From the archives: A Sense of the Board Statement

July 21, 2012
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From Jim Metrock: I always found this “Sense of the Board Statement” on Channel One to be bizarre. This is from the 2000 Iowa City Community School District school board. This board has the right idea and gathered the pros and cons about Channel One twelve years ago but they refused to do anything. They hid behind the “we are only about policy, not about administration” excuse, as if advertising in classrooms doesn’t go to the heart of what a school district values.

Since this report was publish, several ICCSD schools still have Channel One and their commercials in classrooms. The amount of tax money and school time wasted over the past 12 years has to be significant for the Iowa City community. Evidently they have money to burn and plenty of time for students to watch movie commercials at their desks.

I am posting this entire “statement” because it has value. These people had the right idea but unfortunately they lacked the will to stand up for their students and to stand up against the “kiddie marketers” at Channel One.  Hopefully the board members back in 2000 who had only a “sense” of doing the right thing are long gone from the board.

 

Channel One
A Sense of the Board Statement
ICCSD Board
December 12, 2000


ContentsIntroduction

The Case for Channel One

The Concerns Regarding Channel One

The Board’s Lack of Action

Conclusion

 



The Board does not at this time intend to take any action, or propose any policy, regarding Channel One.

However, given the number of interrelated issues, and the intensity of feelings about Channel One, both nationally and locally, the Board believes it is necessary and constructive to set forth this non-binding “sense of the Board” statement.

The statement does not constitute “policy,” nor is it a direction to the Superintendent – let alone individual administrators or teachers. It does, however, represent a sense of the Board’s current evaluation of the Channel One issues that it believes worthwhile to share with the District’s stakeholders at this time.

Introduction

“Channel One” is a commercial product offered by the Primedia Corporation and utilized by both ICCSD junior high schools as one of the first events for their students each morning.

The schools’ contract with the firm provides that the schools will require students to watch a number of television commercials each school day for a total of two minutes. In exchange, the company leases to the schools the receiving apparatus and television sets necessary to receive both the commercials and 10 minutes of programming a day.

Additional programming can be received and taped at other times. The company also maintains a Web site,www.channelone.com.

An issue was raised by a Board member at the meeting November 14 as to whether the use of this product is consistent with the Board’s commercialization policies.

At the November 28 meeting the principals and teachers from the junior highs, Board members, a University of Iowa College of Education professor, and others participated in a lively discussion of these and related issues.

Since that time all Board members have either visited the junior highs when Channel One was being shown or have watched videotapes of Channel One programming. A number have also visited the Channel One Web site.

The junior high principals and teachers are enthusiastic advocates for the product. They represent that students are equally enthusiastic in their participation. Since November 28th Board members have heard from additional teachers, and students, who support the product.

Some Board members, and District stakeholders, have questioned both the propriety of compulsory exposure of students to television commercials and the content of Channel One’s program matter.

The Case for Channel One

Channel One provides students with a necessary and regular exposure to current events.

There are a number of indications that young people are relatively uninformed about global politics, economics and other issues that affect their lives now and in the future. The data come from sources as diverse as the decline in the proportion of students who regularly read a serious newspaper, to their low turnout as voters, to “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” quiz results.

Channel One offers a daily exposure to some of the information and issues students need to be informed participants in a democracy.

Unlike other news and public affairs programming, Channel One’s offerings are produced with this specific audience in mind.

Although teachers report they also benefit from the televised items, Channel One solicits, and is especially attentive to, the feedback from its student audience. The junior high principals have reviewed alternative sources of current events programming for schools (such as that from CNN and C-SPAN) and believe that the Channel One programming is superior for their purposes for a variety of reasons.

Channel One gives teachers the freedom to build on its programming, if in the teacher’s judgment it offers a “teachable moment” – as with the news surrounding the 2000 presidential election.

Channel One builds a shared base of information throughout the school faculty and student body. This creates the possibility of school-wide assemblies or discussions – or simply conversation items.

Students like the programming. They are attentive when it is being displayed. They object to the prospect of its being cancelled. It reaches them in a way that other media do not.

Channel One is popular nationally with many school officials and teachers. The company represents that it is now used in 40 percent of the nation’s junior and senior high schools.

