Channel One Outlasts Its Critics

Nov 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

On the Raleigh Studios sound stage in Hollywood, about 80 employees bustle about preparing “Channel One News,” a daily 12-minute newscast that is beamed via satellite to students in about 12,000 schools.
A group of youthful anchors sets up the stories and helps make them relevant to an audience estimated by Channel One at around 8 million students. Topics are as broad as the world outside, from war in Iraq to AIDS-stricken African villages to mega-cities in Brazil. For current events closer to home, Channel One seeks out interviews with leading politicians. It plans to conduct a mock online presidential election in which its student audience will participate this fall.
“We’ve worked hard to deconstruct the news to rebuild it for our audience without breaking the rules of journalism,” said executive VP of programming Morgan Wandell. “We aim to be smart enough for `Nightline’ and hip enough for MTV.”
It wasn’t always this easy. When Channel One launched in 1990, critics howled about the plan to bring educational programming funded by advertising into the schoolroom. There was serious discussion about the idea of using TV as a teaching tool and exposing students to commercials.
Part of the problem was simply the idea of a TV set in a learning environment, said Cable in the Classroom Executive Director Peggy O’Brien, who began working with schools when the foundation was created in 1989. “It was like letting the devil into the classroom,” Ms. O’Brien said.
Though opposition to such video-based resources is no longer as vocal, Channel One’s business model, in which the daily newscast is paid for by two minutes of commercials, is still anathema to some educators.
“The good part of Channel One is that there are virtually no other shows airing that present news that is age-appropriate,” said Dr. Amy Jordan, director of Media and the Developing Mind, a sector of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “It also offers technology to classrooms and districts that can’t afford it. But I hate the ads.”
For many, the benefits of the programming clearly outweigh the negatives. Teachers in an estimated 370,000 classrooms have their students watch Channel One on a daily basis.
Jim Ritts, president and CEO of Channel One, remembers the urgency he and co-founders Chris Whittle, Ed Winter and Bill Gubbins felt in creating the network. “In the middle 1980s, there was a significant emphasis in the U.S. on declining cultural literacy levels among U.S. teenagers,” Mr. Ritts said. “When we spoke to teachers and educators, they said it wasn’t that this generation was less interested in the world, but that the news as it was presented didn’t seem relevant to them.”
Channel One’s founders aimed to solve that problem in a unique way. Although they originally planned simply to create a news program for teens, they soon realized the infrastructure didn’t exist. Mr. Ritts said the average high school in 1988 had access to fewer than three TV sets. “We realized that for this to have an impact, we’d have to be content producers and distributors,” Mr. Ritts said.
`A Daunting Task’
With a $250 million bank loan, Channel One installed 12,000 satellite dishes, 370,000 TV sets, 24,000 VCRs and 12,000 satellite decoder receivers over a three-year period. “It was a fairly daunting task until you realize that you bring in advertising dollars to underwrite the cost,” Mr. Ritts said. Channel One is now part of Primedia Inc.
With the Channel One-funded TV infrastructure in place, schools now also have the technology to record and use programming from other sources. “We encourage the schools to utilize the equipment for whatever they want to,” said Mr. Ritts, who reports that 99 percent of the schools renew their three-year agreements. “But it has to pass the test of being valued by the school. You’d better be grounded in the needs of that educational community. For us, that’s where we live.”