Hucksterism on Channel One


IN the last two years, hundreds of public schools have agreed to give up 12 minutes a day and deliver a captive student audience to a commercial huckster called Whittle Communications, of Knoxville, Tenn. Whittle's Channel One provides 10 minutes of news and lifestyle flashes daily along with two minutes of commercials.

The televised ads push candy, soft drinks, high-fat foods, deodorants, shampoos and designer shoes -- to name a few. The Whittle company earns more than $3 million a week from this immensely profitable venture, which is coming this fall to Baltimore city.

The schools sign three-year agreements with Whittle to deliverthe programs, usually in "homeroom" at the beginning of the school day, in return for free rental of television sets, VCRs and a satellite dish. Other use of the equipment is permitted if it doesn't compete with Whittle.

Twelve minutes a day of television in class amounts to six days a year staring at the tube, including one whole day watching advertisements -- all this on top of the 25 hours or more a week that these youngsters spend watching TV and videotapes at home.

Whittle has not tempted the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers or the national PTA -- all of whom oppose Channel One. New York, California and Rhode Island have banned Channel One from the public schools.

All this opposition argues that the time is better spent on teaching students to read and write and on working in small groups to develop students' minds, rather than allowing blatant commercialism to invade the schools with sound bites and ads that help turn minds into nodding acquiescence. Schools ought to be able to teach current events without depending on Whittle's sugar-coated messages.

But all this opposition has not affected the schools that want Whittle primarily for the equipment that the company provides. School administrators claim tight school budgets do not permit them to purchase this video technology, which explains why the Cable News Network's offer to the same schools of free news programs without commercials -- but without the equipment -- is getting few takers.

Whittle's arguments, however, were rejected recently by the Prince George's County Board of Education. Anti-Whittle taxpayers estimated that $7.8 million of junior and senior high school time per year would have been devoted to Channel One in that county alone.

Public school officials who have allowed Whittle into their schools need to rethink why boundaries are needed between public education and contagious commercialism. Students deserve a sanctuary from the din of the hucksters. Taxpayers deserve something more for their money than merchants who videowash young students five mornings a week.

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