By Chris M. Worsnop

In 1992, Rod McDonald first introduced Canadians to his Youth News Network (YNN) concept. He succeeded in convincing a number of school principals that his plan to set up a Canadian equivalent to Chris Whittle's US venture, Channel One, was worth making a commitment to. He also succeeded in convincing a number of other people, principally in Nova Scotia, that YNN was something they definitely did not want to see in their locality. McDonald was busy telling everyone that he had signed up hundreds of schools country wide, and that once he had established his headquarters in Nova Scotia, he would be ready to provide each school with "free" video hardware - monitors, VCRs, cameras and satellite feed - and then commence providing them with a satellite-fed, daily, 10-minute news program, plus 2 minutes of commercials.

In a now famous W5 program it came out that the hundreds of schools were actually zero schools. Not a one had a signed contract. The promised NS headquarters was relying on a multi-million dollar deal from the NS government. The NS government declined. This, together with the efforts of the individuals from all parts of Canada dedicated to preventing the YNN program from getting its commercials in front of students, led to the end of that attempt to get the program up and running.

In 1996, YNN reappeared in York region and other parts of Canada, and it took another determined effort from the program's opponents to prevent it from getting started. But it was prevented, when eventually all the schools that had initially said they were interested in joining up, backed off from the program.

Well, it's 1999, and he's back again.

For the past two years, Rod McDonald has been working to get a pilot school program established in Ontario's (erstwhile) largest school board, The Peel Board of Education. Principal Arnie Forde at middle-class, dormitory-suburb Meadowvale High School volunteered his school in 1997. The school now has a new principal, but enthusiasm for the YNN program is still high under her leadership. The staff has been given a limited vision of the program, and opposition has been discouraged.

Teachers in the school who are opposed to YNN are afraid to voice their opposition, and many are just waiting to see what transpires before expressing an opinion. The parent community is either persuaded by the news coming from the YNN promotional material or apathetic. The same appears to be true for the students. What is clear is that there has not been a real debate of both sides of the YNN program at Meadowvale.

In 1999 YNN has expanded its enticements to include computers as well as video hardware, and promises that future services via its satellite feed will include - at extra cost - electronic curriculum and staff development services. The basic deal, however has not changed.

In order to qualify for the "free" hardware, each school (there is only one so far) has to sign a five-year contract to join the YNN program. The chief condition of this contract is that the school must guarantee that 90% of the students in the school will be guaranteed to watch 90% of the daily, 12 minute news programs (including the 2 -minutes of commercials).

Meadowvale SS, on February 22, 1999 hosted an evening meeting to introduce the YNN program. The program included the showing of a promotional video in which the principal appeared on camera saying that she recommended the program to all others. This, at a time when Meadowvale's total experience with YNN was limited to a single school wide "broadcast" of a sample YNN program that was physically delivered to the school rather than delivered by satellite. Meadowvale has had no experience of the daily sessions of YNN, yet it is already in the promotional business.

YNN, with the help of its publicity agents Hill and Knowlton, has mailed out promotional kits including the Meadowvale video tape to every Canadian high school with more than 300 students. Hill and Knowlton, by the way, is the PR company best known for its work in spin-doctoring the Gulf war and for sanitizing the Argentinian military regime. Inventing the stolen incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals, and making the stories about the Argentinian "disappeared" go away are among this company's claims to fame.

Here are the principal arguments against YNN. I hope you never need to use them, but if YNN approaches a school where you work, or where you own children attend, they might come in useful.

1. It is wrong.

No other argument should be needed. It is plain wrong to take students who are trusted to a school for safe keeping and deliver them as a captive audience to commercial interests. Children's minds are not a commodity to be traded. There is no place in the classroom for compulsory viewing of commercial messages.

2. The "free" equipment is not free.

YNN has to operate during the school day because the school has to have a way of making 90% of the students watch it 90% of the time it is shown. If YNN were shown outside the official school day, the kids could not be forced to watch it. Well, the official school day is paid for by provincial grants. We have recently had some very clear lessons taught to us by our Ontario government about the cost and value of classroom time.

Each Ontario secondary student is funded by the government at a rate of just over $4000/year. The school year consists of between 180 and 190 days per year. It is not difficult to calculate the rate of funding for each student/day. A day consists of just over 300 minutes of instructional time. Our arithmetic can easily allow us to calculate the cost of a single student/minute. This figure can then deliver the cost per year of YNN time when multiplied by 12 Omega, then by the number of students in the school and then by the number of instructional days in the year.

For a school of 1000 students in a school year of 190 days, this calculates out to more than $130 000 of tax subsidy for the time occupied by YNN. Over a five year contract, of course it is much more: $680 000. Meadowvale's costs, with its 1700 students, would be $1 156 000 over a five year contract.

So, it appears that YNN requires not only that we deliver up the minds of our youth for a daily dose of commercial conditioning in return for a few pieces (30?) of electronic merchandise, but that we provide also a tax subsidy worth several times the value of this "free" equipment.

3. YNN usurps the teacher's professional responsibilities.

In a normal classroom it is the teacher who has a hand on the pulse of learning in the class, and who knows what materials are needed, when they should be best provided and in what manner. YNN requires that teachers forfeit those decisions in favour of a set of materials that is to be identical for every student in every grade and in every subject, chosen by someone far remote from the students for whom it is intended, and timed for the convenience of the program, or - at best - of the school- rather than of the individual or the class. A piece of teacher professionalism is excised and handed over to strangers - for the good of the students!

4. The values in the YNN program and commercials can be at odds with the values promoted in the curriculum, yet 90% of them must be allowed into 90% of the classrooms.

We can expect that the advertisers to be most attracted to the YNN program will include, among others: " soft drinks " candy " junk-food " fast food " "athletic" clothing " electronic products " entertainment services and materials.

In general, the commercials are likely to promote a set of values that: " favour consumption over conservation " recommend poor nutrition over healthy eating " promote self-indulgence over caring for others " present entertainment as more to be valued than work


It is hard to imagine why a school, whose responsibility it is to educate students into responsible citizenship, would volunteer to have its messages and values so regularly and so powerfully contradicted and subverted.

5. YNN perverts the concept of media literacy.

One of the claims of YNN is that it will introduce news information to the school, many of whose students never watch news broadcasts at all. YNN claims to provide a base for school-wide media literacy. What it fails to point out is that the news to be delivered by YNN will be the news that is not objectionable to any of its advertisers or potential advertisers. It would be unlikely, for instance, for a story about widespread food poisoning due to poor hygiene in a soft drink bottling plant to be featured in the YNN news, if the bottler was one of the sponsors. Similarly, stories about child labour and conditions of work in overseas manufacturing plants are unlikely to be featured - or if they do appear will more likely be "cream-puffed" - if running shoe or tee shirt manufacturers are buying time on YNN.

YNN will bring into the schools a series of news stories of a certain kind: a kind that will support and uncritically justify mass marketing and mass consumption. If YNN honestly set out to teach students how to apply critical thinking to its own broadcasts, it might not be long before more than 10% of the students decided that YNN was not worth watching. There goes the 90%!

However, YNN is not going to go away. It would be naive to think so. Somewhere there is a big pot of money available to keep it rising again from its own ashes. Hill and Knowlton do not come cheap, and they do not play softball. The only thing standing against YNN is the determination and energy of a few Canadians who passionately believe that our classrooms are worth defending against such blatant attempts to turn them into profit-making machines.

If you think it's worthwhile, you can help. Copy this article and post it prominently in your staffroom; mail it to school board administrators; pass it around parent groups. Don't wait for YNN to arrive in your neighbourhood. Do some preventive work in anticipation.