Students at Gahr High School wonder what all the fuss is about.
Every school-day morning since March 6, Gahr students have been watching a new teen-oriented TV news broadcast called Channel One, produced by Whittle Communications of Knoxville, Tenn. Each 12-minute program, being aired on an experimental basis in classrooms at six high schools throughout the United States, includes two minutes of commercials for jeans, chewing gum and other products young people buy.
In exchange for showing the current-events program, Gahr and each of the other schools received $50,000 worth of electronic equipment, including 25-inch color televisions for every classroom, two videocassette recorders and a satellite dish.
Because of the commercials on Channel One, however, the program has been condemned by the National Education Assn., the American Federation of Teachers and both the California and the National Parent-Teachers Assns., among others.
Earlier this month, National PTA President Manya Ungar of Chicago said the group’s leaders “applaud efforts to bring new technology into our schools. However, we are opposed to making the availability of that technology and programming contingent upon subjecting a captive student audience to the promotion of commercial products or services.”
But at Gahr, the only school in the West taking part in the pilot program, students and staff seem surprised at what many see as much ado about Whittle.
Gahr Principal Nadine Barreto, who accepted the firm’s invitation to take part in the pilot program, acknowledged that she had some initial concerns. “Commercials were an issue for me when it first got started,” she said.
Whittle promised Barreto and the other participating principals that all Channel One commercials would be appropriate for classroom viewing. No ads would be accepted for alcoholic beverages, tobacco, contraceptives or feminine hygiene products. Principals have the option of screening each program in advance and pulling the plug if they find it objectionable. Gahr students have seen all the programs to date, including the commercial messages.
Barreto said her misgivings were also allayed by the quality of the programming and the fact that Gahr teachers are using the show as an occasion to analyze the techniques advertisers use to sway audiences.
Moreover, she noted, $50,000 worth of equipment is not easy to come by in an era of spartan school budgets. “If we lived in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have commercials,” she said. “And education would be the country’s highest priority.”
Barreto said she believes high school students are smarter, more sophisticated consumers than critics of the program give them credit for. Gahr teacher Roger Hughes agrees. His students, Hughes said, “are not going to run out and buy Juicy Fruit just because they’ve seen it on TV.”
Several Gahr students said they are more likely to be influenced by peer pressure than by advertising in deciding what to buy.
Gahr senior Susan De Jesus noted that commercial messages were a fact of life for American teen-agers long before Whittle began broadcasting them into the schools. “They are making a big deal out of the commercials,” the 18-year-old said. “They’re not such a big deal. We go home and watch commercials.”
“These kids are walking commercials,” Hughes said, alluding to the brand names prominently displayed on their T-shirts, jeans and running shoes.
On Wednesday morning the Channel One broadcast featured stories on the national ban on fruit from Chile and the growing concern about the safety of apples treated with the pesticide Alar.
A segment on air pollution touched on everything from acid rain to a Channel One reporter’s observation that “every time a cow belches it sends out methane gas.”
Hughes’ students laughed at the notion of bovine pollution, but not as hard as they laughed at a deodorant commercial that showed a classroom of students with dry underarms waving their hands in the air as a voice urged them to “Raise your hand if you’re Sure!”
Most of the students said they like the show, citing such pluses as a youthful reporting staff, informative maps and other graphics and the reporting of more than one side of an issue. Several said they have begun reading newspapers and watching television news at home because Channel One piqued their interest in a particular topic. “We want more information,” one student said.
In spite of the national PTA’s position, Jeanetta Inge, president of the Gahr PTA, said she and her board members are “elated” about the project. She praised the content of the programs so far and the ethnic diversity of the on-camera personnel.
Teacher Hughes said the show “is terrific even though we have to put up with commercials.” But Hughes said the biggest benefit to the school is the electronic equipment it received. “I see a tremendous opportunity to use these same screens when Whittle isn’t on there,” he said. Among possible uses: televising student activities and beaming otherwise unavailable courses into classrooms.
Chosen for Ethnic Diversity
Channel One is being shown to 10,000 students in California, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. According to Gahr officials, Whittle approached the Cerritos school for the five-week pilot program because of its ethnic diversity. Forty-nine ethnic groups are represented among Gahr’s 2,000 students.
Whittle spokesman David Jarrard said the firm has spent $5 million on the project so far. If the firm deems it a success, Whittle will offer the program next year to about 8,000 schools nationwide, which would give Channel One advertisers unique access to the country’s lucrative teen market.
Jarrard said Channel One will be off the air during the upcoming spring break while the company evaluates feedback from the participating schools and other sources. The experiment will continue for three more weeks beginning April 1.