Notes from the YNN Presentation to the Sudbury Community


Sudbury Monday Night – February 21, 2000

Notes from the YNN Presentation to the Sudbury Community

By Erika Shaker

CCPA Education Project

Rod MacDonald came to Sudbury to, in his own words, "set the record straight" about YNN. He encouraged the audience gathered in Tom Davies Square to think of this company as a "TV set--an innate piece of technology, turned on and off at will, with the content controlled by the viewers." And he then spent 1 and 1/2 hours demonstrating his claims to the audience, using a powerpoint presentation which ran somewhat less than smoothly.

YNN is the product of seven years of research and development, began Rod MacDonald, longer than in took to win World War II. Athena Educational Partners is a Canadian-owned operation based in Montreal with the major shareholders being YNN Holdings Inc. ("a group of businessmen") and Telescene Film Group. And YNN is only one program that Athena runs. AEP is, really, a national education network, intended to provide an affordable alternative for public schools. However, Rod neglected to answer the obvious question--alternative to what? This network will apparently provide equality of access to internet and web-based connections, linking parents to teachers and classrooms, and providing community access to learning and training programs.

School participation in these five year contracts is, according to Rod, totally optional. There is no mandatory viewing whatsoever, and no requirement for curriculum time. Further, OISE is conducting an independent evaluation of the program, so the onus to provide educational value is on Athena.

YNN is, simply, a production "by kids for kids"--with no political axe to grind (except, presumably, to make money for the parent corporation). And to prove this, we were shown what was evidently the least "political" of YNN"s programming. Extinct animals--which species in Canada are endangered? We'll have to make a major change, we're told. But a change from, or to, what, exactly? Apparently, YNN's producers consider suntan lotion leeching into lakes to be a possible cause of extinction, but not deforestation, pollution, urban sprawl or hazardous waste. After an ad for Canadian Music Television and Long and McQuaig music store, we were confronted with a segment on Kildonen East Collegiate's Cultural Awareness Day. Ironically, Kildonen is in Manitoba which was one province which has banned YNN from its schools.

An ad for was followed by a pop quiz asking students to guess the number of remaining Right whales--closely resembling the pop quiz section on Channel One, YNN's American prototype. And it was interesting how, during the studio shots, artfully displayed TV sets behind the hosts continued to flash the YNN logo, in case the audience was somehow unaware of what they were watching. Rod launched into a discussion of YNN's mission--to increase student awareness of and involvement in Canadian and international current affairs; to stimulate discussion of topical subjects among students; to provide students an opportunity to develop and produce stories locally; to link students in different regions of Canada and the North; and to bring affordable, educational TV to the classroom. After all, only $10 of Canadian students watch news or current events programming. YNN is positioning itself to change these statistics.

Rod raised the topic of Channel One, explaining that YNN has no relationship with Channel One, despite some vague conceptual similarities. In actual fact, YNN and Channel One are virtually identical except that Athena offers computers and 1/2 a minute more of commercials per show, in return for the promise of the same captive student audience. Apparently "in all the legitimate studies," that have been done on the issue, there is "a higher level of retained knowledge of current events in Channel One schools." And, according to Rod, Channel One does not require mandatory viewing--which is patently untrue. And I can also attest to the fact that the evaluation study sponsored by Channel One itself determined the program to be "educationally irrelevant," particularly for at-risk students.

We were then shown a portion of another YNN episode--this one was on the farming crisis--followed by ads for, clearspeechworks software, and CMT. It was hard to miss the cameraman who had YNN shaved into the back of his head.

At this point, Rod waxed philosophical. He suggested that the teachers and Athena both agree that the "public interest has to be preserved." However, teachers "want higher taxes" to pay for this--in spite of the recent Angus Reid poll which "proves" that people are concerned with health care, so money from education and other social programs will be allocated there. And as the Harris government has suggested in the document leaked last fall an additional $800 million would possibly be cut from education, we know there's simply not enough money for schools. (This in spite of the polls which also indicate that a majority of Canadians are concerned with all social programs, and are more than willing to take less of a tax cut if the money would go to strengthening those programs.) But according to Rod, although the private sector has a role to play in helping out, it mustn't be carte-blanche. That's why YNN is so unique, because "control is in the hands of the teachers." Bill Love, VP of Business Development, took over the discussion. He explained that "all the best of educational learning is contained in this box," that the "virtual classroom and virtual school is in the control of schools, teachers and administrators," not by the Company. The portal--web site--is customized to each school--in fact, to each student. There are some suggestions as to what each student might want to have on his or her personal site, but they are only suggestions. The YNN videos are also available on the site in streaming video and searchable text.

There is, of course, a commercial component. The portal features and facilitates on-line shopping. But these commercial aspects are restricted to on-line use of the portal. However, the fact that the products are still available on the school site still explicitly associate the products with the school.

Internet connections will be made available between teachers, students and parents. Sick students no longer have to make arrangements with friends to have them bring their homework to them. Parents no longer need attend a face-to-face meeting--or even pick up the phone--to see how their child is doing in school. It will all be available courtesy of the portal. Of course, the additional teacher time required to customize information relevant to each individual student is not addressed. But who's counting?

In front of a screen on which had been beamed "Canadian technology leaders call for improved internet literacy by requiring every high school student to obtain a computer drivers license" (Boston Consulting Group, January 2000)--as self-serving a statement by technology salespeople as there ever was, Rod got chatty. The private sector will move into the education sector at some point, he warned. It's not the best situation, but there it is. Athena is the only Canadian company developing this kind of a program--if it's not YNN, we'll be forced to go with an American company in a couple of years--with American content, values and advertisers.

