News or Nikes?
The increasing tendency of television throughout the ’80s to exploit young viewers reached some kind of breakthrough with Whittle Communications’ Channel One.
For the uninitiated, Channel One is a television news program targeted to teenagers, and beamed to school classrooms around the country via satellite. Whittle offers this program to school systems, along with the equipment to receive the program (one satellite receiver, plus two VCRs and one 19″ television set per classroom), in return for the school system agreeing to require students to view the program every day.
The 12-minute program consists of 10 minutes of news and two minutes of commercials, slotted into the middle of the program. Only one or two minutes of the 10-minute news hole deal with current national or international events, with the other eight or nine minutes consisting of “soft news” — prerecorded features, often pushing some sort of product. One feature, for example, examined the spread of interest in the Ninja Turtle phenomenon; another showed how Nike running shoes are manufactured.
While these news segments may be hard to distinguish from commercials, other commercials try to blur the line between themselves and news. A series of ads for the candy Skittles begins with what appears to be a newscaster introducing another segment: “Mayors from all 50 states gathered…” he begins, only to be knocked off the air by a sudden snowstorm of static. As funky Monty Python-esque images fill the screen, a voice-over bellows, “We interrupt this class for a temporary fun emergency — for the next 30 seconds, think only fun thoughts.” A series of “fun thoughts” follows, such as, “Students in many foreign countries go to school on Saturday and Sunday — suckers!”
The series of five “fun emergencies” was so successful in boosting sales of Skittles that 10 more spots of the same format are scheduled for this fall on Channel One. Whittle reportedly uses the campaign in sales promotions as an example of the kind of creative approaches that can be tailored for its teen audience (Advertising Age, 6/3/91).
The Skittles commercial is emblematic of how Channel One interrupts classroom processes and directs attention to its main goal: selling products. An analysis of Channel One showed that it provided more in-depth coverage in the advertising than the news: A typical episode would devote only 125 seconds to seven news stories — 18 seconds per story — as opposed to 120 seconds for four television commercials.
The techniques of Channel One have more in common with MTV videos than with news. High-tech, fast-paced production highlights the commercials rather than the news stories: The background music in news segments changes 30 seconds before the advertising break, drawing viewers into the commercials by matching the beat. The pace of the dialogue in both news and advertising is speeded up — 140 words per minute, twice as fast as normal speech.
When Channel One was compared with another news program, CNN Newsroom, offered to schools without charge, CNN Newsroom was found to have longer, more clearly focused news stories — one news story was nearly four minutes long, as opposed to a maximum of 40 seconds on Channel One. And the dialogue on CNN Newsroom was more normal in pace — about 90 words per minute.
While CNN does not offer the same free hardware that Whittle does, an analysis of the costs and benefits of Channel One shows that it is a dubious bargain. The school system of Manhattan, Kansas, which recently declined to accept Channel One, stood to gain the use of $22,000 worth of equipment. In return, they would lose 95,184 hours of classroom instruction per year, almost $400,000 in taxpayer-subsidized education time.
Whittle’s defense is that it provides current events knowledge in a format appealing to young viewers. No doubt some educational benefits can be demonstrated in some schools with some students — the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, in fact, has received funds from Whittle to study the introduction of Channel One in several school systems around the country.
But Whittle’s critics argue that any gains in world knowledge come at a high cost: The benefits are too low, and alternatives are too readily available.