Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Whatever Happened to Channel One?

What is Channel One and when did it begin?

Founded by Knoxville (TN) advertising executives and entrepreneurs Chris Whittle and Ed Winter in 1989, Channel One offered secondary schools free television sets, satellite dishes, and a news program in exchange for a 12-minute news program of which two minutes were commercials (companies that advertised on Channel One, for example,  were Mars–makers of Snickers–Proctor & Gamble–maker of Clearasil). Schools signed agreements with Channel One to show these programs at least 180 days a year.

Within a decade, Channel One grew from 400 public and private schools to 12,000 enrolling, according to one source, about one-quarter of U.S. students. Channel One spent $200 million to equip schools allowing administrators and teachers to use the monitors and satellite dishes for other programs when not viewing the news program.

New York Times reporter watched a class viewing Channel One in 1999:

At [principal Anthony]Bencivenga’s school in New Jersey, a classroom of sixth graders recently tuned in, as they do at 8:30 every weekday morning. For anyone educated before the Channel One era, it is an arresting sight: 25 children’s heads craned upward to focus on a video screen mounted near the ceiling; the broadcast is the only sound in the room. Their teacher, Kathy Ferdinand, says it is no big deal, though when she received her teaching degree from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., television was not considered part of anyone’s curriculum.

“I think we’ve been very adaptable to it,” she said. “The information base is solid, and they do look at a varied portion of the world’s cultures.” Social issues also come up, like divorce, addiction and depression. “Debriefing them, you sometimes have to be gentle,” she said of her students. “You’re coping with this in the classroom.”

At the same school, when soft drink ads appeared, the reporter noted one middle school boy said:

“My whole class started banging on the desks when the Pepsi commercial came on,” one boy said, humming the “Joy of Cola” theme song that Pepsi introduced this spring.

Youthful looking reporters and anchors appeared on the show (CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Lisa Ling worked at Channel One–see video here)

For an excerpt of Channel One News in 2014, see YouTube video

What problems did Channel One aim to solve?

Many districts could not afford the equipment necessary for transmitting TV programs to schools and in-classrooms monitors. Channel One offered cash-strapped districts free equipment. For those schools and districts that signed up, they got hardware they could not buy out of their regular budget in exchange for a 12-minute news program aimed at youth accompanied by commercials.

Another problem was U.S. students’ lack of knowledge about world, national, and local affairs and lack of civic activity. A key part of the rationale for the news program-cum-commercials (beyond lack of money to purchase equipment) was to give children and youth up-to-date world and local news–current events–that would inform them  and lead eventually to civic engagement during school years and later as members of communities.

Did Channel One work?

No evidence I have seen has shown that watching Channel One’s current events led to increased civic engagement of youth. There is limitedevidence, however, that youth  favored those products advertised during the two minutes over similar non-advertised products (see here).

What happened to Channel One?

Whittle sold Channel One for $250 million to Primedia in 1994 and the program was bought and sold numerous times until it landed in the portfolio of publishing giant, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014.

During its journey, Channel One was continually criticized for those two minutes of ads seen by a captive audience of children and youth. Most educational associations opposed Channel One because of the commercials. From the National School Boards Association to the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, to  elementary and secondary principals’ groups, educators came out againstChannel One. Moreover, researchers criticized the current events shown (e.g. sports, weather, natural disasters) rather than social and political events. Channel One did conduct mock presidential elections beginning in 1992 running through 2016 mobilizing young viewers to make decisions on candidates.

The ads, however, generated the most attacks upon Channel One causing reduced viewership and increased antagonism from both parents and educators (see herehere, and here).

Channel One died at the end of the 2018 school year. After 29 years as a “free” televised news program that included commercials, it closed its doors.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...