Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Critics Slam Channel One’s Commercials

January 23, 2012
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By Abby Graham-Pardus
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, August 10, 2003

Susan Linn knows children’s television. She began her career in children’s entertainment, where her work included several appearances with her puppets working on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” with the late Fred Rogers.

” I’ve always had a really strong interest to use media to promote the health and well-being of children,” said Linn, a psychologist at Harvard University’s Judge Baker Children’s Center. She said Rogers was a “really good example of somebody who conducted a career in television without selling out” to commercialism.

As commercialism in the form of sponsored sports teams, billboards and soda machines creeps into more schools, Linn and some of her colleagues are targeting television programming shown daily to about 8 million students in 12,000 middle, junior and high schools across the country.

Channel One News, first broadcast in 1990, is a 12-minute long news program with up to two minutes of commercials. Participating schools receive the show for free — along with a loaned television for every 23 students, two videocassette recorders, cable equipment and a satellite receiver.

On average, Channel One takes up one week of school time every year — with the equivalent of one full day devoted solely to ads.

” Channel One depends critically upon stealth,” said Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, a consumer-advocacy group he founded with Ralph Nader. “If parents really knew what Channel One was selling to their kids, they would expel it from the schools immediately.

” At a time when so many schools are failing their kids, it’s a shame and a scandal to waste so much school time on ads.”

Critics argue that Channel One misuses compulsory attendance laws to force children to watch commercials. They claim it wastes school time, promotes violence, wastes tax dollars, promotes wrong values to children, may harm children’s health, corrupts the integrity of public education and promotes television instead of reading.

Channel One management insists the show is not really controversial.

” The controversy exists in a very small realm of professional culture critics,” said Jeff Ballabon, vice president of public policy for Primedia, Channel One’s parent company.

Ruskin disagrees, noting that individuals such as movie star Matt Damon, groups as large as the United Methodist Church, and others “across the political spectrum — right, left and everyone in between” oppose Channel One.

Ken McNatt, a 2003 graduate of Cranberry High School in Venango County, is president of the Students Against Commercialized Classrooms Organization.

” I plan on keeping up with (fighting Channel One) until the program is gone,” said McNatt, who will be a secondary education major at Clarion University this fall. “Eventually, I would like to see a national movement against this.”

Although McNatt did not get Channel One removed from his home district, others have waged successful battles.

Ruskin said the program has been removed from schools in Nashville, Tenn., and was banned in New York by the state Board of Regents. It will be removed from Seattle public schools in the 2004-05 school year.

In April, an Oregon father sued the Salem-Keizer School District for its contract with Channel One. Gary Boyes contends the district is violating the Oregon State Constitution by forcing his son and daughter to watch advertisements in school.

But Ballabon said advertisements are a necessity of a free media.

” We believe our news should be independent,” he said, adding that Primedia declined the government’s offer to pay for Channel One because the show should not be the “government ministry of information.” [Obligation note: Channel One News is a quasi-Federal government entity. It is the closest thing the U.S. has to government sponsored news. The largest source of ad money is from the Federal government. If the Feds stopped their flow of money to Channel One, the company would go bankrupt within months. What Ballabon says here is utter nonsense.]

He said Channel One is the “least commercial way” for news to enter a classroom. Newspapers contain 60 percent to 70 percent advertisements, he said, while only 1 percent of Channel One’s programming is advertisements. [Obligation note: Ballabon must be lumping Channel One News and the Classroom Channel content to come up with this “1%” figure. He is being purposely misleading. Channel One News is the MOST commercial way for news to enter a classroom.]

Ballabon said the group streams two hours’ worth of educational videos and news with up to two minutes of commercials daily, about half of which are not for goods or services.  Still, Ruskin contends that Channel One is “the foremost tool for commercializing the schools in the United States.” [Obligation note: Ballabon is misstating the amount of commercial content on Channel One News. There often is up to four minutes of advertising content on a daily show. He is not counting the “Cingular Question of the Day” or “Gatorade Play of the Week” or other sponsored segments of the show as advertising content.]

” With newspapers, you can just look at the text,” he said. “… With Channel One, kids are forced to watch the ads. … An old CEO admitted that and bragged to advertisers.”  In 1994, Joel Babbit, then president of Channel One, said, “The biggest selling point to advertisers (is) … we are forcing kids to watch two minutes of commercials.”

Contractually, schools utilizing Channel One must show 90 percent of the news shows streamed, complete with commercials, according to an online contract at Channel One’s Web site.

