Social Education 59(3), 1995, pp. 159-164
National Council for the Social?Studies
Drew Tiene and Evonne Whitmore
Despite the controversy that has frequently engulfed Channel One, thousands of schools across the country have subscribed to the twelve-minute, daily television newscast aimed at secondary school students.
The telecast has generated an enormous amount of press coverage and prompted lengthy, heated debate in school districts nationwide (Rudinow 1990; Rukeyser 1990).
Channel One has captured the attention of educators because of its colossal scale and cost. Its most controversial feature is its advertising content-a two-minute commercial inserted in the middle of each program.
Channel One's advocates point to the free television technology provided to each school that subscribes, a veritable bonanza for financially strapped school systems. The equipment that is provided by Channel One-a satellite dish, two videocassette recorders, a schoolwide cable television system, and a television set in every classroom-would ordinarily cost anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 per school (Johnston, Brzezinski, and Andeman 1994). Furthermore, all of this equipment can be used for other educational purposes.
Channel One is financed entirely by advertising revenues. Many argue that the students watching the twelve-minute telecast should not be a captive audience for the show's commercials. Arguments have raged back and forth on this issue (Rist 1991), and several state education agencies have attempted to ban Channel One altogether (Cheatham and Cohen 1989).
Nevertheless, Channel One's financial incentives seem to have proven irresistible to many beleaguered school districts, and its audience has grown considerably over the last five years.
We conducted a survey to determine the effects of Channel One on its young audience, and found neither the strong negative impact predicted by some critics nor the cornucopia of benefits espoused by others. Still, it appears that Channel One prompts new learning by a sizable share of its audience and whets the appetites of many of its teenage viewers for more information about unfolding events.
The Whittle Corporation, now in financial distress, developed Channel One. K-III Communications, the publishing company best known for the Weekly Reader that it sends to elementary schools across the country, recently purchased it. Despite Whittle's financial difficulties, the Channel One project appears to have survived intact. Channel One's new owners intend to run the project much as it has operated since its inception, so that its broadcasts will continue on a daily basis (Stewart 1994).
More than 12,000 U.S. secondary schools, with more than eight million students, subscribe to Channel One (Johnston 1995). More than half of the secondary schools in our own state subscribe, so it was actually more difficult to find non-subscribing schools than to find schools that were already showing the program. Along with exploring gains in current events awareness (Whitmore and Tiene, in press), we decided to ask students how they felt about the newscasts. We developed a sixteen-item questionnaire to explore their reactions, and administered it in three mainly white suburban co-educational high schools. More than 600 students, all of whom are exposed to the program on a daily basis, completed it and turned it in. This article describes their reactions, thus providing what we presume is a representative sample of how the program is perceived in similar schools across the country.
Exploring the Issues
Table 1 displays the results of our survey. We used a Likert scale for levels of agreement. They ranged from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The left margin presents two measures. The first measure is the percentage of students who indicated they agreed with the statement (combining those who chose either 1 to strongly agree or 2 to agree). The second measure is the percentage of students who indicated that they disagreed with the statement (combining those who chose either 4 to disagree or 5 to strongly disagree).
This survey examines four basic issues. Items 1 and 2 examine the attention paid by students who watch the program. The next three items (Items 3-6) look at whether the newscast has stimulated interest by the students in current events. The next five statements (Items 7-11) address the educational impact of the programs, asking students to assess how much they have learned. Items 12-15 examine the reactions of students to Channel One's controversial commercials. Finally, the last item (Item 16) assesses overall reaction, asking for the students' opinions about whether Channel One should continue to be shown at school.
The most fundamental issue about the program's potential impact is whether students are really paying attention to it while it is on. One might be tempted to assume that students would pay a great deal of attention to a television program shown at school. However, most schools show Channel One during their morning home room periods, a time when students socialize, complete last-minute homework assignments, and prepare for exams, etc. The classroom environment may be distracting in light of all of this activity. Therefore, we needed to determine both the extent to which students actually watch Channel One and the extent to which their teachers encourage them to do so.
We were mildly surprised to find, through responses to Item 1, that only 59 percent of the student audience "usually pays close attention" to the program. This is not as high a figure as one might expect for assigned viewing of a television program in a regular classroom. But it is a clear majority, and, given the fact that many students are free not to watch, it seems a respectable figure. Presumably, a fairly high percentage of the remaining 40 percent pay some attention to the programs, which might mean that, at any given moment, 70 or 80 percent of the eight million teenagers exposed to the newscast on a given day nationwide are paying attention to the show.
Channel One's programming appears to be reasonably successful in engaging its adolescent audience. Any media event to which millions of adolescents are exposed to five days a week certainly deserves further scrutiny.
