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Unplugging Channel One

cards, cards, cards"Oh yeah, Channel One," says Carl, my old middle-school chum. "Remember the Skittles commercial?"
I don't remember the Skittles commercial. I do remember the Michael Jordan Gatorade commercial, though.
"That's right," Carl says. "The one that went, 'If I could be like Mike.'"
When Carl and I were in the eighth grade, more than ten years ago, Channel One was installed in our small junior high school in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, and we were all required to watch it at the beginning of each morning. In exchange, our school got a television and VCR in every classroom and a satellite dish. At the time, none of us gave it much thought. I remember feeling a vague annoyance that I was no longer allowed to complete my homework from the previous evening in morning homeroom (to this day I am an incurable procrastinator), but beyond that it doesn't seem like anyone cared a great deal one way or the other.
The culture of our little school was changed in a subtle way, though: on any given day, in the lunch room, the athletic field, or the hallways between classes, one could hear a group of students singing the annoyingly infectious song from that Gatorade commercial.
Years down the road we can remember almost none of the news or feature content, but we can still remember the commercials.
None of us in our sleepy town did much to protest Channel One, but fortunately there were a number of people around the country who did. In fact, they're still at it.

Kris Keniray

Channel One was already in Glen Oak High School in Canton, Ohio when Kris Keniray, 22, entered in the fall of 1993.
"I was frustrated by it," she says. "I didn't think corporations should be endorsing [their products in] schools."
Kris remembers getting especially angry about a weeklong special on Channel One about the athletic shoe company, Adidas. The program featured images of women and children working long hours in sweatshops making sneakers. It sounds humanitarian and socially conscious, except for one thing: Reebok was the main sponsor of the series. "It was just an ploy," Kris says. Kris joined an activist group at her school call Speak and began to campaign against Channel One. But it was a difficult fight.
"Kris remembers getting especially angry about a weeklong special on Channel One about the athletic shoe company, Adidas. The program featured images of women and children working long hours in sweatshops making sneakers. It sounds humanitarian and socially conscious, except for one thing: Reebok was the main sponsor of the series."


"A lot of the teachers liked Channel One," she says. "They had twelve extra minutes to grade papers or just relax. Some of them even quizzed us [on the programming] to make sure we were paying attention."
The members of Speak tried several different tactics to make students and teachers aware of the nature of Channel One. Theyencouraged teachers to take part in a survey to see how they felt about an alternative to watching Channel One and found that 40% of the teachers surveyed liked the idea.
Kris then wrote an article for the school paper about Channel One and commercialism in schools, but it was censored before the paper went to print. "The newspaper had something called 'prior review,'" she remembers, "and they voted to exclude [the article]."
Kris and the members of Speak played their campaign by the book, but they found themselves stymied at every turn. "We wanted to present our case to the school board," she says, "but they wanted us to have a teacher who represented us."
They waited on the school board docket for weeks before they had a chance to present their case. "In the end," Kris says, "The Vice President [of the Board of Education] was like 'Well, we've discussed this and we're not going to do anything about it.'"
Fortunately Kris had a teacher who was supportive, and got her in touch with the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in California.
"I called them," says Kris, "and I thought it would just be a brief conversation. I had been making macaroni and cheese when I called, and by the time I got off the phone, my food was cold."
Kris became a member of the Center's Youth Advisory Board, and organized a walkout during a Channel One broadcast. Many students participated, and were suspended for it. Ultimately Speak's campaign at Glen Oak High was less successful that Kris would have hoped. She says she can understand why. "Some teachers liked Channel One, and some resented it but didn't speak out. I think they were afraid for their jobs." Inertia is, after all, one of the strongest forces on Earth.
Fortunately their efforts did have a ripple effect; after the walkout, a local newspaper covered the story and wrote three articles about commercialism in public schools. In the final article, the Superintendent of a nearby school district, was quoted as saying that the district had decided against installing Channel One.
And the article that Kris wrote for the school paper saw life after all. "I used it for my college application essay," she says.