The Concerns Regarding Channel One

Critics argue that Channel One is but one more, and one of the more invidious, examples of the growing commercialization of our society in general and our schools in particular.

Some would like to see less emphasis on commercialism in our society generally. They prefer the values of public broadcasting, libraries, religion – and education.

They point out that Channel One’s owner, Primedia, www.primediainc.com, which acquired the product in 1994, is primarily an advertising organization rather than an educational business. It has sales of $1.7 billion and 6500 employees. It markets Channel One to advertisers as a medium for reaching what it calls 8 million “image-conscious tweens” in 12,000 schools. It distributes marketing media (such as apartment guides) solely supported by advertising. Its American Demographics is a major resource for advertisers. It also publishes, and sells advertising, in such magazines as SeventeenSoap Opera Digest,Modern Bride and American Baby. Channel One is used by Primedia to promote sales of Seventeen.

Primedia’s board is made up of a former president of RJR Nabisco, the dean of a graduate school of business, and a number of partners in the investment firm of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, www.kkr.com, which lists its investment in Primedia as an investment in “publishing.” In 1989 Kohlberg Kravis Roberts purchased Reynolds Tobacco (RJR Nabisco), the company that marketed cigarettes to children with the Joe Camel character. Characterized at the time as one of the largest corporate takeovers ever, KKR later became dissatisfied with RJR Nabisco’s profits and sold the company in 1995.

There is no Primedia board member identified as an educator.

Channel One is, above all else, a very profitable marketing product that is seen as such by its investors. Forbes reports that in 1996 Channel One made $30 million profit on $70 million in revenue.

Channel One has many opponents – including organizations such as Obligation, Inc. (“Reminding Businesses and Governments of Their Responsibility to Children”), www.obligation.org, a non-profit based in Birmingham, Alabama. Objections have been raised by a wide range of religious leaders, and both political conservatives and progressives.

In 1999 Senate testimony, Channel One was opposed by both Ralph Nader,www.essential.org/alert/channel_one/senedtest.html, and Phyllis Schlafly, www.essential.org/alert/channel_one/schlafly.html.

A prestigious and somewhat intimidating number of educators’ professional associations and other child advocate professionals are on record opposing Channel One. Examples include the National Council of Teachers of English,www.ncte.org/resolutions/advertising921992.html, and the American Academy of Pediatricswww.aap.org/policy/000656.html.

Other organizations opposing Channel One include the American Federation of Teachers, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, National Education Association, and National PTA.

The Congress has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate these issues. It’s report is entitled, Public Education: Commercial Activities in Schools (2000), www.gao.gov/new.items/he00156.pdf.

Channel One has been banned by law in New York.

Although some of those who object to Channel One focus on it alone, many see it as but a sub-set of a much larger problem: the growing commercialization within our nation’s schools.

Some have less concern about our commercialized society generally, but share the belief, however articulated, that commercialization is inconsistent with education. Our schools should be a commercial-free zone, they say. See, for example, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Education’s Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education,www.uwm.edu/Dept/CACE/ , and the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, www.commercialfree.org.

Commercialism in education can take an almost unlimited variety of forms. Among the more common are: Sponsorship of programs, events and contests. Exclusive contracts (soft drinks). Incentives to buy (money or goods for box tops). Space for ads (cafeterias and scoreboards). Teaching materials (pro-corporate content and logos). Electronic advertising (Channel One). Privatization (corporate ownership of entire schools). Some examples may be found within our school district.

So, what’s wrong with commercialization in schools?

Critics see a conflict between the mission of education and the method of advertisers. As Professor Alex Molnar, of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, points out, education encourages students’ rational judgment. Advertising, he says, “systematically sets out to undermine the ability of people to make rational judgments.”

Advertising’s emotionally manipulative message is that your worth, your identity, is merely a reflection of the products you buy, wear, consume and by which you are entertained. The celebrities with whom you identify. In short, that “you will be known by the companies you keep.”

Mary Bray Pipher argues, in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, that the junior high years are an especially vulnerable time for youngsters – especially girls – to deal with such commercial pressures to conform.

