News & Politics

CORPORATE FOCUS: Money Meets Religion on Channel One

Channel One Network is the company that loans televisions to public schools, in exchange for access to schoolchildren for 12 minutes every day. The marketers use this opportunity to pump the children with commercials pushing such nutritious staples as Pepsi, Snickers, M&M's and Fruit Loops. When one Alabama citizen started a crusade against this commercialism in schools, it turned into a tortuous conflict between corporate interests and grassroots politics.
Alabama Senator Richard Shelby could safely be described as a pro-business Republican.But if nothing else, Shelby believes in constituent service, and one of his constituents is Jim Metrock, another pro-business Alabaman who tends to vote Republican.As CEO of Metrock Wire and Steel, a family business, and founder of the Business Council of Alabama, the state's largest business association, Jim Metrock had dealings with Senator Shelby. A couple of years ago, Metrock decided to get out of the steel business and do some community service.Metrock was concerned with commercial television's assault on children.After Pat Ellis, a fellow Alabaman, told Metrock about Channel One, he began to research the problem. Metrock was surprised by what he learned -- a marketing company was assaulting eight million children across the country with ads for junk food among other items.Channel One Network, now owned by Primedia, Inc., is the company that loans televisions to public schools, in exchange for the schools agreeing to give Channel One access to schoolchildren for 12 minutes every day. The marketers use this opportunity to pump the children with a 10 minute "news" program, generally aired during home room, and two minutes of commercials pushing such nutritious staples as Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Snickers, M&M's, Twix, Bubble Yum bubble gum, Extra bubble gum and Fruit Loops, among other consumer items.The advertisers pay a hefty price for the ads, a reported $200,000 for a 30-second spot.Metrock asked his 18-year-old son if he had ever heard of Channel One. Yes, the son said, I've been watching it for three years.Flabbergasted, Metrock launched his campaign. Early last year, Metrock and Ellis traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Senator Shelby's staff about the problem. In April 1998, Senator Shelby issued a news release expressing his concerns about Channel One and calling for Congressional hearings.Channel One was not pleased. Executives pulled out their check books and began writing $120,000 worth of checks to lobbyists in an effort to derail the hearings.First, they put on retainer an inside-the-beltway power law firm -- Preston, Gates. Then they brought on Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition turned corporate lobbyist. And then they hired a lobbyist in Alabama to keep an eye on things.Well, the months rolled by, and the lobbyists lobbied, and the hearing date was delayed and delayed and delayed. Until this spring, when the hearing was set in stone for May 20, 1999.Then, all of the sudden, radio spots started airing in Alabama attacking Senator Shelby, implying that he was part of a left-wing plot to put the kibosh on the pro-Christian values of Channel One. We kid you not.Here is the text of one of the ads that ran:"Tragedies like Littleton, Colorado show how vital it is to teach our children the values of faith and family. One bright spot is Channel One. Channel One reaches 8 million students every school day, 250,000 here in Alabama, with a television program that tells children to turn their backs on drugs, reject violence and abstain from sex before marriage. And it's working. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that children are more aware of the risks of using marijuana because they are watching Channel One. But some on the radical left want Congress to ban such programming. Call Senator Shelby ... and tell him to stand up for Channel One's right to teach our kids to say 'no' to drugs and 'no' to sex before marriage. ..."The ad was sponsored by an unknown group called the Coalition to Protect Our Children. The group has a Montgomery, Alabama post office box. But it has no listed phone number. And Metrock says he knows of no organization in Alabama that endorses Channel One.Channel One's lobbyist in Alabama is a man named Martin Christie. Metrock spoke with Christie on May 17 and Christie told him that he knew nothing about the campaign against Senator Shelby."I asked Ralph Reed if he knew anything about this advertising campaign in Alabama," Metrock says. "He didn't say he didn't. He said that he just wasn't keeping up with that."He asked a Channel One executive if the company had anything to do with the ad, and the executive said no.In any event, the campaign to derail the hearing failed. It was held on May 20. Ralph Nader and Phyllis Schlafly spoke against Channel One, while a Channel One executive and a priest from a religious school in Washington, D.C. spoke in favor of Channel One. The hearing gained very little press attention -- an article in the Birmingham News, a spot on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.But the hearing has reinvigorated Metrock's determination to defeat commercialism in the schools. He wants to start with Channel One in home rooms -- which he calls "a two-by-four to the head" -- and then proceed on to Coke and Pepsi in the hallways.Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy.
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