Nick Leon

Nick Leon recently retired after 35 years as a teacher with the East Side Union High School District in California --the twelfth largest high school district in the country. He was a teacher at William C. Overfelt High in 1989; when they were the first school in the state to install Channel One.
"We [the teachers] opposed it from the time it was proposed," says Leon, "but the school board went ahead with it. We wanted it out as soon as it went in."
Overfelt was a minority school in a minority district, and Channel One told the school board that this was the only way for poorer districts to get equipment of the kind they were offering. But to Leon, that argument was didn't stand up. "The equipment was kind of cheap," he says.
Channel One had money on their side, though. In 1989 there was a law on the California books against any form of commercialism in public schools. Channel One spent over $1 million to change that law. They also put a school administrator on the board of directors.
And Channel One went into Overfelt High. "I was saddened," says Leon. "People are always saying that kids are important, school is important, but then here they were selling the kids."
The teachers in the school district got together and sued Channel One and the State of California, stating that forcing students to watch Channel One was against state law, but lost. The school board argued that Channel One was not broadcast during school time and to watch it was purely voluntary.
"That was totally false," says Leon.
Prior to installing Channel One, the district schools had a program called "sustained silent reading," in which everyone in the schools stopped what they were doing every day for fifteen minutes and read something--a book, a magazine article, an assignment--in total silence. Channel One replaced the reading.
"Prior to installing Channel One, the district schools had a program called "sustained silent reading," in which everyone in the schools stopped what they were doing every day for fifteen minutes and read something--a book, a magazine article, an assignment--in total silence. Channel One replaced the reading."


The courts did rule that the schools had to give students the right not to watch Channel One, but only with their parents' permission. But when parents called, school officials would talk them out of it, telling them how under-funded the schools were, and how beneficial the programming was to their children's education.
In the end, the battle took over 5 years. "When you watch a program for 12 minutes a day for an entire school year, that winds up being six days of lost instruction time," says Leon, "and two days of commercials. We employed 112 teachers, plus custodians, and aides, and all those people were giving up six days of their time to a program that has little to no educational value."
After gathering this data, the teachers at Overfelt High were able to convince the school board that Channel One was "educationally unsound." "The whole thing is a moneymaking deal," says Leon. "Administrators can't really defend it anymore. The only reason schools hang on to it now is because no one wants to admit they were wrong."
What happened to all the equipment Channel One installed? "I don't know whether they sent it back or not." Hess replies with a sly laugh, All that equipment was obsolete anyway."

The Center

The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education (originally called Unplug) was started in 1990 by four young women whose goal was to get Channel One out of their school. These days the Center's objectives are much broader, as commercialism in schools has spread to many other realms.
Call the Center on any given day, and chances are the phone will be answered by Emily Heath, 24, who has been working there for over a year. Emily's high school was one of the first in the country to install Channel One, in 1991. Emily didn't become active battling commercialism in schools until college, however, when she successfully fought an exclusive Coca-Cola beverage contract at her university.
According to Emily, Channel One isn't doing terribly well these days. While they are still in 40% of the nation's schools, according to their promotional material, they haven't sought to expand that percentage, particularly in light of the number of people who have fought to have them removed.
"Primedia, their parent corporation, is trying to dump Channel One," says Emily. "That could be a good thing if a textbook company like McGraw-Hill gets it, but it could be terrible if another corporation acquires them."
Tristan Kating, a student at Stonington High School in Stonington, Connecticut and a member of the Center's Youth Advisory Board, said that the students' attitude to Channel One in his school is indifferent, at best. "Nobody really watches it," says Kating, 16. "It's like it's not really there, and we just have these free TV's."
Nell Geiser, also a member of the Center's Youth Advisory Board and a senior at New Vista High in Boulder, Colorado, is a bit more strategic: "Channel One's parent company, Primedia, is in financial trouble and this is the right time to strike," says Geiser, 17. "Channel One has become institutionalized, but it's also stagnant and not going into any new schools. We want kids to get involved and think about what it means to have a say in their education."
The battle can be a solitary one as well. Jennifer Shuford, a mother in Asheville, North Carolina, has been fighting Channel One and commercialism in schools in general for over a year.
"It's pretty much a lone endeavour," she says, in her pleasant, mellifluous Southern accent. "I put up flyers, I try to talk to kids."
Still, with vigilant folks like these out there, it seems like Channel One's days are numbered. Nick Leon's attitude may be a prophetic one.
"It's a bogus kind of educational tool," he says. "I hope it dies on the vine."



To learn more about Unplugging Channel One in your school contact The Center for Commercial Free Education.

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