He shared with us a little fable about "missionaries in education"--you know, where the missionary goes into the jungle to "civilize the savages" and, seeing a ferocious lion falls to his knees and begins to pray. Opening his eyes, he notices the lion is also on his knees. The missionary expresses his relief that the lion is responding amiably, and the lion answers that he's merely "saying grace." So you see, when you're the "missionary in education," you have to watch out that you're not really "somebody's meal."

Finally, Rod made the astounding announcement that if schools pay "$50, $60, $70 per student, we'll make YNN commercial-free." If they do not receive this payment per student, or if they take away the advertising, YNN simply cannot afford to run. In other words, Athena is really doing cash-strapped schools a favour by making YNN commercial. At this point, questions began, fielded by Doreen Dewar, chair of the school board and of the meeting. One gentleman asked if Rod was familiar with Naomi Klein's book "No Logo," and read a segment about the commercialization of sacred spaces like classrooms. Another individual refused to allow Rod to use terms like "media literacy" to assuage people's concerns about enforced computer use. A student explained that YNN appeared very simplistic in its coverage of issues--that in fact her knowledge of these issues was already, thanks to school and her teachers, much more thorough. A parent expressed her concern with over-dependence on corporate handouts in light of Ministry cutbacks. OSSTF district president Sandy Bass wondered how effective the EAC could possibly be if it had met only twice in the past two years, or how "independent" it was if Athena footed all of the group’s expenses. Another teacher tried to get a direct answer about the length of time schools would be able to keep Athena's equipment if nobody watched YNN, if the program is not mandatory. Rod told him "that remains to be seen." Further attempts to obtain a direct answer ended in failure.

I had thought about my question for some time--after all, there was so much of Rod's presentation with which I took issue: the claim that viewing is not mandatory; that this sort of deal is inevitable, so get one that's Canadian before the Americans come knocking on the schoolhouse door; that Canadians are concerned with healthcare and not education; that there's simply "not enough money" for schools. Or that he's the president of Athena. All of this had been in his presentation--and all patently untrue.

So I asked if I could have him clarify two points. The first was the issue of mandatory viewing. Considering the fact that Athena's parent company--Telescene--had made it clear that 80% of YNN's revenue would come from advertising, how could YNN hope to attract advertisers if a target audience couldn't be guaranteed. Rod glanced at his suited-and-tied backup singers, who shrugged. Where, he wanted to know, did I get that 80% figure? From this document, I said which I help up. It's from Griffiths McBurney and Partners, and came with the rest of Telescene's investor information along with their 1998 Annual Report. Well, what's this about 80%, asked Rod, because that's just not correct. I had had no intention of doing this, but was left with little choice. So I opened the document in question to the relevant page and proceeded to read: YNN believes approximately 80% of its revenue will come from advertising. Many large corporations have expressed an interest in advertising on YNN, given the company’s targeted demographic and difficulty in reaching teenagers through other media....Telescene is interested in this project for several reasons: it believes YNN will be a success, creative significant value relative to its investment; it will enable the company to test concepts for teenage programming; and it will develop closer relationships with advertisers. (6) Silence. Except for a few chuckles. Rod was crimson. He stammered. He said "well, that's not accurate." The audience roared. He speculated that someone from Telescene with no knowledge of YNN had obviously provided misleading information for investors. The audience laughed louder.

I asked if I could ask the second half of my question--which was to question how Rod could guarantee Canadian ownership when Telescene's vice president Paul Painter admitted that Telescene intended to sell 60% of its shares in YNN within the next five years; Telescene's 1999 Annual Report also explains that additional corporations would have to be brought on to ensure YNN gets off the ground. So how could Canadian ownership be guaranteed, given the parent company's stated intentions? But Doreen Dewar ended the question period before I could continue, and after only 20 minutes instead of the half hour we had been promised. We were invited to speak with Rod one-on-one, but there would be no more public debate or discussion.

Before the meeting began, we had all been given ballots with which to vote--yes or no to continue the YNN "experiment." While the ballots were being collected at the end of the meeting, one audience member suggested we simply have a show of hands--yes or no to giving YNN a try. The answer was overwhelmingly no. The media swarmed, and heated discussions began as people lingered in the Council Chambers. Rod was the target of most of the reporters, but the most vocal students were also surrounded, as were several of the parents and teachers who had voiced their concerns with YNN.

The events of the meeting left little doubt that YNN unwelcome in Sudbury—that the public had spoken clearly and eloquently about their concerns about increased commercialism in the classroom, loss of local control over education and curriculum, and the involvement of corporations in providing educational service for private profit. And the front page article the following morning in the Sudbury Star certainly reflected the tone of the meeting, and those concerns so clearly voiced by the public.

Apparently, Rod got the same impression from that article, for the following day on page A5 ran another piece: "If we build it, you will come to believe, YNN says: Officials with the Youth News Network say people should give the program a fair hearing." But a fair hearing simply wasn’t what Rod wanted. Concerned with the tone of the Tuesday article ("YNN Given a Rough Ride"), Athena met privately with the editorial board of the Sudbury Star to "dispel…misconceptions about the company that wants to set up a so-called Interactive Educational Network in secondary schools across the country." Evidently, the only coverage that is "balanced" in YNN-speak is exclusive, glowing, and one-sided.

In other words, a commercial.


Erika Shaker

CCPA Education Project

Tel 613.563.1341, Fax 613.233.1458