Robert McChesney on Channel One

October 9, 2002

On October 18, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, hundreds
of media literacy experts will gather to kick-off the creation of
the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME). Obligation is one
of the early supporters of this organization. This weekend the keynote
address will be given by Robert McChesney author of Rich Media, Poor

We reprint an interview with Professor McChesney from April 2000.


Students for Sale: The campaign against Channel One
 An interview with Professor Robert W. McChesney by Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin 

Last month, a broad coalition of organizations that are
concerned about commercialism in public schools launched a campaign against
Channel One, an in-school marketing company. Channel One, which was launched
in 1990, offers two minutes of advertising and 10 minutes of "news" programming
to about 8 million students in 12,000 middle and high schools.
The coalition, which includes representatives from the political left and
right (Ralph Nader to Phyllis Schlafly), is petitioning members of Congress,
governors and others to remove Channel One from the nation’s public schools.
They are calling for an end to federal funding for Channel One (currently,
the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force
and U.S. Marines advertise on it), encouraging companies to stop advertising
on Channel One (junk foods, sports equipment and entertainment are some
of the main advertisers), and urging school boards and governors to ban
Channel One from local classrooms.
The coalition argues that Channel One violates the principle of local control
of education, promotes materialism, advertises products that are unhealthful,
and wastes valuable instructional time with programming that is of poor
quality. While 12 minutes a day does not sound like a lot of time, it adds
up. Over the course of one school year, it amounts to a full week of school
time, of which one full day is spent watching ads.
Chicago Parent spoke with Robert W. McChesney, professor of communication
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, author of Rich Media,
Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (University of
Illinois Press, 1999), and father of two children, ages 12 and 4.

Chicago Parent: Why do schools agree to show Channel One? What do they
get out of the deal?
Robert McChesney: They get the equipment–a television set for each classroom,
two VCRs and a satellite dish–for what that’s worth, for as long as they
show Channel One.

I think part of it is that schools are in a cash pinch and this seems like
an easy way to get equipment without asking the school board or taxpayers
for more money. It seems like getting something for nothing, or that the
cost of it is something they can live with.
CP: What do the students get out of it?
RM: Nothing. They get the so-called use of this equipment, but a certain
amount of time that should be dedicated to class instruction is turned
over to this commercial broadcast. It sets aside a percent of the day for
commercial indoctrination. The ads are for products like junk food, candy
bars and running shoes. The last thing kids need is more ads for this stuff.

It’s notable that in affluent schools, you’re much less likely to find
Channel One. This is simply for those children of the masses who go to
public schools; they’re the ones who get this commercial education. I’d
have a lot less concern about Channel One if the children of the George
Bushes of the world were getting a full dose of this. But they’re not.
The further down you go on the class chain, the more likely kids are to
be seeing Channel One in school.
CP: Is this a uniquely attractive setting for advertisers?
RM: Yes. If you’re launching an ad campaign for something targeted to kids,
Channel One is one of your buys. In fact, Channel One ads are often created
to alert kids to the ads they’ll see on Nickelodeon at home.
Channel One is really just another media company. It’s commercial media
entering the schools. You know, in the business community today, commercial
education is seen as one of the greatest growth areas. It’s called "edutainment"–things
that are supposed to be entertaining and educational. So this is our
future unless we stop it.
This is the beginning; this is the time to say, "No. This has got
to stop." Otherwise, it’s just rational to expect other businesses
to say, "Hey, why not us?" And we’ll see ever more commercialism
in the schools. Companies will sponsor classes and textbooks.

The people who own these companies–their children will not be going to
these schools and getting any commercials in their education. And that’s
CP: How is the programming–the other 10 minutes of Channel One?
RM: What I’ve seen has been fairly dubious. It’s a waste of kids’ time.
I’d much rather have my kids working on math or reading, or discussing
social issues, with the teachers making the selection of what they think
kids should learn.
CP: But it’s billed as "news"…
RM: Yes, but it’s unimpressive and not worthwhile. The point is, Channel
One has no business being in the schools. Their only point in providing
news at all is to appear legitimate enough that there isn’t too much outrage,
and to make sure that kids watch those ads.

And why should they provide good quality programming? Channel One is going
to make money by getting away with whatever they can get away with so that
kids will watch those ads. They have no incentive to do anything beyond
rock bottom. That’s why commercial interests shouldn’t be in the schools.
CP: So kids are getting ads, poor quality programming, and the messages
that corporations want them to hear?
RM: Yes, all that and more. When we let Channel One into schools, the core
problem is we’re teaching kids that the truth that they learn in schools
is for sale to the highest bidder, and that’s a bad message. Sadly, it
might be a good reflection of how our society works, but to this day, education
has not bought into that. We’ve been able to trust the integrity of the
institution. Educators might be wrong sometimes, but they were doing it
because they thought it was right. They were teaching things that they
believed to be right and important.

We’re crossing that line here, and that puts us in the moral sewer, where
might makes right, where there are no values. It’s a place where nobody
should want to go.
CP: Is there any resistance to Channel One?
RM: A group in Oakland, California–The Center for Commercial-Free Public
Education–has been organizing around this issue. [This organization provides
resources and organizing advice for parents who want to get Channel One
out of the public schools.]

If parents saw this and were aware of it, there would be more concern.
But parents don’t generally know what their kids are being exposed to.
It’s out of sight, out of mind for many parents. That’s one of Channel
One’s selling points: They get in under the radar.

CP: So instead of finding a lot of resistance, Channel One has really grown
over the past 10 years. It now reaches about 8 million students a day.
I find that shocking.
RM: As with other kinds of commercialism, at first it causes protests,
but after years and years, people just take it for granted. The idea that
it’s optional is lost. Over time, people get used to it.
For students, this is part of a broader commercial onslaught that they’re
a part of. The intensity of ads directed at children is so much greater
than it used to be; to them, having advertising at school probably seems
perfectly natural because advertising permeates every other nook and cranny
of their lives.

We’re increasingly living in a society where the only thing that matters
is how much money you have and what you own. The reality is that ours is
a materialistic society. Kids are getting this message constantly, so getting
another dose of it at school seems perfectly natural.
CP: So who is in a position to put an end to this?
RM: I think the government has the right to stop it. Certainly school boards
do, and local governments have the right to pass ordinances saying we don’t
want commercialism in our schools. If people would speak up, we could end

Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin is the editor of Chicago Parent magazine.