Advertising Age reports that the marketing manipulation now extends to girls as young as eight (“Young Girls Targeted by Makeup Companies”). By creating a felt need in young girls to paint their faces these firms believe they can create additional profits from what they call the “kid makeup” market.

In addition to the inherent inappropriateness of forced advertising to children, and its adverse psychological impact, some object to the negative impact of specific products, such as soda and snack food dispensers. They point to the epidemic of obesity and teens’ inadequate nutrition as a result of such empty calories.

Others point out the alienation that results from youngsters’ competitive conspicuous consumption of expensive clothing and prestigious (“cool”) objects. Many schools now require school uniforms as a way of reducing the adverse psychological impact on those students who cannot afford this class competition.

Some note the subliminal message schools give to kids when advertising and commercialism are everywhere throughout the school. Adults in positions of power and prestige are simply re-enforcing our society’s message that commercialization is just the way it is, it’s a part of the mediated environment in which we live.

Critics say we are telling our students, “Everything has its price” – however much it may be the case that schools are notoriously poor negotiators in getting full value when they do sell out. (Channel One’s $30 million profit on $70 million in revenue suggests the schools have not understood the full value of the students they are giving to Channel One to sell to advertisers.)

Give us a scoreboard and you may put your advertising on it forever. Give us enough money and we’ll make you the soft drink monopolist in our district and encourage our kids to drink your product. (One school district has an administrator whose responsibilities include increasing students’ consumption of Coke. Another expelled a student for wearing a Pepsi shirt on “Coke appreciation day.”) Give our school a kickback and we’ll get our students and their parents to buy your product and collect your box tops.

Or, as with Channel One, loan us some TV sets and we’ll let you sell our students to your advertisers.

Critics ask, “Is that really the educational lesson we want to pass on to our students?”

There are also criticisms of Channel One’s commercialization in particular.

Channel One supporters argue, “Advertising is everywhere already – the school newspaper, the local newspaper if it is used for current events teaching.”

Critics respond that there is a distinction between print advertising that can be ignored by turning the page and television advertising that must be watched by students who cannot leave the room, turn off the set, or use a remote to change channels. They say school-wide forced watching of a commercial corporation’s programming and advertising is all too reminiscent of George Orwell’s book, 1984.

(A former Channel One president boasted that his “biggest selling point to advertisers” is that “we are forcing kids to watch two minutes of commercials.”)

Television, for the most part, does not sell us programs. It sells us, as a demographic slice of the audience at a “cost-per-thousand,” to the advertisers. It is we who are the product.

Channel One’s critics believe that, whatever else our schools may be, they should not be a place where commercial advertisers can buy our children at a cost-per-thousand. There are other markets than schools where advertisers can – and do – make such purchases.

No one likes to admit they are influenced by television commercials – especially teens. Indeed, the primary argument of Channel One’s supporters, when they deal with the commercialization issues at all, is that the commercials really have no effect anyway, so what’s the big deal.

Critics have no local research data regarding students’ purchases to support their concerns. (Nor, of course, do supporters.)

What the critics do point out, however, is that:

  • Channel One is able to charge advertisers as much as $195,000 for 30-second commercials, according to the New York Times.
  • Teens nationally either spend, or influence the spending, of more than 500 billion dollars.
  • And advertisers willingly spend on the order of 50 billion dollars on television commercials.

Thus, critics suggest, whatever teens may think, the advertisers clearly believe their substantial investment is succeeding in manipulating teens’ behavior in ways that pay corporate dividends.

And, critics note, a casual survey of teens’ preferences for brands of clothes and shoes, snacks and fast food restaurants, cigarettes, soda in general and soda brands in particular, celebrities and movies tend to parallel the relative size of television advertising budgets.

Although most of the criticism of Channel One relates to the fact that it is selling students to advertisers, there is also some criticism of the programming itself.

It is charged that those responsible for the programming have come out of the entertainment side of the television business rather than from journalism. The soft pieces they do, critics say, are simply not consistent with rigorous educational standards – or respectable journalism.

