Critics say a controversial educational news service providing free televisions to Richmond Public Schools is a Trojan Horse delivering ads into the classroom. 

Captive Audience

Each day, kids are exposed to ads for about every product imaginable. At each turn, a commercial bombards them, whether on TV, radio, billboards, Web sites or in newspapers and magazines. Even their clothes and sneakers are often brand name advertisements.

But it might shock you to discover where some youth-oriented marketers are finding their best audiences: the classroom.

Late last month, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing about parental concerns over Channel One, a 12-minute cable TV news program for kids that reaches eight million middle- and high-school students in 12,000 schools across the nation.

For no charge, Channel One lends participating schools televisions for each classroom, wires the school for cable and provides its hip, MTV-like mix of current events and social issues programming. The catch is that each show is interspersed with at least two minutes of advertising for an array of teen products from video games and movies to sodas, candy bars and fast food.

The debate comes just weeks after lawmakers nationwide hotly contested a McGraw Hill middle-school math textbook peppered with brand names and product placements.

Locally, only Richmond Public Schools participate in Channel One. Five of the city's seven public high schools and six of its seven public middle schools air Channel One, usually at the beginning of the school day. Other localities such as Henrico and Hanover have rejected Channel One because of its advertising bent.

Opposition to Channel One's advertising and content has created an unlikely alliance between conservative pundit Phyllis Schlafly and liberal consumer-rights-advocate Ralph Nader, both of whom testified against it on Capitol Hill last month.

According to Nader's research, over an average school year, students spend about one school week watching Channel One and the equivalent of at least one school day watching ads. (Channel One's contract requires that schools air the program on at least 90 percent of school days or they lose the free TVs.)

Though Channel One claims to have stringent rules for ad content, Nader and others criticize it for airing inappropriate commercials like an ad for Blockbuster Video that shows kids playing video games until they pass out from exhaustion or a Twix ad in which kids send their report cards to Alaska to avoid repercussions from their parents for bad grades. (One of the channel's biggest advertisers is the U.S. Army, which spent $1 million last year on recruitment ads on Channel One. That was a key topic of the Senate hearings.)

Also, despite Channel One's pledge not to play music by artists whose albums carry warnings for explicit lyrics, the channel has played the music of Marilyn Manson (who, incidentally, has been the brunt of much criticism from City Council for his shock-rock theatrics) and various gangsta-rap groups. That's not to mention ads for PG-13 movies such as "The Mummy" or "Never Been Kissed" that feature violence or heavy sexual innuendo.

Some academics also criticize Channel One's content as "fluff," and one recent study claimed taxpayers lost $1.8 billion in lost classroom instruction time to Channel One.

Nevertheless, many educators defend Channel One by saying it provides valuable lessons on current events in a format that teens enjoy. Also, there are those free television sets that can be used for other instructional uses.

That's a key reason many Richmond public-school principals chose to sign up for the program, according to city schools' spokesman Jim Bynum, though he acknowledges some principals have concerns about the ads as well as "violent" content in some Channel One broadcasts.

Channel One is a fast-paced program with quick camera shots and young, hip hosts, such as Gotham Chopra, son of spiritual guru Deepak Chopra. Segments on a recent show include a look back at China's Tiananmen Square massacre with a very simple history-book description of the history of communism in China. (A typical quiz question follows asking which British colony recently returned to Chinese rule.) They also take up the NATO bombing in Belgrade quickly.

Social ills such as drunk driving, eating disorders and drug abuse have also been covered by Channel One. However, the first installment of its weekly series "Body Image: Obsession for Perfection," which discusses anorexia and bulimia, begins with interviews with good-looking teens talking about the pressures to be thin. The host, a slim attractive woman in a black turtleneck, says, "Life for a thin person isn't any more perfect." There are lots of quick shots of fashion models and a pulsating runway beat. What's not shown are overweight students.

However, Anna Gee, principal of Chandler Middle School, has only good things to say about Channel One: "We're very happy with it and it poses a really good opportunity. It's great for current events and to bring the children up to date with what's going on. There are curricular guides and lessons that accompany the Channel One series and the lessons are really, really great."

Gee says she hasn't heard any concerns about inappropriate content on Channel One and in fact, her school is preparing to renew Channel One this fall.

Channel One's national supporters echo Gee's sentiments, citing the channel's immediacy and its entertaining method of educating young people about the news. Channel One representatives have said their advertising is no different from ads in a newspaper or between segments of TV news.

Richmond School Board member J. William Midkiff Jr. says he believes the ads are a necessary means. "I think basically what we're getting is something of National Geographic-type quality and if McDonald's or somebody else has advertising that is helping pay for the cost of this programming, I would much rather have a McDonald's campaign appended to what these kids are seeing then having them not seeing anything."

Not everyone agrees. Chesterfield's School Board declined Channel One, mostly out of concerns over the ads and content. The Henrico School Board wouldn't consider it, a spokesman says, because the school system has a policy against advertising in the classroom.

Hanover County is the only other locality to have tried Channel One. It got rid of it when the contract expired, choosing to lose all the free television sets instead of having students watch the advertising, according to Bill Flaherty, director of technology services with Hanover schools.

Instead, Hanover bought televisions for all its classrooms and now participates with "Cable in the Classroom," a non-commercial educational service sponsored in part by CNN and the Discovery Channel.

However, as Richmond School Board member Reggie Malone points out, as politicians look to ease tax burdens, partnerships with businesses are only beginning in schools. Malone likes Channel One, though he'd like to see its broadcasts tailored more to the new Standards of Learning.

"When you start using the help of big business, ultimately it's going to bring some [commercialization]," he says. The trick, he adds is "to minimize the commercial aspect while we maximize big-business

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