Channel Dumb

Channel One, the controversial in-school advertising system launched by marketer Chris Whittle in 1989 and now owned by K-III Communications, is a required part of the daily curriculum in some 12,000 U.S. public schools. What advertisers get from the deal is obvious. Channel One unabashedly offers to "deliver the hardest-to-reach viewers" to potential sponsors and to provide "unparalleled impact." But while the ads have been the subject of debate, little research has been done on Channel One's news content. What do the roughly 8 million teen-age viewers get from the daily 12-minute broadcasts besides two minutes of turbocharged come-ons for sneakers and fast food? The answer, revealed recently by the first in-depth content analysis of Channel One, is precious little.In "News for a Captive Audience," a study sponsored by the national media watch group FAIR, Vassar sociology professor William Hoynes reports that Channel One devotes only one-fifth of its air time--or 2.4 minutes a day--to "recent political, economic, social and cultural stories other than sports, weather and disaster." This microscopic news hole is further obscured by funky music, MTV-style visuals, appealing -- and conscientiously multiracial -- young anchor personalities, and hefty doses of pure self-promotion in the form of Channel One contests and appearances by teachers and students from "Channel One schools."Its racially diverse public face notwithstanding, Hoynes argues, Channel One "does little to give students resources for making sense of the complexities of racial inequality." In what little breaking-news coverage its broadcasts offer, sources are 88 percent white and 90 percent male. More than half of the black sources are either athletes (42 percent) or prisoners (13 percent). Fully 75 percent of Channel One's cultural stories are about sports.Channel One virtually ignores questions of economics. Of the 91 stories Hoynes studied, culled from 36 broadcasts from 1995 and 1996, only three were devoted to economic issues. This is especially troubling given that the show is much more likely to air in school districts with high poverty levels, which most need the TVs and VCRs Channel One provides to schools that air its programming. For students in these districts, Hoynes argues, Channel One's "advertising becomes the principal lens through which economic questions are addressed. The implicit message is that students' relationship to the economy is solely as consumers."Channel One was also blasted in a related report by media critic Mark Crispin Miller of Johns Hopkins University, who charged that Channel One's commercials teach teenagers "how to be stupid." Channel One's ads "discourage thinking," Miller contends, not just incidentally with distracting visuals and a manic pace, but deliberately as well, by celebrating stupidity and passivity. Many of the pitches represent life as "a series of extremely simple problems, each soluble through the immediate applications of some very smart commodity or other." Other ads prey on teens' insecurities. "Nervous about going back to school?" asks one commercial. "No wonder. With those zits." In general, Miller maintains, Channel One's ads exploit the "longing of their captive audience for freedom, independence, confidence and strength," and they do so "exclusively for profit's sake."

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