashes and two minutes of advertisements. The televised ads push candy, soft drinks, high fat foods, deodorants, shampoos and designer shoes — to name a few. The Whittle corporation makes over three million dollars a week off this immensely profitable venture.

The schools sign three year agreements with Whittle Inc. to deliver their classrooms, usually at the beginning of the school day, in return for free rental of televisions, VCRs and a satellite dish. Other non-competitive use of such equipment is permitted the schools by Whittle Inc.

Twelve minutes a day of television in class amounts to six whole days a year staring at the tube, including one whole day watching advertisements. All this on top of the twenty five hours or more a week that these youngsters spend watching TV and videotapes at home.

Whittle has not tempted the National Education Association, nor the American Federation of Teachers nor the National PTO -­all of whom are against Whittle’s Channel One, as it is called. New York, California and Rhode Island have banned Channel One from the public schools.

All this opposition and more argues that the time is better spent on teaching students to read, write and working in groups to develop their minds, rather than allowing blatant commercialism to invade the schools with soundbites and ads that help turn minds into nodding acquiescence. Schools, it would seem, can teach current events without depending on Whittle’s sugar-coated messages.

But all this opposition has not affected 10,000 schools who want Whittle primarily for the equipment that the company provides. School administrators claim tight school budgets do not permit them to purchase this video technology, which explains why CNN’s offer to those same schools of free news programs without commercials and without the equipment is receiving few takers.

Whittle’s arguments, however, were rejected recently by the Prince George’s County Board of Education (Maryland). Anti-Whittle taxpayers estimated that $7.8 million of junior and senior high school time per year would have been devoted to Channel One in that county alone.

Public school officials who have allowed Whittle into their schools need to rethink why boundaries between public education and contagious commercialism are needed. Students deserve a sanctuary from the din of the hucksters and their pseudo, predigested menu of daily events. Taxpayers deserve something more for their money than merchants who videowash young students every schoolday morning.

Parents who wish more information on how to switch off Channel One should write to the Center for the Study of Commercialism, 1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20009. What with low literacy, high drop-out rates and uneducated youngsters, schools ought to encourage students to watch less, not more, television.

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