Channel One beamed into the homerooms of Forest Park High School Tuesday morning right on schedule at 8:16. The 16 of us in Room 226 (a "captive audience," according to Channel One opponents) watched attentively as the 12-minute news show examined an affirmative-action dispute in an Ohio fire department, a controversy over gay student-council members in Bremerton, Washington, and the third part of a series on Arab-Israeli relations in the West Bank (as seen through the eyes of teen-agers).
That program, viewed by 8.1 million American students, also devoted 120 seconds to four commercials pushing candy, a soft drink, a disposable camera and a deodorant.
I'd been in the same room with the same teacher and the same kids last September. Down the hall, the mayor, superintendent and a covey of VIPs were watching the new toy with fascination. I determined to return after a school year to see how Channel One fared.
In a word, wonderfully. That's the evaluation of most of the students, teachers and principals. Say what you will about the city's motive for launching Channel One: It was something for nothing. Regret the lack of public discussion that preceded its coming. Oppose on philosophical grounds the commercials that make Channel One possible and that enrich Tennessee entrepreneur Chris Whittle and his company.
But Channel One, by most accounts, is providing a quality
program that speaks the students' language in the medium on which they were weaned. It covers the issues that are close to their hearts and minds: sex, anorexia, race relations, violence, AIDS, drugs. And even in districts with more resources than Baltimore, Channel One is the extent of many students' daily exposure to current events.
Tuesday's program showed the many things Channel One does right. Its anchors are peers of the students -- on Tuesday a young black man and a young Asian woman. When it mentions a place, a map shows viewers where it is. Channel One covers news from a teen-ager's perspective wherever possible, speaking the teen language grammatically but without condescension. If there's trouble with understanding, as there was Tuesday in the West Bank segment, quotations are captioned. Channel One's camera work and other production values are excellent. And Whittle beams 30- and 45-minute special programs that Forest Park tapes and stores in its library for playing in science, math, history, social-studies and foreign-language classes.
"I was enthusiastic about it in the fall, and I still am," said Forest Park Principal Annette H. Hall. "It is news in a capsule, but it gives students an opportunity to connect with people around the world." Principal Joseph Antenson at City College said Channel One has covered the cataclysmic events in the world this school year with "amazing balance." Both principals and Forest Park special-education teacher Patricia Petrosino said Channel One has value as a generator of discussion in their schools during the day.
"At least we're learning some thing instead of sitting around talking," said David Medlin, a sweet-natured Forest Park sophomore. "They're [Channel One] down to our level."
So is this a pact with the devil? Has the city sold its soul for a free 12-minute news program with commercials? Critics say students are "hypnotized" watching the ads, that the commercials get more attention than the program's news reports and features. One Baltimore opponent called Channel One "materialistic indoctrination." But city teachers and principals said students relax during the ads and begin chatting, just as they (and the rest of us) do at home. And that is what happened in Room 226 Tuesday. I suspect students are no more hypnotized by Channel One commercials than they are by those evil Crayola crayons (which have been infiltrating schools for generations).
One thing that ought to concern educators, however, is the implication of Mr. Whittle's establishing a monopoly for his service. In the '90s, information travels instantly via satellite, cable, telephone lines. But as the quo for Chris Whittle's quid, those "free" television sets are to be used only for Whittle, that dish directed only at Whittle's satellite.
One day Baltimore may regret its exclusive affiliation with Channel One, but it won't happen soon. In a city in which high schools are lucky if they have more than a couple of telephones, Channel One, with its quality programming, is a blessing.
Mike Bowler edits The Evening Sun's "Other Voices" page.