Nearly 60 percent of the student respondents also agreed with the statement in Item 2 of our survey instrument; this response indicates that teachers are encouraging students to watch Channel One by stopping "all other classroom activities". Does this merely reflect efforts by teachers to control their students by using Channel One as a "pacifier" to keep noise down during the homeroom period, or is it a genuine attempt to focus attention on the Channel One newscast? It could well be either. But this figure also seems to support the contention of other studies (Ehman 1991; Johnston, Brzezinski, and Andeman 1994; Tiene 1994) that Channel One is quite popular with secondary school teachers, who have been enthusiastic about its educational potential.
Does Channel One Stimulate Interest in Current Events?
The next set of questions explores whether Channel One has provoked an interest in current events. A great deal of learning can take place through a student's own initiative. Any teacher or teaching method that can prompt real interest in a topic can contribute significantly to a student's intellectual growth.
We posed a set of questions (Items 3-6) to determine whether Channel One had indeed provoked the interest of its audience. The first of these four questions asked whether students felt that the newscasts have made them "more interested in what is happening throughout the United States and around the world." Almost half (45 percent) indicated that they had.
How impressive is this response? Some Channel One detractors might argue that it is not a significantly high enough figure to justify the time spent viewing-or a sufficiently significant counter-balance to the pernicious effects of Channel One's commercials. Many teachers might disagree: Faced with the struggle to interest jaded teenagers in something other than themselves and their friends, teachers at many secondary schools might consider this a significant figure.
Most researchers feel that changes in behavior are stronger indicators of changes in attitude than are mere statements by the subjects. Therefore, we asked three questions to determine whether any change in behavior corroborated the response to Item 3 that a significant number of students felt that the programs had caused them to be more interested than before in current events.
Talking with others about the news is, of course, one way for anyone to both gather additional information and to formulate opinions about what has happened. In response to Item 4, 46 percent of the students who responded claimed that they had discussed stories presented by Channel One with others. In regard to Item 5, about one-third said they had afterwards read about news items that they first learned about from Channel One. In their responses to Item 6, 30 percent said that they had tuned in to news broadcasts more often since first watching Channel One.
Some might debate whether these results indicate that Channel One is pushing students toward greater knowledge and understanding of current events; on each of the items, a minority of students claimed to have been stimulated in this way. Reactions to these numbers depend on how difficult the reader believes it is for teachers to both capture and to hold the attention of their teenage students. We would argue that it is a considerable challenge, and that getting one-third to one-half of the group to become more involved in these types of news-gathering activities is a real accomplishment. Others may feel we are wrong-that the figures for these responses should be much higher.
Are students learning from Channel One? Other studies have indicated that Channel One viewers know more than non-viewers about current events, but the differences between the two groups has been quite modest, at least in the context of objective surveys asking twenty to thirty questions (Gorman and Primavera 1991; Graves 1990; Johnston, Brzezinski, and Andeman 1994; Knupfer and Hayes 1994; Tate 1989; Tiene 1993; Whitmore and Tiene, in press).
The next set of survey items explored what students perceived they had learned from watching Channel One's newscasts.
The Students on Channel One's Educational Value
On Item 7, a bare majority (51 percent) agreed with the statement that "I am better informed about current events as a result of Channel One." This figure is consistent with the earlier survey responses noted above. Some students said they were benefiting from the broadcasts, and some apparently felt that they were not. This is a rather predictable result, given that learning activities rarely engage all students in the class at any one time.
We used subsequent statements in an attempt to determine what students felt they had learned. Half of the respondents indicated in their response to Item 8 that they had learned "some history" from the newscasts. Far fewer-only 29 percent-indicated, through their responses to Item 9, that Channel One had increased their knowledge of geography (Item 9). But these students also said, in response to Item 10, that 41 percent of them believed that Channel One's newscasts had helped them in other classes (besides history and geography).
It is hardly surprising that history would be the subject area most significantly affected by the newscasts; Channel One often provides historical footage to help students better understand the context of today's news. The small percentage who felt the maps on the program were informative is disappointing, although that figure might be partly the result of the fact that Channel One sometimes flashes maps on the screen only momentarily. In a more positive vein, 41 percent believed that watching Channel One helped with other school work; we believe that this was probably a direct result of Channel One's feature stories, as opposed to its news content. These features cover a wide range of topics, including science.
"And Now, a Word About our Sponsor . . ."
Channel One's critics have been vocal in characterizing the project as a commercial venture that best serves the needs, not of its student audience, but of the advertisers whose commercials reach a captive classroom audience of potential buyers.
We attempted to address this criticism by finding out whether Channel One's commercial content was, perhaps, more popular with its audience than its news or features. Did students like the advertisements better than the rest of the program? Did they actually go out and buy products that they were first exposed to by Channel One's slick commercials? We included four questions in our survey (Items 12-15) in an attempt to resolve this contentious issue.
Except for its public service announcements, Channel One seems to present very little-if any-advertising that has been created expressly for its classroom audience. Its commercials appear to have been developed for-and presented on-commercial home television. Therefore, most students will have seen Channel One's commercials at home by the time they see them at school. In a different survey that one of the authors conducted about Channel One, only 39 percent of the junior high school students surveyed agreed that "I often see commercials on 'Channel One' that I have never seen before at home on television" (Tiene 1994).
