CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF MEDIA EDUCATION ORGANIZATIONS

 

 


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 same thing.

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, reaps rewards.

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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