By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
When Channel One began broadcasting its news programs in public schools in 1990, some critics blasted it for using TV news as a vehicle for bringing advertising-from the U.S. Army in particular-into the classroom.
The ads are still there, but Channel One has won two Peabody Awards (in 2004, for its three-part “The Suffering of Sudan,” and in 1993 for “A Decade of AIDS”), a Telly Award, a Silver Hugo Award and dozens of other awards. It has become an incubator for young, talented journalists, with an alumni list that includes CNN’s Anderson Cooper, CNN/CBS News correspondent Serena Altschul, National Geographic Channel’s Lisa Ling and CBS “Early Show” correspondent Tracey Smith.
The channel sponsors the Robert F. Kennedy High School Student Journalism Award with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, promotes National Constitution Day with the Knight Foundation and teamed with Participant Productions to promote journalistic excellence by exploring issues raised in the film “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
“I like to say, ‘This isn’t your father’s Channel One,'” said Judy Harris, who took over as president and CEO a year ago. “We will always have criticism. We want to encourage the challenges and concerns to become the best we can be.”
Change Is Afoot
Channel One, which is seen by more than 7 million students, still has its critics, who worry over what they perceive as a fuzzy line between sponsorship and content. But Ms. Harris insists, “We make sure we have a high firewall between content and sponsors. We make sure we are an unbiased news organization.”
Change is afoot at Channel One. As a signal of its seriousness about creating a broad-based news organization, its production offices are moving from Los Angeles to Washington, where the new studio will open July 1. “We want to give kids access to key lawmakers and ambassadors on a real-time basis,” Ms. Harris said. “We aspire to have a place on the White House lawn.”
In recent years Channel One has expanded and deepened its Web site, winning the Webby Award for the youth category in 2005. “We only have 12 minutes in the morning, but the story is much broader and bigger,” Ms. Harris said. “We drive them to the Web site to see more video.”
But that is only one step in the evolution to new platforms. Acknowledging that teens are likely to get information from their cellphones and computers, Channel One plans a fall launch for its 24/7 broadband news channel for teens.
Ms. Harris revealed that the channel also has partnerships with Cingular and Verizon. “The challenge is how to monetize and how to craft the content,” she said.
The channel has joined with civic and governmental organizations to drive important information to kids and in the process increase its own credibility as an independent news source. Channel One hosted a town hall for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who co-chaired the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s campaign to get soft drinks out of schools. “He was with us, talking to teens about what’s important about this initiative and all the components that make a healthy teen,” Ms. Harris said. “And the kids had really good questions.”
As with other news offerings for teens, the Channel One anchors are young, energetic, attractive and usually just out of college. Anchor Cali Carlin majored in communications at Brigham Young University and fixed on Channel One as “the dream job.”
“It covered everything from teen issues to breaking news, in a younger setting where I felt like I could just be myself,” said Ms. Carlin, whose first live, breaking story involved the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Talking to people, learning their stories and then sharing them is very rewarding.”
As Channel One has evolved its delivery of news to teens, its focus on the news has incorporated the development of media literacy, encouraging students to stay on top of current events and to become involved in activities such as fund raising-and even to become journalists. For a recent piece on Uganda, Channel One provided tools for fund raising and access to national associations dealing with the issue. “We’re helping them to engage in key initiatives in the community,” Ms. Harris said.
Beyond the Daily Program
In addition to its 12-minute daily program, Channel One feeds 90 minutes of support material that teachers can use.
To explore issues raised by “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Channel One aired an interview with director and star George Clooney, which opened discussion about the movie’s themes. ChannelOneNetwork.com offered a lesson plan for the film and a discussion guide for parents. ChannelOne.com hosted an interactive quiz on McCarthyism and Edward R. Murrow, and also featured a link to Participant Productions’ “Report It Now” campaign, which encourages citizen journalists to share their stories.
Student-Produced Week, which took place this year from March 28 through April 7, gave a group of students from cities across the country the chance to become anchors, producers and directors and to lead Channel One and ChannelOne.com. Each student was paired with a mentor in an internship designed to give experience and encouragement to students, many of whom want to become journalists.
“It’s incredibly rewarding for our staff to watch these students dive into the experience and come out with the big achievement of having withstood the pressure of a busy newsroom,” Ms. Harris said.
Channel One intends to stay on the leading edge of all new digital platforms and plans to unveil new technology in classrooms in the fall. But the emphasis is on continuing to deliver the news and continually refining ways to engage young people in current events. “In using our airwaves,” Ms. Harris said, “we believe we can inspire change.”