Commentary

Anti-Channel One Crusade Is Failing

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
May 24, 1999

Calling commercialized educational programming “parental neglect,” consumer advocate Ralph Nader led the charge against Channel One during a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee panel that convened on Thursday. Rather than recognizing that more than 12,000 schools freely chose to subscribe to Channel One’s award-winning programming, Nader called it “a taxpayer rip-off” for its inclusion of two minutes of commercials to the ten minutes of news it shows daily in schools. He also criticized it for giving the schools estimated grants of $25,000 each in electronic hardware.

Nader made the case for a Senate investigation of Channel One in a May 12th op-ed in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Nader’s various spin-off organizations have been criticizing Channel One for years. But since the nation’s schools have ignored Nader’s petitions, he has decided that brute force is needed after all. In 1998 a coalition led by Commercial Alert, a Nader-affiliated group, convinced Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) to call for Senate hearings on Channel One.

Channel One’s critics are fighting a losing battle and turning to Congress in desperation because they have failed to get support from the very people who could legitimize their crusade: teachers, students, administrators and parents. Even the education organizations that passed resolutions against Channel One in 1989 and 1990 seem to have realized that the battle has been lost. None of them signed the letter the anti-Channel One coalition sent to CEOs of companies that advertise on Channel One asking them to pull their ads, and none of them will be testifying at the hearings. The education establishment hasn’t reversed its early opposition to Channel One, but it seems to have realized something that Nader and his crowd refuse to admit: the people who watch Channel One want the program, even with commercials.

Schools eagerly sign up for Channel One despite the hostility from groups like Nader’s anti-business Commercial Alert. The estimated 8 million students watching every morning and 400,000 educators, who prescreen it, like what they’re seeing according to a three-year study of 156 U.S. public schools by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

Two-thirds of the teachers using Channel One said they would “strongly” or “very strongly” recommend the program. Another quarter of the teachers said they would recommend it, but “with reservations.” Only 7 percent said that they would not recommend it. Sixty-one percent of principals in the same schools felt that their schools’ current events materials were better because of Channel One’s programming. Only one principal felt that the curriculum was weaker with Channel One.

The anti-Channel One coalition first tried to shame advertisers into not advertising on Channel One when it was founded a decade ago. When that failed, they threatened boycotts. Some states even sued (and threatened to withhold funding from) schools in their states that accepted Channel One. Despite the criticism, the dire warnings, the hysterical attacks, school after school signed up for Channel One’s free equipment, news, and commercials.

The anti-Channel One coalition can’t even convince people in their own states to reject the network. Sen. Shelby, who called for the Senate hearings, and Channel One critic Jim Metrock are both based in Alabama, where 438 schools (70 percent) subscribe to Channel One. Before turning to the Senate for a national ban, Metrock and Shelby should convince their fellow Alabamans.

The anti-Channel One crowd has lost in the courts, in the marketplace of ideas, and, most important, in the schools. Despite knowing that administrators at 12,000 schools prescreen Channel One every morning, that 99 percent of schools renew the three-year contract, that at least one independent study has found that students are more knowledgeable about current events after watching Channel One, and that numerous parents have also seen Channel One for themselves and support it, Channel One’s critics refuse to admit defeat.

Although it is questionable that the Senate should investigate Channel One at all, as long as the senators are involved, they should watch Channel One for themselves and attest to its educational value for teenagers. As for Nader, his only lesson for the students is: If you find that you are losing the battle in the marketplace of ideas, and that your opponents continue to excel despite your insults and threats, take it to the hallowed halls of Congress.

Casey J. Lartigue is a staff writer at the Cato Institute.