May 1 1997

News for a Captive Audience

An Analysis of Channel One

Since Channel One was introduced into high school and middle school classrooms in 1990, the commercial television program has been the focus of ongoing controversy. Purchased in 1994 for $250 million by K-III Communications, Channel One beams 12 minutes of programming (including two minutes of ads) into more than 12,000 schools in the United States, with an audience of more than 8 million students.

Participating schools receive the daily program along with 19-inch television sets for each classroom, two VCRs and a satellite link. Channel One sends the news via satellite early in the morning, where it is taped by each school’s VCR, then distributed to individual classrooms at a designated time. In exchange for the programming and the equipment, schools are obligated to show Channel One to students as a required part of each school day. In essence, schools deliver a highly sought teen audience to Channel One, which sells the attention of captive teens to youth-oriented marketers for approximately $200,000 per 30 seconds of advertising time.

The Channel One controversy has focused largely on the introduction of advertisements into public schools. Critics and parents have argued that students are not commodities to be sold to advertisers under the guise of educational television (Educational Leadership, 1/90; EXTRA!, 9-10/91). To advocates, the ads are but a small price that schools will have to pay in order to bring new technologies and discussions of current events into the classroom (Phi Delta Kappan, 2/95).

Indeed, Channel One’s mission statement touts its educational and civic value, indicating that its purpose is to “use news and current events information as a tool to educate and engage young adults in world happenings; make the daily news accessible, relevant and exciting to younger viewers; promote daily awareness of the relationship between national and world events and every teen’s individual life; encourage young people to become productive and active adult citizens by proving to them that they are participants in history not just witnesses to it.” After a rocky start, by 1996 Channel One was touting its acceptance by the mainstream journalistic community, citing its partnership with ABC News and favorable reviews in prominent publications, including Time magazine (12/18/95), whose television critic noted enthusiastically that “after five years on the air, Channel One News has filled an important niche.”

Researchers have participated in the debate primarily by exploring the “effects” of watching Channel One, paying attention to the learning that Channel One produces. But there has been little work on the actual content of the news that 8 million teenagers watch. What messages about our nation and our world does Channel One beam to millions of teens? The news-for-ads trade off that is an implicit, and often explicit, component of the argument in support of Channel One takes for granted that Channel One delivers to students a program that we would all accept as “news.” Instead of taking the news quality of Channel One for granted, however, we need to systematically study Channel One programming to determine the nature of this news.

The data for this study are videotapes of 36 Channel One programs, collected from late November 1995 to early March 1996. These 36 programs contained a total of 91 news stories and 177 on-camera sources. Stories and sources were coded on a range of dimensions, including story topic, story length, source occupation, source race and gender, and length of source appearance. The programs were also subject to more in-depth, qualitative analysis, focusing on the “frames” or interpretive patterns employed in both the news coverage and the non-news components of the Channel One program.


Style vs. Substance

The most striking aspects of Channel One are its look and feel; the program is so self-consciously stylish that the news often seems like an appendage to this MTV-like display of youth culture. The program generally begins, ends and cuts in and out of commercials with current youth music; the

opening generally includes attractive and sometimes bizarre visual images or computer animation. Most of the programs are hosted in “The Hacienda,” the extremely hip Channel One studio in Los Angeles, where a young, racially diverse set of reporters sit next to their laptop computers, lean against railings or sit on platforms high above the studio. The atmosphere in the studio is informal; there are rarely suits and ties for these stylishly groomed anchors, who rhetorically ask the audience “what’s up” as they introduce themselves. Before we’ve seen any news, except perhaps a teaser for an upcoming story, the general tone-attractive and cool young people reporting news in a way that is entertaining to teenagers-has been well established.