And there is the criticism that the slant of the programming, as with that of conventional commercial television generally, has a pro-corporate bias in general – and a pro-Channel-One-advertiser bias in particular. As one of dozens of possible examples, the Channel One Web site list of prior programs lists none that deal with the use of child labor, sweat shop conditions, and Third World 20-cents-an-hour pay by corporations advertising on Channel One. This omission is striking given the fact that those are probably the number one issues among student protesters on the nation’s college campuses today.

Some critics complain about the time devoted to watching commercials. In our District the junior high principals represent that they have added to the school year the equivalent of the six school days represented by the cumulative time their students spend watching Channel One. (In districts that do not make up the time one study estimated “The Hidden Costs of Channel One” at $1.8 billion nationally. www.uwm.edu/Dept/CACE/documents/hidden_costs2.html.)

Even if the time is made up in some way, our students are still engaged in the act of watching commercials for the equivalent of one full day during the school year.

And the time of day selected for viewing – first thing in the morning – is prime time for learning.

Finally, some educators and parents express concern about the time students spend in the act of “watching television” – regardless of what programming or advertising they are watching. Today’s students have many academic needs, these critics argue – including the need to spend more time reading – but increasing the amount of time they spend in the passive act of “watching television” is well down that list.

The Board’s Lack of Action

Notwithstanding these arguments, both pro and con, at this time the Board is taking no action, and formulating no new policy, with regard to either the encouragement, or prohibition, of Channel One.

There are a number of reasons why.

The Board’s current governance model calls for it to focus on policy, not administration. Although the Board clearly has both the legal and moral rights to set standards and otherwise intervene in curriculum and classroom practices it is reluctant to do so casually. Except in very rare cases, it defers to the judgment of the District’s professional administrators and teachers on such matters.

In this instance, the junior high principals and teachers have not only chosen to use Channel One but have been united and enthusiastic in their presentation to the Board regarding their judgment as to the value of its use. The Board has great respect for them as professionals and given the depth of their commitment gives great (though not decisive) weight to their judgment.

Although the details are not before us, the use of Channel One was, if not affirmatively approved by prior Boards, at least known to them and left unchallenged. Channel One users can legitimately claim a measure of “detrimental reliance.”

Although the Board has no formal policy at this time with regard to site-based management, it recognizes that much administrative decision-making is in fact now delegated to the buildings. It notes that, although Channel One is often a high school program within school districts, the two high schools in our District have chosen not to use it. The junior highs do choose to use it, but contracted to do so at different times. No elementary school (or upper grades within an elementary) is using it.

If the Board were to create a policy forbidding, or requiring, Channel One in our schools it would only do so after a period of serious and thorough study and widespread community involvement.

Even if the Board was inclined to forbid the use of Channel One there are a number of practical limitations to the immediate curtailment of the service. (a) Both junior high schools have contractual commitments to Channel One. So there are legal limitations. (b) Channel One is now embedded into the curriculum and daily schedule of those schools. They would need some time for an orderly transition to different practices. (c) To the extent the schools would want to continue to use a school-wide network of television set receivers, and Channel One would insist on removing those it has loaned, there would be a need to budget for their replacement.

Finally, there are some advantages to the Board’s evaluating a product like Channel One in the context of a policy inquiry into all of the commercial activities within this District.

Conclusion

It would be wrong to conclude that the Board’s reluctance to formulate a Channel One policy at this time constitutes approval – or disapproval – of the service. It believes the concerns of critics of commercialism in our schools in general, and Channel One in particular, are deserving of serious consideration. It believes, as prior Board policies provide, that commercialism in our schools is to be, if not prohibited, at least discouraged. At a minimum, every effort should be made to find and provide educational materials free of commercial content.

It recognizes the objections to Channel One voiced by numerous professional associations, the schools that have refused the service – as well as those that have chosen, and then abandoned it, and the local stakeholders’ arguments against it. But it also recognizes that numerous districts, and thousands of their schools, do use it. In short, reasonable professional persons can and do differ about the merits and drawbacks of Channel One.

However, the Board also believes that, given the range and depth of controversy surrounding Channel One both nationally and locally, and the attention the Board and District stakeholders have already given these issues, it is incumbent upon the Board to provide at least this much guidance as to its thinking at this time.


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