On May 20, a U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee panel will convene to answer a question that will affect the daily lives of millions of U.S. schoolchildren.1
That question: Should school districts be allowed to use educational programming, if that programming is paid for by commercials?
One who says "no" is liberal activist Gary Ruskin, head of Ralph Nader's new anti-business group,2 Commercial Alert. Ruskin urged the Senate to investigate Channel One,3 which is the nation's number one provider of television news and educational programs to secondary schools. Channel One delivers programming to 12,000 public, private and parochial schools and throughout the school year has a daily audience of 400,000 educators and over 8 million teenagers.4
At first glance, Channel One seems an unlikely target for controversy. It has won over 150 news and educational programming awards,5 winning praise from media analysts like Brill's Content magazine6 and Jim Lehrer7 and has aired over $100 million worth of public service ads against drug use, drunk driving, youth violence and other important causes.8 All Channel One programming to schools is free, and each school is able to use $25,000 worth of Channel One's television sets and VCRs (one each per classroom) for any and all purposes free of charge.9 Studies of educators around the nation show that schools choose Channel One for the quality of the programming; even hundreds of well-heeled schools that already have their own televisions and VCRs in classrooms subscribe simply for its programming.10
Schools electing to receive Channel One programming receive a 12-minute news broadcast per day, which includes two minutes of commercials and 250 hours per year worth of commercial-free educational topics such as science, math, social studies, current events, language and the arts.11 Schools have long recognized that their students learn too little about current events and how to analyze them. In the words of the National Catholic Education Association, Channel One is a gold mine for thousands of educators.
But what draws the ire of critics like Ruskin and Nader, whose web site warns of "corporate predators,"12 are the commercials. Although Channel One carefully screens its commercials to keep them appropriate for children and typically uses one of its two minutes of commercials for public service rather than commercial ads, these critics say that this small amount of commercial time so taints Channel One that the educational value of its 10 minutes of daily news and 250 hours of educational programming a year is nullified.
Commercial Alert turns benefits of Channel One on its head: instead of seeing the free 10-minute current events program and 250 hours of educational programming and tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and servicing as a benefit received by the schools in exchange for one to two minutes of commercials, Commercial Alert sees the schools as exploited and those who benefit from Channel One's services as "forced"13 to watch ads.
Never mind that the schools are voluntary participants in the arrangement, and that they can cancel the service at any time.
The Ruskin/Nader view does not seem to be echoed by the schools who have tried Channel One, as 99% of the schools that subscribe to the service have been choosing to continue their subscriptions.
By encouraging the federal government to investigate Channel One, Commercial Alert is undermining the right of local schools to determine if Channel One is an asset to them. By holding a hearing at all, the Senators involved are endorsing the view that it is a federal, not local, matter to determine if schools accept free programming in exchange for a minute or two of commercials.
Ruskin and Nader single out more than just Channel One in their attack on corporate involvement in the schools. According to a published report, Nader called a San Ramon, California-based company, Zap Me, which provides free computers and Internet access to 5,000 schools14 for a total estimated value of $90,000 per school,15 "child abuse" because the browsers on the computers have ads on them. Ruskin called Zap Me's services "absolutely immoral."16
Zap Me President Frank Vigil responds by noting the large gap between the resources available to schools and what schools need,17 noting that 9,000 schools applied for Zap Me services in its first month.18 He also notes that kids using the Internet are going to see ads anyway.19 Ruskin has an answer for that: "The Internet has no educational value."20
But who should make the decision about school course content and technological support materials, a handful of activists and U.S. Senators, or local educators answerable to the parents in their community?
1 Juliet Eilperin, "TV Network for Schools Creates Static," Washington Post, April 3, 1999, p. A4.
2 Commercial Alert press release, September 8, 1998.
3 Commercial Alert press release, letter to Senator John McCain, November 23, 1998.
4 Channel One Informational Brochure, "Mission and Overview."
5 Channel One Informational Brochure, "Network Services."
6 Michael Kadish, "Day vs. Night," Brill's Content, September 1998.
7 Interview with Channel One staff, May 8, 1999.
8 Channel One Network Educator's Guide, May 1999, p. 5.
9 "Mission and Overview."
10 Interview with Channel One staff, May 8, 1999.
11 "Network Services."
12 http://www.essential.org/alert, downloaded May 6, 1999.
13 Commercial Alert press releases of January 19, 1998, January 1, 1999 and November 23, 1998.
14 Shawn Zeller, "A Crusader Against Commercialism," National Journal, March 27, 1999.
15 Chris Allbritton, Associated Press, "What's the Catch," published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 9, 1998.
16 "Lions Among Lambs," Cowles-Simba Information, Information Access Company, February 1, 1999, downloaded from the Dow Jones Publications Library May 6, 1999.
17 Brad Stone, "An Icon from Our Sponsor," Newsweek, November 23, 1998.
18 Bruce Francis and Susan Lisovicz, "Web and Schools," CNNfn, December 4, 1998.
20 "Lions Among Lambs."
Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.