Slightly more than half (58 percent) of Channel One’s air time is devoted to news content. The remaining 42 percent is made up of ads, the “Pop Quiz,” Channel One contests and activities, and the music and banter that serve as filler. Features and profiles not pegged to breaking events constitute 57 percent of news time, meaning that only 25 percent of Channel One’s air time is devoted to coverage of breaking news stories. After sports, weather and plane or train crashes are subtracted, the figure is just 20 percent.

News coverage focused on a range of topics. The frequency and air time of each topic area is reported in Table 1.

The biggest surprise is the near-total absence of coverage of the economy, much less than is found in traditional news programs. Another notable finding is the disparity between frequency and percentage of air time for stories about social issues-pregnancy, school prayer, drinking, etc. While coverage of social issues ranks third in frequency of stories, social stories occupy more air time than any other category, since they are, on average, a minute and a half longer than other stories.

The 1996 presidential election was the most frequently covered subject, with 15 percent of Channel One stories focusing on various primaries and caucuses during the sample period. Next in order of frequency were coverage of sports and stories about Channel One activities, both of which were the focus of 10 percent of the stories in the sample. Stories on Bosnia accounted for 7 percent of the stories, and coverage of plane and train crashes made up nearly 6 percent of the news reports on Channel One.


Going to the Source

Despite the diverse set of anchors, in terms of both gender and ethnicity, the on-camera sources that appear on Channel One are primarily white and male. While the percentage of black sources, at 15 percent, is slightly higher than the percentage of blacks in the U.S. population, the black sources are not a very diverse lot: More than half are either athletes (42 percent) or prisoners (13 percent). Other people of color are almost invisible, and women are substantially under-represented among Channel One sources.

In coverage of breaking news, inequality of access is accentuated. The gender gap widens substantially, the percentage of black sources decreases significantly, particularly in terms of time, and other people of color virtually disappear.

Beyond simple demographics, who are the sources on Channel One news? The most frequent type of source to appear on these programs is government officials and politicians, who account for more than one-quarter of all sources and more than one-third of source time. The other major source type is students and teachers from schools that receive Channel One news-where student views are sought or where reporters cover activities at these schools-who account for more than 24 percent of sources and 15 percent of source time. This is one example of how Channel One covers itself, making the views and activities of those involved with the Channel One project central to the program.

Official appearances are, on average, more than twice as long (33 seconds) as appearances by Channel One students and teachers (15 seconds); only one Channel One student (a potential Olympic swimmer) appeared for longer than 25 seconds. This suggests the top-down communication pattern that Channel One promotes: Officials define the important issues and the parameters of discussion, and brief on-screen student comments present a semblance of student participation.

Coverage of domestic politics in particular includes a very narrow range of perspectives. Government officials and politicians made up 69 percent of the sources, and accounted for 86 percent of the source time. Men accounted for 91 percent of sources and occupied 93 percent of the source time. And 94 percent of the sources on domestic political stories were white, accounting for 97 percent of source time.

Coverage of international issues is rather different. Half of the sources in these stories were from outside the United States. The inclusion of voices from outside the United States resulted in substantial racial diversity here, with whites accounting for 55 percent of sources and occupying 59 percent of source time.

Channel One’s coverage of social issues makes use of sources that are far more representative. The male/female ratio is 58-42 percent, a substantially higher proportion of women than in other topic areas. Eighty percent of the sources are white and 17 percent are black in stories about social issues. These stories are also the least reliant upon officials; government officials and politicians only account for 8 percent of sources. Instead, the primary sources are teenagers and their parents (31 percent), professionals (20 percent, mostly doctors and lawyers), Channel One students and teachers (14 percent) and students and teachers from schools that do not receive Channel One (13 percent).

Seventy-five percent of the culture stories were about sports; the sources were largely Channel One-affiliated athletes and coaches (40 percent) and professional athletes (20 percent). While nine out of 10 sources in cultural stories were men, 60 percent were white and 40 percent were black. The black sources were all either high school or professional basketball players.

