Channel One Invades Schools

By Michael Apple

Your school may not receive Channel One, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t affected by this “news” program broadcast to thousands of schools. Channel One is a harbinger of things to come.

Channel One is a commercially produced television news program broadcast to more than 10,000 middle and high schools in the United States. A description of Channel One is overtly simple: 10 minutes of international and national news and two minutes of commercials shown daily to students. It is produced and distributed by Whittle Communications, a conglomerate based in Knoxville, Tenn., that is one of the largest publishers of material for “captive audiences” in the United States. Whittle’s tentacles reach out to schools not only with Channel One but also with other projects, including a proposal to set up a chain of “for-profit” schools.

While a description of Channel One is easy, the implications are more profound.

Ten minutes of “the news” will not transform education or automatically make students into “better-informed citizens.” What makes Channel One important is that it signifies the officially sanctioned opening up of school content to business sponsorship and organization. It is part of the growing acceptance of schools as places where businesses can compete for profits and mold content, as seen through calls for privatization, corporate control and funding for schools, and industry/school “cooperation.”

Channel One’s rise has been truly phenomenal. After two years of development, it was launched nationally in March 1990. By June, 1991, it had signed up 8,700 schools in 47 states, plus the District of Columbia (Barry, 1991). Today, Whittle Communications reports that it has contracts with more than 11,500 schools, not all of which have the equipment installed yet. There are roughly 7.5 million students in those schools, according to Whittle, which is more than a third of all students in middle and high schools. Further, more adolescents watch Channel One than the three top network television shows combined, according to John Friedman in TheNationmagazine.

The program has not been without controversy, however, and a number of educators have condemned Channel One for using the schools to broadcast commercials to students. Several states, including New York, California, Rhode Island, and North Carolina, have prohibited or limited the use of Channel One (Hoffman, 1991).

To understand the significance of Channel One, we need to first place it in its economic, political, and ideological context.

Taxes and Television

We have entered a period of conservative reaction in education, and our educational institutions are seen as failures. Among the charges are high drop-out rates, a decline in “functional” literacy, a loss of standards and discipline, the failure to teach “real knowledge,” poor scores on standardized tests, and more. All of these, we are told, have led to declining economic productivity, a loss of international competitiveness, unemployment, poverty and so on.

Some of the proposed solutions include a return to a “common culture,” making schools more efficient and

competitive, and opening them to private initiative. Behind these solutions are an attack on egalitarian norms and values. In essence, “too much democracy” — culturally and politically — is seen as one of the major causes of “our” declining economy and culture (Apple, 1985; Apple and Christian-Smith, 1991).

This conservative restoration is not only occurring in the United States but also in Britain, Australia, and many other nations. The extent of the reaction is captured by the former British Secretary of Education and Science in the Thatcher government, Kenneth Backer. He evaluated nearly a decade of rightist governmental efforts by saying in 1988 that “the age of egalitarianism is over” (Arnot, 1990). He was speaking positively, not negatively.

Channel One needs to be seen in the context of this conservative reaction. Its status as a “reform” and its acceptance in many schools can only be fully understood as part of a larger conservative movement. And one of the effects of this movement has been to transform our collective sense of the role of schools in this society. Equalizing

the opportunities and outcomes of schools has been seen increasingly not as a public right but as a tax drain. Public schooling — unless it is defined as meeting the more conservative goals now in ascendancy — is seen as too expensive economically and ideologically (Apple, 1988).

In the United States, this changing perception of schooling has helped states to justify Draconian cuts in education because of sharply diminished tax revenues and a loss of public support for schools. Federal and state aid to local school districts, which was never sufficient in many poor districts, has been less and less able to keep up with mandated programs such as health and desegregation, to say nothing of other needs.

For many chronically poor school districts, the fiscal crisis is so severe that textbooks are used until they literally fall apart. Basements, closets, gymnasiums, and any “available” space are used for instruction. Teachers are being laid off; art, foreign language and sports programs are being cut. The list of budget problems could go on and on.

