Zap the Commercials

SOME educators are hailing it as the wave of the future. But it's a wave that thoughtful teachers and students may want to miss. Whittle Communications, a Knoxville, Tenn., company, has devised a way of reaching millions of teen-agers daily with 12 minutes of televised news and feature programming. They propose to give participating high schools $50,000 in satellite dishes, video monitors, and other gear in return for an agreement to run the show, called ``Channel One.'' Test marketing begins this week.

The payoff for Whittle, potentially huge, is the revenue from two minutes of commercials within each 12-minute segment. Those two minutes make the whole innocent-sounding enterprise sharply controversial.

Teen-agers confined to a classroom are irresistible to businesses eager to sell jeans, junk food, and endless other products. What could be better than a captive, well-defined audience of millions? Add to that teens' spending habits, and it's a sweet deal.

But it could be a sour deal for education. Do Americans really want the public school classroom exploited for commercial gain? Do they want further subordination of crucial reading and thinking skills to the lure of the screen, under the guise of reaching kids ``where they are''?

Whittle argues that ``Channel One'' is a way of putting millions of corporate dollars into education. That ignores the question of where schools really need the money. It also ignores motivation - the come-on is getting millions back, not public service.

The bottom line: Television may have a place in the classroom; commercials don't.

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