” The reason (students) watch it is because it’s so good,” Ballabon said, adding that students aren’t forced to watch anything. [Obligation note: Ballabon’s big lie. The contract calls for the showing of the program 90% of school days in 80% of all classrooms. There is compelled viewing. Those eyeballs watching the ads pay Ballabon’s inflated salary.]

Kelly Busato, 15, who attends Jeannette High School, and her 20-year-old sister, Susan Busato, a Jeannette graduate, both like Channel One.

” It’s like I get updated on that stuff (news) because I don’t sit and watch that stuff at home,” Kelly Busato said. She added that she likes the commercials — including those for “not smoking weed,” face washes, movies and Web sites.

” It’s a fun way to watch the news,” she said. “… It like puts it in terms you understand.”  Susan Busato agreed. “I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with it — not at all. It keeps you updated.”

Steven Saunders, 15, who will be a freshman at Hempfield Area High School, said he believes Channel One is “definitely” a waste of time. ” There’s a lot of commercials,” he said.

His brother, Ross Saunders, also 15, had a slightly different view.  ” I’d probably watch it anyway,” he said, adding that it gives him a better understanding of the world.

Ross Saunders said one advertisement did influence him. After seeing a commercial for About.com, another company owned by Primedia, he visited the Web site while doing research for a school paper.

Primedia’s ownership of About.com has stirred controversy with some, including Consumer Alert and Obligation Inc., because within two clicks of arriving at the site Internet users can find themselves at a pornography site.

” I think it is totally in line with their corporate mind-set. This company has a major values problems,” Ruskin charged.

Channel One has a strict policy of what will not be advertised ,including abortion clinics, alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, contraceptive and feminine hygiene products, firearms, drug-related paraphernalia or R-, NC-17- or X-rated movies. It also does not accept political advertising. [Obligation note: This “strict policy” is laughable. Mr. Ballabon wants people to applaud him for not advertising hand guns to kids? or to praise his company for not accepting abortion clinic ad money?]

” (Not only) do we carefully vet the products and services, but we carefully vet the creative content of the ads,” Ballabon said, explaining that an independent panel — including parents, teachers and clergy — examine commercials destined for air and “have the total right to say no and veto the commercial.” [Obligation note: There is no panel. Every effort has been made to obtain information about this “panel” and Channel One refuses to disclose any information about them. It appears to be nothing but a public relations sham.]

” If that board exists, they are dumb as a stump,” Ruskin said. “How could you let in ads for ‘Supernova’ and ‘The Mummy’ … when violence is such a major issue in schools across the country?”

” Supernova” is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sci-fi action violence and sensuality/nudity. “The Mummy” is rated PG-13 for pervasive adventure violence and some partial nudity.

” It is amazing that … 8 million American children were compelled to watch advertising for a druggie movie in schools,” Ruskin added, citing a commercial for “Dude, Where’s My Car?,” a movie rated PG-13 for language and some sexual and drug-related humor. The Internet Movie Database describes the movie’s plot as, “two potheads wake up from a night of partying and can’t remember where they parked their car.”

” I don’t think it’s appropriate period to promote movies in a school setting,” McNatt said. “Government buildings such as schools should not be used to pitch products for a corporate interest.”

Primedia will not release a list of advertisers or ad rates. A 1997 analysis of the program by William Hoynes, professor of sociology at Vassar College, along with media-watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, stated that advertisers paid about $200,000 per 30-second spot.

The analysis revealed that although Channel One is much more likely to air in less affluent schools, the program pays very little attention to economic news. Hoynes also found that only 25 percent of air time is devoted to coverage of breaking news stories.

But Ballabon, a former high school teacher, said the critics are off-base.

” (Channel One) is a way of bringing the news to a plane that engages teenagers,” Ballabon, a former high school teacher, said. “… No one covers these issues.”

He cited a story about teenagers with gambling addictions, as well as a comment made by Richard Bonnette, president of the Partnership for a Drug Free America.

” The incontrovertible fact is that because of Channel One, millions of teens are keeping away from drugs,” Bonnette said in 1999. Bonnette’s group found “conclusive evidence” that Channel One students had “significantly” more negative attitudes about drugs and were much more aware of the risks of drugs. [Obligation note: Bonnette does not disclose his conflict of interest. His group makes money by placing PSAs on Channel One.]

Hempfield Area High School student Drew Smith, 16, said he doesn’t remember the movie commercials, but recalls the anti-drug ads.

” The drug commercials — they’re really funny,” he said. Although he admits that he doesn’t pay much attention to the channel, he added, “It’s worth it, I think.” [Obligation note: The same anti-drug PSAs can be obtained by schools free-of-charge without having to use Channel One.]

Abby Graham-Pardus can be reached at apardus@tribweb.com.

 


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