TV Moves to the Head of the Class

Nov 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Classrooms with too few books. Teachers with too many students. Students with plummeting test scores. It’s all part of the chronic underfunding of U.S. public schools.
But there’s a bright spot, and it’s coming from that TV set at the front of the classroom. Thousands of schools across the nation are taking advantage of a plethora of free educational video programming, courtesy of PBS and many cable programming services.
All broadcasters are mandated by the Federal Communications Commission to provide at least three hours per week of core educational programming, a concept defined so broadly that in some cases its impact is relatively minimal. But some have taken the idea of broadcaster-as-educator to heart by airing content that meets local curriculum standards and provides lesson plans and resources for teachers.
The push to bring cable television into the schools started 15 years ago when Ted Turner founded Cable in the Classroom, a nonprofit foundation headquartered in Washington. Cable in the Classroom’s 40 cable network members have provided schools with a free cable connection as well as educational programming that is copyright-cleared for at least a year and commercial-free.
“We’re in 85,000 schools across the country,” said the foundation’s executive director, Peggy O’Brien. “And they’ve all been wired for free.”
PBS, Discovery Channel, CNN, Nickelodeon, Disney Cable, ESPN, Court TV, C-SPAN and National Geographic are all part of a growing cadre of networks targeting the educational market. They haven’t adopted a single model for repurposing or for packaging programming, but all are hoping to benefit long-term by serving the public good while increasing awareness of their brands in the classroom.
CNN launched its student news program in 1989 and added a companion Web site, www.CNNStudentNews.com, in September 2000. A dedicated production team uses CNN footage to build a 10-minute daily student news program, creating new material when a story requires explanation or context. If NATO is in the news, for instance, the writer will produce an explainer on NATO’s history and mission.
“`Student News’ has to meet the standards of any CNN news program, but we do make it more engaging and humorous,” said Jerry DeMink, VP of news development for CNN Newsource Sales and executive producer of “CNN Student News.” Interstitials and “cluster-busters”-including the show’s most popular element, a news quiz called “The Shout Out”-add an entertainment quotient. The program airs from 3:12 to 3:22 each morning on CNN Headline News for schools and teachers to tape and use later the same day.
Mr. DeMink said he has no data on how many students actually view the programming, but each day 37,000 teachers visit a curriculum Web page created by a team of CNN educators to support the broadcast. Overall, the Web site will garner up to 23.5 million page views for the 2003-04 school year.
PBS, a major source of classroom video programming for 30 years, has seen its role grow in importance as technology has advanced. “With the advent of the VCR, many media libraries acquired PBS materials that they’d use,” said Cindy Johanson, the network’s senior VP of interactive learning. In 1993 PBS created the national Ready to Learn television service, through which local affiliates offer core programming and training for teachers to use video in the classroom.
Rather than repurpose its programming for the classroom, PBS’s modus operandi is to “pre-purpose” it. “When a producer wants to create content for PBS, if the content lends itself to potential use in the classroom, we encourage that producer during the production process to develop content that can be used in interactive activities and for classroom curriculum,” Ms. Johanson said. For example, a recent documentary about the Wright brothers on “Nova” is bolstered by teaching resources available on the Web site, www.PBS.org/teachersource, including activities for designing a wing.
The PBS Web contains 4,500 classroom lesson plans in arts, literature, health, fitness, math and science. In addition, PBS is actively researching the best way to provide on-demand video to schools. Twenty-six percent of visitors to the Web site identify themselves as educators.
On Discovery Channel, every morning at 9 a.m. “Assignment Discovery,” a one-hour program created from existing footage and added graphic elements, airs for taping. The program is divisible into three or four short segments for classroom use, and an accompanying lesson plan is posted on the Web site, www.DiscoverySchool.com. The site gets more than 4 million page views per week, said Paul Thomas, the channel’s VP of education.
Discovery Communications publishes more than 600 titles on video, CD-ROM and DVD and in book format that are sold to schools under the Discovery Channel School brand. Discovery Communications recently acquired United Learning, a provider of video-on-demand services for 24,000 schools. Its Unitedstreaming service provides on-demand access to 2,000 educational videos used in K-12 classrooms.
Cable services are also partnering with third parties to maximize educational market assets. Discovery licensed video clips to Microsoft for its 2004 Encarta DVD encyclopedia and has teamed with Pearson Education to create custom videos to supplement textbooks. The channel also works with companies to create multimedia kits with videos, CD-ROMs, books and an educator’s guide. Most recently, Discovery partnered with Ford Motor Co. to develop a kit on the history and science of flight.
“CNN Student News” is partnered with textbook publisher Harcourt, which provides additional resources for a range of topics via a hot link on the “Student News” Web site.
For parents and educators, enthusiasm over this rich resource of materials is tempered by the concern that it remain commercial-free. It has become an increasingly sensitive issue as school districts strapped for cash sell advertising space on stadium walls, uniforms and almost anything with room for a logo.
“They have a captive audience,” said National PTA President Linda Hodge. “If TV programmers are just providing classroom curriculum, that’s one thing. But we feel that marketing and commercials have no place in the classroom.”
Though no one contacted would reveal the dollar amounts involved, cable programmers maintain that classroom programming isn’t driven by a short-term need to amortize assets over product lines. They say their companies are more focused on long-term goals: Repeated exposure to their brands is a valuable way to build viewer loyalty at a young age.