WHAT ARE OUR CHILDREN WATCHING?
The principal of Meadowvale High School told the assembled
parents, media and Special Interests who wanted a chance at
the microphone that she had an Agenda, and they weren't on it.
The agenda would be devoted to a one-sided defense of the
school's decision to become the pilot site for YNN, the Youth
News Network. Her plan would not be derailed by unruly,
overaged students masquerading as citizens, nor by the parents
who expected to be consulted even though they were not
members of Meadowvale's parent council.
The deal between Technolust and Commerce had already been
consummated. The school had received its "free"state-of-the-
art computer lab and classroom video monitors alleged to be
worth $250,000. In return, students would merely be forced to
watch a daily dose of nine and one half minutes of corporate
spin on current events, laced with two and one half minutes of
advertising. "Appropriate"advertising, according to the
principal - the kind teenagers already consume at the rate of
several thousand per year. What harm could there be in
watching a few hundred more, along with "appropriate"current
events to provide some edgy filler between the ads?
Peelís Meadowvale High School is the site of the most recent
attempt by YNN to find a marketable opportunity in the
underfunding of Canadian schools. It's timing couldn't be
better. A recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy
Alternatives that compares spending in Canadian and American
schools ranks Ontario's education per-pupil spending at # 52,
just between Mississippi and Tennessee. To some Canadians,
undermining schools by underfunding them is a disgrace, but for
others, it opens a hot marketing niche with unlimited potential.
Enter YNN, or, to put a finer point on it, re-enter YNN. Its
forays into the Alberta and Nova Scotia markets in 1992 and
1994 were soundly rejected by parents. Sporadic reports that
YNN was still sniffing around for takers were dismissed, largely
because of the evident ineptitude of Rod McDonald, YNN's
president, who has a reputation for promising a lot more than he
can deliver. YNN's reincarnation, this time backed by big-time
corporate partners and fronted by the public relations scions Hill
and Knowlton, suggests that deep pockets must have been
funding this venture all along. The smart money has patiently
waited for the moment when schools are desperate and
governments are selective about taking a stand. Ministers of
Education, some of whom have strong opinions on what
students should wear to school, are nonetheless remarkably
silent on what they should learn once they arrive.
YNN isn't an original idea. It is the clone of Channel One, the
spawn of an American entrepreneur who has turned the misery
of the poorest schools in the United States into a profitable
opportunity. Channel One reaches sixty per cent of American
high schools, and the students most likely to view each rap-
paced version of news and Nike are poor and Black.
Apparently, rich kids don't need the private sector's videology.
Research on Channel One's effects cheers one sector interested
in America's youth. One study found kids exposed to Channel
One show no greater knowledge of current events than other
kids, but almost perfect recall of the advertisements, although
many could not tell the difference between the ads and the
"content." All twelve minutes become just one very profitable
infomercial: In its first year, CNN and ESPN grossed $24 and
$10 million in advertising revenue; Channel One topped them
both at $51 million.
Advertisers lust after our children because, even if their parents
are overspent, Canadian youth control $20 billion of
discretionary spending, and develop brand loyalties that are said
to last a lifetime. Promotional materials entice classroom
advertisers with promises that product placement, corporate
curriculum and "partnerships"can take advantage of the captive
market that only schools can deliver, and capitalize on weary
parents tired of selling chocolate bars to fund their schools.
The media have been all over some parts of the YNN story, but
most aren't particularly interested in the Channel One research,
or hearing from people who link YNN with technopoly,
underfunding or other brands of privatization. In the interests of
"relevancy,"the media prefer to hear only from Meadowvale
parents and students. Both are entitled to express their opinions,
but to imagine that today's "clients"are the only ones affected
by what happens to public education is to buy right into YNN's
agenda. Schools arenít the property of this year's crop of
"users"any more than health care belongs only to those who
happen to be sick this week.
Meadowvale's principal insisted that the meeting on YNN was
no place for "ideological arguments,"and adjourned it angrily
when debate threatened to break out. At the risk of again
incurring the wrath of the principal (not to mention Rod
MacDonald and Bill Gates), let me try again. Yes, out there in
"the real world"youth are blatantly manipulated by corporations
eager to convince them that consumer choice is synonymous
with citizenry. But the fact that marketers feel free to exploit
children does not constitute permission for schools to do the
Schools are where we self-consciously strive to create a society
that is better than the one in which we adults find ourselves.
Schools are where we claim that racism and violence are bad,
where people who are "different"deserve our respect, where
we celebrate ideas, not just marketable skills. We actually teach
kids that the future is something people might create rather than
merely cope with. Schools are where we teach that what
Shakespeare had in mind is worth thinking about, that history
matters, and that hard work, rather than shrewd investments,
Idealistic, isn't it? But if we aren't prepared to make the world students inhabit, a few hours a day, seem better than the world their parents have
accommodated, then we might as well roll over right now.
Welcome, YNN. Let's hear it for McSchools. We have a few
kids @ed.com to sell you; really cheap.
Heather-jane Robertson is author of "No More Teachers, No
More Books: The Commercialization of Canada's Schools"
(McClelland & Stewart, 1998)
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