In the context of such a financial crisis, a contract with Channel One can seem quite attractive — as Whittle Communications makes clear in its promotional material.

When a school signs a contract for Channel One, it receives a satellite dish, two central VCRs, and 19-inch classroom color televisions. The equipment is provided, serviced, and maintained at no cost to the school — as long as the school receives Channel One.

Schools, in turn, must guarantee that 90% of the pupils will be watching 90% of the time. The 10 minutes of “news” and two minutes of commercials must be watched every school day for 3-5 years. There’s another catch: the satellite antenna is fixed to the Channel One station and cannot be used to receive other programs. Further, schools only have use, not the ownership, of the equipment. If the contract is not continued, the equipment can be taken away.

Always controversial, Channel One has a growing list of strong supporters. Texas has more than 700 schools that are committed to Whittle. One California school voted to reinstate Channel One despite a warning by state education authorities that they might cut off state funding to schools that signed on with the network (Barry, 1991).

The combination of “free” equipment and a “news” program is hard to resist. When combined with Whittle’s aggressive advertising campaign — which portrays Channel One as a crucial ingredient in transforming a stagnant, overly bureaucratic educational system that fails to prepare students for the “real” world — it can convince school officials that it might not be so bad if their students are something of a “captive audience” (Hoffman, 1991).

Whittle Communications

Chris Whittle founded Whittle Communications in 1970. Its primary targets have always been captive audiences, such as patients in doctors’ offices. In a manner that presaged Channel One, Whittle would provide reading material free of charge for patient use, if physicians would guarantee that no other magazines would be available in the waiting area. Similar things were done with wall posters on health-related issues, the assumption being that people with “time on their hands” would naturally read anything available, including material on a wall. Advertisements, of course, were a key part of all of the material.

In 1976, Whittle had revenues of $3 million. By 1989, the beginning of the pilot project of Channel One, its revenues topped $152 million. After Channel One, revenues jumped to $210 million by June, 1991 (Barry, 1991).

After completing the pilot program for Channel One, Whittle was more than a little optimistic, and deservedly so. Where the goal was 1,000 schools by March 1990 and 8,000 schools by 1992, contracts exceeded that goal.

By October 1989, Whittle had sold more than $149 million worth of commercials in 3-and 4-year contracts. To put these figures in perspective, the ESPN sports network sold only $10 million worth of commercials in its first year and the CNN network only $24 million. A 30-second spot on Channel One was selling for approximately $120,000 in mid-1991 — double the top-rated prime time news program (Barry, 1991).

Advertisers are primarily interested because Channel One, as one advertising executive told the WallStreet Journal, “is a very interesting medium for reaching an audience that’s hard to reach.” Another advertising executive was more direct and told the Boston Globe: “Channel One provides an excellent targeting opportunity” (Barry, 1991).

Whittle doesn’t emphasize the commercials in its promotional efforts. Instead, the company plays on fears that students are horribly misinformed about the world. Channel One is then billed as a solution to problems such as the fact that many secondary school students identified “the District of Columbia as a Central American country, and Chernobyl as Cher’s full name” (Barry, 1991).

The company also touts Channel One as a legitimate reform showing how business and education can cooperate. As William Rukeyser, executive editor of Channel One and a former managing editor of both Fortuneand Money magazines, told Education Week, Channel One is a “test case for the viability of ‘vigorous partnership’ between business and education.” (Hoffman, 1991)

Another spokesman was more direct: “Somebody has to pay the bill for education, and commercials are the most direct way to pay.” (Barry, 1991.)

Notice what is happening here. At the same time that businesses are involved in intense struggles to reduce the amount of taxes they pay, and are engaged in concerted political, economic, and ideological attacks on schools, Whittle is able to sell its package of reforms by pointing out that business, through payments for commercials, will be paying for an enhanced education for U.S. students. The contradictions here are remarkable.

In the process, schools are increasingly incorporated into the market governed by the “laws” of supply and demand and by the “ethic” of capital accumulation. Further, students themselves become commodities. They too are bought and sold to large corporations as “targets of marketing opportunity.”