Absent from Class

This relative homogeneity of Channel One’s sources stands in stark contrast to the diversity of its on-camera staff. This is indicative of the substantial difference between the multicultural appearance and the substance of the reporting at Channel One news. In fact, race and ethnicity are almost never an issue in the newscasts; it is as if the existence of a multicultural staff erases the social and economic meaning of racial difference in U.S. society. Even when Channel One made an effort to foreground race, as in its Black History Month interview with Rosa Parks, the focus was solely on history-the civil rights movement of the ’60s-with little effort to explore either the contemporary implications of the civil rights movement. The bottom line is that Channel One packages multiculturalism as a style, but does little to give students resources for making sense of the complexities of racial inequality in our society today.

Similarly, as noted earlier, Channel One pays very little attention to economic news. Only three of the 91 stories focused on the economy: one story on changing interest rates and two stories (both in the same day) about the flat tax proposal. Why would economic news be of so little interest to Channel One news? One could make a persuasive argument that economic questions are of central concern to today’s teenagers. What kinds of jobs are available today, how is the labor market changing, and what kinds of skills are required? What are the economic prospects for the next generation? Channel One does not provide students with resources to be able to understand, in even the most rudimentary way, the workings of the economy or the significance of economic developments.

Given that Channel One is much more likely to air in less affluent schools (Morgan, Channel One in the Public Schools), the absence of reporting about economic inequality is particularly significant. Indeed, for working class and poor students who are required to watch Channel One, the news does little to include stories about their lives, communities or concerns. In short, Channel One reflects the deeply structured inequalities in American society; in failing to talk about inequality, however, Channel One helps to reproduce and legitimize these inequalities.

The absence of economic news, however, does not mean that there are no economic messages on Channel One. These appear each day in the two minutes of advertising imbedded in the news. Economic messages are reduced to the general promotion of consumption-as ads promote candy, cereal, new movies and video games.

Channel One (whose parent company also owns RJR Nabisco) does not promote a corporate perspective in a heavy-handed or direct way, as some critics had initially feared. Indeed, given the absence of economic news stories, corporate spokespeople are virtually nonexistent on Channel One. However, without any substantive economic news to give students the ability to make sense of the economy, the corporate advertising becomes the principal lens through which economic questions are addressed on Channel One news. The implicit message is that students’ relationship to the economy is solely as consumers, well-prepared to purchase the products and lifestyles that Channel One promotes.


Simplifying Political News

In contrast, Channel One regularly covers the political world, with a particular focus on the presidency and Congress. As with most major news outlets, the coverage focuses substantial attention (69 percent of domestic political sources) on government officials and politicians. The one major difference is that while network television news increasingly relies upon “expert” commentators for news analysis, Channel One rarely uses this journalistic approach (6 percent).

Although Channel One does not follow the standard news script that employs experts in prominent roles, it does follow its own set of conventions in coverage of controversial issues, both inside and outside the world of politics. Channels One’s approach, with rare exceptions, is to frame these stories as debates between two clearly demarcated sides. These sides coincide with the perspectives advanced by the leadership of the Democratic and Republican parties.

For example, a story on the welfare system is set up as a debate between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. A story on sending U.S. troops to Bosnia is framed as a debate between President Clinton and his Republican critics. Coverage of the federal budget is also a “battle” between the president and Republicans. The same general approach frames reporting on the flat tax, punishment for violent teenagers and the proposed amendment to ban flag-burning. And when a representative of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, appeared as a rare expert in a January 30 story about teenage pregnancy, the two sides were drawn clearly-without any competing definition-as the “pro-family community” versus “the left.”

The “two sides” approach is a convenient journalistic framework: It provides drama, protects reporters from claims of “bias,” and brings a semblance of order to a complex world. However, such an approach often obscures more than it illuminates.By almost any definition, the positions of the leadership of the two major political parties cast the issues narrowly. On Channel One news, critics of the president outside of the Republican party do not contribute to the debate, and ideas from outside of the “President vs. Republican Congress” framework are not available for students.

