LOS ANGELES - When Christopher Whittle launched Channel One in about 400 schools in 1990, controversy centered on the bargain at its core: the offer of free television sets, VCRs and satellite receivers to schools in return for a captive audience of students to deliver to advertisers.
Often overlooked was the fact that Channel One was also a news program, and 10 years later it has become the single most important source of news and information for American teen-agers.
Jim Morris, the 44-year-old executive producer of Channel One, calls it "the most-watched newscast you've never watched."
Whittle's involvement with Channel One lasted only four years, but by the time he sold it in 1994 for $250 million to the company known today as Primedia, the broadcast was reaching about one-fourth of the estimated 31 million students in grades six through 12 in the United States.
With today's audience of 8.1 million teen-agers five days a week during the school year, Channel One is seen by more young people than all the network and cable news channels combined. Add the 400,000 or so educators at the 12,011 public and private schools who also watch Channel One News each day in the classroom, and the audience is larger than that of any single network newscast except "The NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw."
Morris oversees Channel One at the Raleigh Studios lot off Melrose Avenue in old Hollywood. A staff of 80 reporters and producers puts out the daily 12-minute broadcast.
A typical show opens with rock music, shots of student artwork and a quote of the day (sample, from former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm: "Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this Earth.") Viewers are welcomed to the show by anchors Gotham Chopra and Tracy Smith on a minimalist, high-tech set featuring metal risers and banks of TV monitors.
Usually there are two news stories. On one day in November, they were a two-minute spot from Turkey and a six-minute report from Rwanda, separated by a minute of commercials for a soft drink and a computer game. On other days, the commercials may be for movies, candy, skin cream and other products aimed at teens.
The Rwanda story featured videotaped shots of Smith visiting the killing grounds and then teaching children at an orphanage to say, "Hi, Channel One." While Smith and her reactions seemed to be the main business of the piece, she did offer an informed analysis of European colonialism and how it planted the seeds of the subsequent tribal genocide. The piece was wrapped within two brief segments on a University of Virginia student who helps starving children in Rwanda.
A commercial for jeans and a "say no to drugs" message followed, and the show finished with a quick geography quiz asking students to locate Rwanda on a map of Africa.
Opinions about the quality of Channel One's news continue to be polarized. Two years ago, Brill's Content, a media magazine, looked at a week of the programs and compared them with NBC's "Nightly News." It found Channel One the more "substantive" broadcast in a number of ways, particularly in its coverage of some international stories.
And Channel One has won a prestigious Peabody Award.
But Ralph Nader called it "little more than junk news in an MTV-style wrapper" last year in urging Congress to ban the broadcast from American classrooms. And Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, called it "a 12-minute-a-day marketing device forced on a captive audience of teen-agers."
Paul Folkemer, the 56-year-old executive vice president for education at the network - and a former middle-school principal - says any fair-minded assessment must start with Channel One's sense of mission.
First, he says, it is not a purely journalistic operation. Because it is beamed into classrooms, it is a hybrid of journalism and education. That's why he and other executives at Channel One go from their editorial meeting each morning straight to a conference phone call with about a half-dozen teachers or school administrators around the country.
Can those educators stop a story from being done? Channel One was one of the only news operations not to offer first-day coverage of the school shooting at Columbine High School, and then not to mark its anniversary.
Andrew Hill, formerly president of programming, says the decisions were made in part because teachers and administrators told the network's executives that they feared coverage by Channel One would inspire copycat behavior.
"Listen, this is a funny line here, and I'm sure there are some news purists who would wonder whether the president of programming and two executive vice presidents should be on the line with members of the audience asking, 'What do you need us to do?'" Hill acknowledges. "But those are what I see my marching orders to be."
The most thorough content study of Channel One News was done by William Hoynes, a sociologist at Vassar College, who examined 36 broadcasts from 1995 and 1996. He noted the strengths: a commitment to international stories, politics and social issues affecting teen-agers. Overall, though, he gave it a failing grade, for presentation and for what he saw as near-constant self-promotion.
Politics, for example, was covered as "drama," and there were never more than two sides to any issue - always shown in conflict. International events featured the attractive young correspondents as "adventurers who travel the world for a good story." Generally, Channel One interviewers were as much the story as those they spoke to, or more so.
But the same criticism is often leveled at the nightly newscasts and prime-time newsmagazines. Think of Diane Sawyer interviewing Elian Gonzalez, or Dan Rather in native garb in Afghanistan.
If Channel One News is a younger, more self-consciously hip version of network news, it is not surprising. Morris, its driving journalistic force, is a product of mainstream American journalism, having worked at UPI and ABC.
Today, ABC, CBS and MTV News all have partnerships with Channel One in which they share staff and airtime. For example, "The Early Show" on CBS features a report by Channel One's Tracy Smith every second Thursday.
Steve Friedman, executive producer of "The Early Show," says, "The proof is in the showing. We wouldn't be showing it if we didn't like it. What they try to do at Channel One is to go to their audience in a very commercial and journalistic way with things their audience would be interested in. And they are able to pull it off."
Friedman questions whether some of Channel One's critics have ever watched the newscast.
Rene Hobbs, director of the Media Literacy Project at Babson College in Boston and founder of the Harvard Institute of Media Education, agrees. When she first heard of Channel One, she was "repulsed by the whole idea." But in the course of designing media-literacy curricula for middle and high schools, she watched it almost daily with high school teachers for three years. She came to see how it reconnected those teachers with their students through their shared viewing of current events.
Some of Channel One's critics simply have a bias toward print culture.
Channel One News "is not too much different from network news, which is to say for the most part, it's a waste of time" says Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, a consumer-advocacy organization founded by Nader.
He leads a growing anti-Channel-One coalition that unites critics from left and right. They are trying to get advertisers to withdraw from Channel One and lobbying Congress to oust it from the classroom.
"One of the things we ought to be doing in school is teaching kids to read," Ruskin says. ""We should not be teaching them to watch more TV."