THE experiment started last month. High schools in six cities started tuning in to a teen news show, `Channel One.' The creators, Whittle Communications of Knoxville, Tenn., gave the schools free satellite dishes, TV monitors, and VCRs in exchange for airing the show, which includes commercials. The seven-week pilot program has spawned heated questioning among educators. Is it appropriate to air advertising aimed at a captive and impressionable audience? Will the lure of free equipment, needed by cash-strapped high schools, make schools beholden to Whittle, and less likely to voice objections to content?
National education associations have deplored the idea. Whittle, an educational publishing firm, says it's in the classroom because educators have said teens are not up on current events and schools need new technology. The company turned to corporate sponsorship because schools couldn't pay.
While the debate swirls, here's the picture at Billerica Memorial High School, northwest of Boston.
AT 7:28 a.m. in a large school conference room, members of the press, parents, and teachers are munching Danish and watching ``Channel One.'' Principal Thomas Sharkey doesn't want visitors disturbing the students, so he holds gatherings here, inviting a group of students in to talk after they've seen the show. They've been selected as the ``Channel One'' advisory group Mr. Sharkey has set up for feedback and discussions.
``I like the show,'' says Michael DiBiasio, a senior. ``At the start I thought it was pretty good, but wondered if they could keep it up. But I've seen the quality increase. It's not in-depth, but it gives you a basic knowledge of things and the initiative to learn more.''
```Channel One' is in the testing stage,'' says John Desmond, a social studies teacher. ``It hasn't been that bad; not outstanding. I hope that Whittle will pick up on our advice that the maps still could be a little clearer.'' He says no parents have called him to complain or pull their children out of class.
Students, administrators, and teachers all say the show has improved. A condescending tone has been changed. Anchor Lynn Blades, considered too perky, ``especially for that early in the morning,'' says Michael, ``is much better now.''
School librarian Miriam Gallagher says, ``I was noticing an increase in the number of newspapers kids were taking out at the library after `Channel One' started. I thought I might be imagining it so I checked with students. What I found confirmed my observation; more students are reading and researching daily news events.''
Kim Yeomans, a student, says she and her classmates often ask their teacher after ``Channel One'' for more information about something touched on during the program. ``Sometimes it will sidetrack the whole class.''
Ann Barry, a professor of advertising at Boston College, appreciates the positive and varied roles for women she saw in the program. ``And the fast-paced teen approach seems to concretize what must seem to most teens to be a nebulous world of politics, economics, and social forces.''
Sharkey has worked to dispel two fears: that the shows are forced on the school (he reviews each show before the students arrive and has the option of not airing it if he finds it unacceptable); and that they're forced on the students, who say they use their homeroom period to repeat the pledge of allegiance, wake up, put on makeup, talk, and, if they want to, watch ``Channel One.'' ``All we ask is that they respect the rights of others to watch the show,'' says Sharkey.
Charles Helling, whose daughter attends Billerica High, says, ``It's not as dangerous and drastic as everyone has made it out to be. Kids are already bombarded by commercialism. Another two minutes within guidelines won't be harmful, especially when you consider the increase in interest in world affairs that I've found through my daughter and other kids I've talked to.''
Like many others in the advisory group, Michael is in the honor society homeroom. He thinks the students who were chosen to meet the press were ``weighted toward those who have shown an interest in `Channel One.' They were slightly more positive.'' Kim says in the beginning there was a greater cross section of students, but many non-honor-roll students dropped out. ``They were shyer,'' she says.
``The company gives us the impression that the discussion about `Channel One' is much more high-pitched in the Northeast,'' says Sharkey. ``Other principals have said it's not [like that] where they are. The kids are sharing clippings about `Channel One' with some of the other schools. And they've gotten some informal feedback. A school newspaper poll found that 80 percent of the faculty thought it was a worthwhile venture.'' But that doesn't mean the teachers are not seriously weighing the value of Whittle Communications' endeavor. ``The price of admission to my classroom is high standards, not VCRs and satellite dishes,'' says social studies teacher Desmond.
``I don't think the controversy should be centered around commercials,'' he adds. ``Instead of concentrating on the issue of commercials, we should be building standards. We already know how damaging commercials are, but they're less damaging than ignorance of world events. The biggest problem is that people are graduating culturally illiterate.''
He sees a positive use for the commercials as an educational tool. ``The reason commercials are so effective is because most people are ignorant about the techniques that they use,'' he says. ``I think if adults put them into perspective, show kids how shallow they are, they'll look at them differently. They'll be better able to decide what commercial is misleading them, and what commercial is informing them.''
Ms. Barry is not enthusiastic about the Levi's ad, which focuses primarily on the models' derri`eres. ``I'd prefer not to see it, but it's not outrageous. There's a fine line between speaking the language of teens and exploiting their feelings. I think [the producers] have exercised restraint as a result of the pressure.''
She worries about Whittle's going into 10,000 schools, as the company plans. ``It becomes most profitable when people become most complacent. This is a major concern breaking through into education. What will the long-term impact be? Nestl'e's cooking classes? a Cliff Notes-endowed English chair? When a school is in trouble, somebody will come along to pick up the salary of teachers.
``The concern in education,'' she says, ``is in terms of the curriculum. Though the shows were well done, what follows is a class in history or English without technology, without the fast pace. It's difficult when students get used to a multimillion-dollar approach to get them to sit down and use a blackboard and pay attention. It's frightening in its implications for critical thinking.'' A 10-Minute Sound/Sight Bite:
This is what students saw on ``Channel One'' the morning of April 7: Flashing world scenes ... a twirling globe ... Oliver North smiling and waving: ``I'm just a marine.'' Peter Ueberroth coming to the rescue of Eastern Airlines. Bush and Shamir: Shamir rules out possibility of negotiations or creating a Palestinian state. Cambodia: Vietnam will pull out. The oil slick in Alaska. Teen Amerasians: ``Their appearance, which kept them outcasts, is now their passport to freedom.'' Commercials: Sure deodorant and ``Ghostbusters II.'' Careers in the '90s: paralegal jobs, trade schools, military service, internships. Elizabeth Dole: ``Stay in school.'' Pop quiz: What word is misspelled on the Liberty Bell? (Pennsylvania). Commercials: Levi's, a surrealistic one of a girl about to dive into an empty pool, sponsored by Partners for a Drug Free America. Court hearings about noise level at rock concerts: First Amendment issue or noise pollution? A rock singer says, ``If it's too loud, you're too old.''