From an educational standpoint, the “two sides” approach may even promote a kind of cynicism among students. By reporting on the regular debates and “battles” between the same two sides, with little context and only a rare voice from outside this enduring conflict, students may well conclude that these fights are only about “politics” in its most derogatory sense. If promoting citizenship is a relevant goal for Channel One, as its mission statement indicates, more context, substance and diversity in political news will be required.

The election coverage adopted a general tone that highlighted the value of voting as a form of political participation and identified the presidential election as an event with important consequences for youth. However, the

substance of the coverage emphasized the horse race nature of the primary process instead of either the issues in the election or the workings of the political process.

The profound short-comings of this kind of electoral coverage were highlighted by the anchor banter on the February 28, 1996 program, the day after Steve Forbes’ victory in the Arizona primary. The report noted that Forbes led the delegate count, and that the Republican primaries were shaping up as an “unbelievably tight race.” Such reporting may have been intended to pique student interest in the primary election, but the dramatization of the close race was fundamentally misleading and seriously

lacking in educational value. The “tight race” frame on the election gave students no way to make sense of Bob Dole’s overwhelming victory in subsequent weeks, which was widely anticipated at the time of Channel One’s “tight race” coverage.

Moreover, the “tight race” framework effectively obscured the role of the party leadership, the significance of political infrastructure and organization, the role of money in politics and the status of campaign media coverage. Such issues, which are central to understanding American politics and election campaigns, were neglected in Channel One’s politics-as-drama approach to the election.

Highlighting Teen-Related Social Issues

The most in-depth reporting on Channel One focused on teen-related social issues. Stories on teenage mothers, pregnancy, teenage drinking, violence, school prayer, abusive relationships and teen health were, on average,

longer than international or domestic political news stories and, in general, made use of a wider range of sources. Sometimes these reports were pegged to a recent event-a press conference, for example, about teen drinking or the policy debate about welfare reform. In other cases, like a two-part story on teens with cancer or a report on violent teens, the stories stood on their own as the “feature” story of the day.

A three-part story on school prayer from December 1995 is emblematic of the strengths of Channel One’s reports on youth-oriented social issues. The report provided an in-depth and multi-perspective view of the religious, legal and community issues that the debate over prayer in public schools raises. Voices from various sides of these debates-including school officials, parents, students and expert commentators-were all featured, exploring a complex question without reducing it to a simple or dramatic conflict.

While reporting on teen-oriented social issues had the most depth and was often the most nuanced, these reports generally employed an underlying theme that recast these social issues as morality tales. While reports on teen

pregnancy, parenting, drinking and crime imply that there are broader social questions at stake, the stories suggest, often quite directly, that the fundamental issues are about individual moral choices. For example, a report on teenage mothers closed with an explicit call for teen abstinence from sexual activity. And reports on pregnant teens and teenagers in prison suggested that teens are responsible for their own poor choices and the resulting consequences.

This format for covering social issues may be a kind of compromise to ward off Channel One’s critics: In-depth reporting on complex social issues guards against charges that the news is simply light entertainment, while the implicit morality tales provide defense against charges that the program glamorizes a fast-paced teen lifestyle. This kind of compromise may allow Channel One to navigate difficult waters-while at the same time making its

news appealing to its audience of teenagers-but it avoids the larger questions of Channel One’s implicit and often explicit role as moral educator.

Most critics will agree that schools provide more than subject-specific education; they act, often rather subtly, as moral educators, imparting lessons about appropriate (and inappropriate) attitudes and behavior. This is one of the reasons why local school boards are so often the site of

controversy, as communities struggle over what such moral lessons should include and how they should be incorporated into the curriculum. Since Channel One is neither accountable to educators and parents, nor connected to the communities where it beams its news program, there is good reason to scrutinize the moral lessons that Channel One teaches.


