What do Seventeen magazine and Osama bin Laden have in common? They both want the attention of teenagers. And they can receive it jointly through the Channel One Network, a company that broadcasts news and commercials to 8 million students in 12,000 middle, junior and high schools across America.
Channel One, which began broadcasting in 1990, is owned by PRIMEDIA Inc. On its company Web site, PRIMEDIA Inc. describes itself as, “the leading targeted content and integrated marketing solutions company in both the consumer and business-to-business sectors.” PRIMEDIA Inc. is also the “No. 1 special interest magazine publisher in the United States,” with 250 titles, including Seventeen, Teen Beat, Automobile, Shooting Times, Shotgun News, Today’s SUV and Soap Opera Digest.
How does Channel One work? It preys on poorly subsidized schools by offering a television set for each classroom, two VCRs and a satellite dish — as long as the school agrees to show 12 minutes a day of Channel One in the classroom. A daily dose of Channel One includes 10 minutes of teen-oriented “news” and one to two minutes of commercials. During the course of a year, Channel One takes up a full week of school time, with about one full day of that week spent watching ads.
A Channel One trade ad published in Advertising Age read: “Channel One is viewed by more teens than any other program on television. Channel One reaches … nearly 40 percent of all 12- to 17-year-olds. Every day, Channel One is seen by as many teens as the Super Bowl. Channel One’s audience exceeds the combined number of teens watching anything on television during prime time. Huge ratings. Unsurpassed reach. Unparalleled impact among teen viewers.”
Most of the ads on Channel One are for junk food, entertainment and sports equipment. Graphic anti-drug public service announcements are also regularly aired. A recent one showed two teen boys getting high on marijuana. One of the giggling boys pulls his father’s gun out of a desk drawer and says, “It’s not loaded.” The announcement ends with the boy blowing his friend away.
This public service announcement proves that Channel One is partially subsidized by federal money. The Office of National Drug Control Policy is not the only federal advertiser seen on Channel One. The U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines also run ads on the station, making parallels between Channel One and the “Two Minutes of Hate” in George Orwell’s book 1984, too easily drawn.
The ethic of Channel One’s distribution is fraught with class-war implications. In a recent interview with Robert W. McChesney, author of “Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times,” Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, editor of Chicago Parent magazine, asked how Channel One operates. McChesney’s response highlights one of the most disturbing aspects of Channel One’s “modus operandi.”
McChesney says that besides the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, based in Oakland, Calif., not many groups have forged a resistance to Channel One.
Teens are perfectly trained consumers; we live in a society constructed to ensure this. The dawning of commercially subsidized public education was as inevitable as the release of Men in Black II. The Constitution ensures that church and state remain separate, but it says nothing about corporate America and education. Trying to fight the spread of Channel One without the help of the Constitution, in a country that prides itself on its cultural imperialism, is like trying to suck the cream out of a Twinkie.
America would do well to examine why Channel One is so successful. It’s not because people don’t know about it — it’s because it seems so natural.