Let's signal "No" to TV network in schools

By Michelle Landsberg
Toronto Star, March 14, 1999

YOUTH NEWS NETWORK - the privately owned commercial network that wants to beam its daily broadcast into Canadian high schools - ran into some static last month .

At Meadowvale Secondary School, where the network has its one and only pilot site so far, 100 parents turned out to a school meeting, and some of them were very angry indeed at the prospect of packaging and selling their teenagers to a bunch of junk food and sneaker advertisers.

Principal Laurie Pedwell, unmoved, simply adjourned the meeting and walked out to cries of "Shame!" when parents demanded answers.

Later, both she and network officials blamed the trouble on "outside agitators" - a creepy echo of southern U.S. paranoia from the days of the civil rights movement.

The American style of dismissal may be unsettlingly apt.

The Youth New Network is a virtual clone of Channel One, the commercial-laden "news" channel which provides 12 minutes of compulsory daily TV-watching in 40 per cent of U.S. high schools.

Like its U.S. model, the network will provide free TVs, computers and satellite dishes to any school that delivers a signed-and-sealed captive student audience (the network insists students watch the whole broadcast, every day, at full volume).

In the U.S., where researchers have had nine years to study Channel One, most results are disturbing.

"It's a commercial success and an educational flop," remarked educator Anthony Alvarado.

The slick, aggressively commercial package is sold mostly to poor, inner-city schools with impoverished budgets. A University of Michigan study shows the students remember the ads, not the news, and have "reinforced materialistic values."

Students are surprisingly muddled about which message is a paid commercial and which is news - in fact, far from being savvy and media-hip, they seem dismayingly manipulated, repeating commercial messages word for word as though reciting lessons.

And the price isn't right: those "free" broadcasts are eating up $1.8 billion yearly in lost teaching time. The equivalent for Meadowvale, estimates retired teacher Chris Worsnop, would be $1,340,000 over the five-year contract.

Recently, the network mailed its promotional package to 3,000 Canadian high schools, inviting them to sign up. Before principals reach for their pens, they might pay heed to what the advertisers themselves have to say. With typical American expansiveness, U.S. marketers have been blood-curdlingly lyrical about the aim of the ads they buy (at $200,000 per 30 seconds) on Channel One.

"They aren't children so much as what I like to call `evolving consumers,' " mused the CEO of Prism Communications, quoted in an article in the British magazine The Ecologist last summer. And the president of Kids 'R Us told advertisers, "If you own this child at an early age . . . you can own this child for years to come."

Channel One's Canadian clone isn't so open in its embrace of mind control. Instead, the youth network talks of the rewards of "media literacy" and the enticements of "teacher control" over programming.

Let's exercise our media literacy skills on that statement for a moment. The news package is to be produced in a commercial studio in Montreal - what control will teachers have over daily selection and style of news items? They and their students will be compelled to spend 12 minutes of class time on these imposed broadcasts every day, at a set time. That's not what most teachers would call "control" of curriculum. As for media literacy - imagine the atmosphere in a school where the principal has eagerly glommed on to the network's techno-goodies. A teacher would have to have a death wish before encouraging students to analyze youth network programs with an independent, critical eye, in defiance of the school hierarchy.

There is a superb, commercial-free alternative: Cable in the Classroom delivers free, high-quality programs from the CBC, Newsworld, YTV, CNN, A&E, Discovery and other cable channels, to be used at the teacher's discretion. But there's just one hitch: it doesn't come with free TVs and computers.

Last time the youth network came calling, it was repulsed by every school in Canada. This time, too, most of the major parent and teacher groups, as well as the Catholic bishops, are opposing its encroachment. "We have a different cultural sensibility in Canada from that of the U.S., and we should be proud of it," maintains Barry Duncan, founding president of the Association for Media Literacy.

The struggle against the youth network may offer its own ironic lessons in media savvy. In California, a student organization calling itself UNPLUG has cannily and successfully targeted advertisers in its campaign to stop Channel One. Some Meadowvale students - call them "inside agitators" - have already clamoured to join a teacher-parent group that plans to oppose the youth network.

The network's parent company is the grandiosely named Athena Educational Partners. I have no direct connection to any deities, but I have a hunch that the Goddess of Wisdom will smile more warmly on free-thinking students than on the commercial hucksters who plan to buy their minds.