Channel One Covers Itself

Lacking any deeply rooted relationship to its audience of students, Channel One crafts a news program that tries to be both an attractive product and a legitimate news outlet. Given the various constituencies that Channel One

tries to satisfy, the blending of entertainment with news, education with commerce, hipness with seriousness, is a difficult but essential task. The result is that Channel One news spends a significant amount of its daily program essentially talking about itself.

As we have seen, the anchor/reporters are young, attractive and cool. They talk to students in the informal language of the schoolyard or the street, instead of the formal language generally associated with the anchor desk. Indeed, Channel One-taking a page from the music and film industries-promotes its anchor/reporters as celebrity personalities, albeit celebrities within a closed community of teenagers. The program seems to revolve around the personalities of the reporters, who make themselves unusually visible within their own news stories.

One distinctive practice in Channel One coverage is the inclusion of its reporter asking a question at press conferences or at appearances by public figures-going well beyond the standard reaction shot that television news routinely includes. For example, a report on a train crash in Silver Spring, Maryland, included reporter Rawley Valverde asking investigators a question at a sparsely attended press conference. Coverage of Magic Johnson’s return to the NBA included reporter Krystal Greene asking a question at Johnson’s news conference. In both cases, the visual image of the reporter asking a question did not enhance the substance of the story-but did promote the

legitimacy of Channel One by showing its reporters talking with prestigious people.

On the campaign trail, Channel One reporters made their attempts to interview a candidate part of the story. For example, reporter Craig Jackson tried (in this case unsuccessfully) to stand his ground, in the face of a

moving crowd of campaign officials and cameras, to ask questions of presidential candidate Steve Forbes. Reporter Tracy Smith commented anxiously about the high speed of the car as she followed candidate Phil Gramm on a campaign trip. In each case, the Channel One reporters were part

of the story, often in an exciting or humorous manner, but always in ways that focused attention on the personalities that drive this program.

Additionally, Channel One routinely invokes its previous coverage by showing previously aired images of the reporters on location. Whether it be the former Channel One reporter Anderson Cooper in Bosnia or Haiti or the

current anchor Tracy Smith recalling her travels with Cuban-American pilots, history is filtered through the personalities and images of Channel One anchors. So “history” in Bosnia is Channel One’s coverage of the war,

without a broader historical context. And “history” in Haiti is the U.S.-sponsored return of President Aristide, with little context or prior history. The self-referential nature of the reporting adds little substance to the news, but again legitimizes Channel One reporters and reaffirms

Channel One’s status as a news outlet.

The often subtle focus on the glamorous and sometimes heroic reporters becomes explicit when the news includes gifts and letters to them from students. This goes well beyond the TV networks’ promotion of their on-air personnel, displaying Channel One anchors as objects of teen desire who receive fan letters, paintings and chocolate roses from their loyal fans. In short, the anchors are ads for Channel One itself, selling the fun,

excitement, coolness and drama of Channel One to students in the classroom.

We have already discussed the great frequency with which Channel One news quotes students and teachers at schools that receive Channel One. Only representatives of government appear on camera more frequently than Channel

One students and teachers. This is another example of Channel One’s inward focus; one major component of Channel One is the creation of a self-contained circle of discourse that is for and about Channel One schools. Indeed, one of the most enduring contributions of Channel One news is the addition of the term “Channel One school” to the vocabulary of American teens. The term is widely and casually used in the program, regularly marking the schools that are in the circle, suggesting that Channel One is becoming a fundamental component of a school’s identity.

Students learn of the top ranked boys basketball team, community-minded students in the flooded Northwest, and potential Olympic swimmers-all of whom are at schools that receive Channel One. And discussions about current events and policy debates from teen drinking to the flat tax include comments from students at schools who receive Channel One. This kind of coverage certainly has the potential to be of substantial educational value, linking students to one another to learn about each other’s perspectives and lives. But in this case the coverage is brief and superficial.