Students, however, may not always respond the way they are supposed to.

For instance, ongoing research by Ann Devaney of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicates that students often ignore the news content of Channel One. They often talk to each other while it is on, do homework, etc. What they do watch is the commercials. In many instances, the news was unimportant.

Students and teachers also use Channel One for different purposes. As one teacher from Texas told me, “The best thing about it is the VCR. The kids and I basically ignore the news. But we can use the VCR in a lot of other areas.”

The idea of schools using Whittle to get what they can’t afford is important. However, and this is crucial, this is leavened by the fact that this same teacher said, “It was the commercials that got to the kids. My seventh and eight grade students would try to guess which commercials would be on and would sing along with the jingles.”

And a recent study — paid for by Whittle Communications — found that Channel One did little to increase student knowledge of the news. The study, headed by Jerome Johnson of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, found that students who watched the program during the 1990-91 school year made few gains in knowledge of current events compared with students in schools that didn’t get Channel One. The students, however, did remember the commercials, according to an article on the study in TheNewYorkTimes.

Significance of Channel One

It is important to remember, however, that the importance of Channel One goes well beyond what happens to students and teachers in classrooms. It is an example of the social transformation of our ideas about public and private, and about schooling itself.

The “industrialization” of education has proceeded at more than the level of social goals, or curriculum and teaching. The Right has attempted to alter our very perception of schooling, turning it away from the idea of a common ground based on a set of democratic and political commitments, no matter how weak those commitments are. Instead, the common ground is replaced by the idea of a competitive marketplace. The citizen as a political being with reciprocal rights and duties is lost. In its place is the self as consumer. Schooling, and students, become a “retail product” (Bastian, Fruchter, Gittell, Greer, and Haskins, 1986). Freedom in a democracy is no longer defined as participating in building the common good, but as living in an unfettered commercial market, with the educational system now seen as needing to be integrated into such a market (Apple, 1988).

The important point is to see the ideological reconstruction that is going on, to understand that in the process of making the school (or in the case of Channel One, the students) into a product to be bought and sold, we are participate in our institutions. Participation has been reduced to the commercialization of all important public social interaction (Hall, 1986). The unattached individual, one whose only rights and duties are determined by the marketplace, becomes ascendant. The ideological imprint of our economy is hard to miss here. There may be few examples more powerful or symbolic of this than Channel One.

It has required a good deal of ideological work on the part of the Right to convince the public to see education as a product evaluated for its economic use and as a commodity to be bought and sold. It has meant that the citizenry must be convinced that what is public is bad and what is private is good. While the majority of the American people may not have been totally swayed by such conservative ideological tendencies, it is clear that the processes of redefinition are part of the larger strategies involved in the conservative restoration.

Channel One, then, is a symbol of this broader transformation. Its roots lie in the conservative restoration and in the “opportunities” that this restoration has given to business to slowly transform the educational system into one more site for the generation of profit.

In everyday life there is good news and bad news and news in between. Channel One is bad news.


Apple, M. (1985). Education and Power (New York: Routledge).

Apple, M. (1988). Teachers and Texts(New York: Routledge). Apple, M. and L. Christian-Smith (1991). The Politics of the Textbook (New York: Routledge).

Arnot, M. (1990). Schooling for social justice: a new agenda for British education in the 1990s. Paper given at the 12th National Conference of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education, Auckland, New Zealand.

Barry, A.M. (1991). Channel One: controversial partnership of business and education. Unpublished paper, Boston College, Department of Communications and Theater.

Bastian, A., N. Fruchter, M. Gittell, C. Greer, & K. Haskins (1986). Choosing Equality (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).

Hall, S. (1986). Popular culture and the state. In T. Bennet, C. Mercer, & J. Woolacott (Eds.), Popular Culture and Social Relations(London: Open University Press), pp. 22-49.

Hoffman, L. (1991). The meanings of Channel One. Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Ill.

Special thanks to Lawrence Hoffman and Anne Marie Barry for their specific research on Channel One. Michael Apple is the John Bascom Professor, Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies, the University of Wisconsin-Madison.