Commerce in the Classroom

Would you want your children to see propaganda that glorifies reckless driving or that reinforces the poor body image of teenage girls? That’s exactly the kind of thing schoolkids are watching on Channel One, a so-called educational broadcast piped into classrooms across the country. Whether your main concern is quality of education, the role of corporations in our culture, or the commercial values children are exposed to, there is great reason to be concerned about Channel One. In essence, Channel One is run by a marketing company that uses the schools to deliver advertising to youngsters. Each school day, work comes to a halt in classrooms across the nation as teachers turn on a TV show made up of two minutes of commercials and 10 minutes of “news.”

Currently, the MTV-like news show reaches about eight million middle, junior high, and high school students in 12,000 schools. Each year, students spend the equivalent of about one class week watching Channel One — including the equivalent of one full school day just watching ads. Advertisers love Channel One because, as its former president, Joel Babbit, puts it, “we are forcing kids to watch two minutes of commercials” in school. But many people take issue with using schools to deliver a captive audience of children to commercial advertisers. Many parents are worried about commercial culture and the way it pervades the lives of kids and reinforces values that are utterly contrary to the ones parents try to instill. So Channel One has hired high-priced Washington lobbyists and launched a P.R. campaign to convince parents that it’s simply “an old-fashioned newscast that often reflects traditional values no longer seen on network news.”

Nice try. The “news” is just filler. What Channel One really conveys is materialism: that buying is good and will solve your problems, and that consumption and self-gratification are the goals and ends of life.

Many of Channel One’s ads also promote low-grade sensuality to children as young as 11. Chew Winterfresh gum and kiss the Winterfresh babe. Shave with Schick razors and the Schick babe will hug you. There are ads for Blockbuster Video that portray kids playing video games nonstop for five days until they pass out from exhaustion. A Mountain Dew ad glorifies reckless driving. A Twix candy bar ad shows kids avoiding the consequences of doing badly at school by sending their report cards to the Eskimos so their parents won’t read them. There are ads for Snickers that encourage kids to eat junk food. And then there are the ads, for products such as Gatorade, that show skinny models that make teenage girls feel badly about the way they look and encourage an unhealthy body image and an obsession with being thin. Of course, Channel One says the ads are harmless. Never mind that Channel One’s corporate parent is Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., which used to own R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. That’s the company that invented the Joe Camel ad campaign to hook hundreds of thousands of kids on cigarettes. A poll found that kids recognize Joe Camel as readily as Mickey Mouse. Are these the kind of people you want making images for your kids to see? The Channel One broadcast also wastes both money and classroom time. Although Channel One loans the televisions to the schools, one recent study by Max Sawicky and Alex Molnar, “The Hidden Costs of Channel One,” concluded that Channel One’s cost to taxpayers in lost class time is $1.8 billion a year. And a 1997 study by William Hoynes found that the content of Channel One’s “news” programming was shallow, filled with soft “news,” mindless banter, music, useless “pop quizzes,” and other fluff.

The U.S. Senate is currently scheduling hearings to investigate the effects of Channel One on children, schools, and taxpayers, and a broad coalition has been created to fight the broadcasts. The group — which includes the American Family Association, Center for a New American Dream, Commercial Alert, Family Research Council, and Eagle Forum — has asked the CEOs of companies that advertise on Channel One to pull their ads. For real education reform that protects children, costs nothing, and increases productive class time, tell your school board to kick Channel One out of class.

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