Given the broader context in which Channel One covers and promotes itself, the high frequency of Channel One-affiliated sources can better be understood as part of broader self-promotional efforts. Such coverage shows that important things are happening at “Channel One schools” and that students may expect to see themselves or their friends on the program.

With the need to focus the attention of even a captive audience in a classroom, the visibility of Channel One students, the on-camera recognition of student artwork and school shirts, the regular Channel One contests and

the daily pop quiz all serve an important strategic function. There is, however, little reason to believe that this approach to the news-one that is both self-promotional and self-legitimizing-provides the kind of educational

experience that is appropriate for students. Channel One’s self-coverage can be seen as part of a broader marketing approach to develop a “brand name” consciousness of the network, including the promotion of the “Channel One school” identity. Most discussions of Channel One have focused on the advertising in the classroom. This study suggests that Channel One contains more than two minutes of product ads embedded in the news-ads for Channel

One itself.

Marketing to a Captive Audience

The marketing significance of “place-based media” like Channel One is their ability to bring media products and their ads to captive audiences. The content of Channel One news suggests the difficulties of holding the attention of even captive audiences, like students in classrooms who are

required to watch.

Although students are a captive audience, there is little evidence that the program is less driven by audience pressures than media in a more competitive environment. Indeed, it is clear that Channel One has tailored a

product that is, first and foremost, about inducing students to pay attention, with a relentlessly hip style and participatory gimmicks like contests and quizzes. Perhaps all commercial media have the same underlying

goal, but Channel One makes use of classroom time and needs to be evaluated for its educational value, not simply its popularity or its profitability.

The program’s goal of attracting and holding a teen audience results in a version of the news that is dramatic and exciting. The anchors are cast as adventurers who travel the world for a good story: We see Joel Brand walking in the rain over a closed bridge in Israel in search of “suicide bombers,” and Lisa Ling posing as an educator to cover the situation in Tibet, where she reports that she has to hide the video footage in her clothing. This

helps to account for the unusual visibility of the anchor/reporters in their stories, since a central component of Channel One’s discourse centers on the emotions and activities of these anchors and their exciting jobs-not on the issues and events they are covering.

The regular practices of anchors wearing school T-shirts and acknowledging gifts from students, sending Channel One anchors out to the schools (sometimes as the prize for contests), and making the lives and activities of Channel One anchors very visible on their World Wide Web site only

reinforce this approach to journalism. The drama framework was also employed in coverage of the presidential

primaries, in the two-sided conflict approach to political issues, and in the routine coverage of accidents and disasters. And the regular doses of sports news-with anchors on location at the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star

Game-along with the hip music that is peppered throughout the news-help to keep the news fun.

This dramatic framework is supplemented by the focus on teen social issues. These reports are Channel One’s strongest suit; they are the most substantive and educational component of this news program. Even here,though, the reporting personalizes the issues, depicting them largely as individual choices, providing little historical or social context. This strategy of personalizing the news is a good fit with the broader news-as-drama frame. In this case, the drama is about the lives of teens and the dilemmas they face. Economic questions-particularly about poverty, jobs and education-conflict with the dramatic and personalized news and are, in this sample, almost entirely absent from the coverage. Since such stories do not fit with the Channel One approach of making news fun and exciting, they are not a regular part of this ostensibly educational news.

In short, the repackaging of news to attract and hold the teen audience turns Channel One news into a multi-faceted promotional vehicle. Channel One serves as a promotional vehicle for itself and for youth culture and style, and provides a friendly environment for the explicit advertisements that have been the principal source of controversy. This may be the kind of news that sells advertising time, yields a high return in school T-shirts, and helps to promote a consciousness of Channel One as a youth-oriented brand name. However, it is dubious whether such news provides educational or civic benefits to either students or educators at schools that receive Channel One.

William Hoynes, the author of Public Television for Sale: Media, the Market and the Public Sphere, teaches sociology at Vassar College. Research assistance was provided by Jean Nussbaum.