Item 12 of the survey examined the extent to which students learned about new products for the first time by watching Channel One. Only about one-quarter (23 percent) indicated that this was the case. This is not surprising given the amount of television that students watch at home and the fact that most products advertised on Channel One are name-brand products.
How positively have teenage students responded to these commercials? The reaction does not seem to have been very enthusiastic, thus providing good news for Channel One's advocates and bad news for those who sell its advertising. Only 18 percent agreed with Item 13, "I probably perceive certain products more positively because of their ads on Channel One." Likewise, only 13 percent of students surveyed agreed with Item 14 that "I have purchased some items because they were advertised on Channel One." Advertising has a subliminal impact, probably more on teenagers than on adults, but the dire predictions of Channel One's harshest critics are not borne out by these survey results. Reaction to the commercials seems to have been lukewarm, at best.
Interestingly, students reacted much more positively to Channel One's public service announcements than they did to its commercials. Fully half, in fact, responded to Item 15 positively, saying that they liked these announcements, which deal with such issues as staying in school, saying "no" to drugs, and the like. Channel One's producers seem to have been highly successful in choosing PSAs that are both relevant and appealing to its student audience.
Finally, we asked our last question, Item 16, to determine Channel One's overall appeal to its young audience. The item read "I think that my school should get rid of Channel One." Only a very small proportion (14 percent) of the students agreed. Channel One seems to be viewed positively by most high school students.
Seeking Corroboration: A Search of the Literature
We decided to explore other studies about Channel One to see if their findings were similar to ours. A survey by Ehman (1991) of 442 students, at both the junior high and high school levels, found that students generally liked the program, but in some cases expressed even greater support than did the students in our survey for the effectiveness of the newscasts. Ehman analyzed Channel One's impact on the news-gathering behavior of students by using a set of questions similar to ours. Forty-five percent of those Ehman surveyed said that they had discussed the news more often since being exposed to Channel One. We came up with a nearly identical figure, for Item 4 on our survey: 46 percent.
Twenty-nine percent of those who responded to Ehman's survey said that they read more often about the news, in newspapers or magazines, since watching Channel One. Again, the figure for the corresponding question (Item 5) on our survey was remarkably similar: 32 percent.
However, Ehman found that 43 percent reported that they had begun watching more television news at home, a much higher figure than the 30 percent who claimed, in response to our survey's Item 6, that they watched television news more often since their school started showing Channel One.
Ehman's subjects were more positive than ours about learning from the telecasts. Seventy-six percent of his subjects reported "increased awareness and knowledge of current events," a figure about 25 percentage points higher than the 51 percent of the respondents in our survey who agreed with Item 7 that they were "better informed about current events as a result of [watching] Channel One." Thirty-eight percent of Ehman's subjects reported "increased knowledge of maps and geography as a result of Channel One," while only 29 percent agreed on Item 9 of our study that "the maps shown on Channel One have helped me with geography."
On the controversial issue of advertising, Ehman did not really explore how Channel One's commercials might be affecting the perception, or even the purchase of products by teenage viewers, but he did find that 73 percent had "no objection" to the commercials. Finally, Ehman found that 76 percent of those he surveyed felt "Channel One was a worthwhile addition to the school," indicating a level of support for Channel One similar to what we found on our last survey item.
Last year, Johnston, Brzezinski, and Andeman completed the most extensive study conducted on Channel One to date. Their three-year national survey included more than 2,000 subjects in thirteen different secondary schools. Several of their survey items were similar to ours, and the students' responses, as with Ehman's study, were remarkably similar to ours. For example, Johnston et al. found that 60 to 65 percent of the subjects said they usually watch the program, while we obtained a figure, on Item 1 of our survey, of 59 percent. About half of the subjects (47 percent) in the study by Johnston et al. felt that they were learning from Channel One "most of the time," while on Item 7, half of our subjects felt "better informed . . . as a result of [watching] Channel One."
The Johnston team compared the responses of viewers with those of non-viewers on survey items about how interested their subjects were in news stories. They found no statistically significant differences between the groups. Nor were there differences between viewers and non-viewers in the amount of news consumption through discussion, reading, or watching television. While our study did not pose an identical question, it suggests some degree of heightened interest among viewers and even some changes in behavior that reflect an enhanced level of interest. Johnston et al. found that Channel One prompted some class discussion. In our survey, although there were positive reactions to Channel One, only 17 percent believed that its news items were usually discussed in class (item 11).
Both surveys showed that students had at least a somewhat favorable response to Channel One's public service announcements. About half of our respondents said they really liked Channel One's PSAs, while a quarter of those who responded to Johnston et al.'s study said the PSA's were "very interesting," and 43 percent felt that they were "somewhat interesting."
Carlin, Quinones, and Yonker explored attention levels and the perceived educational value of Channel One in a study published in 1992. They asked high school students whether they "typically watch" six different parts of the program. An average of 68 percent responded "yes." (Our survey Item 1 indicated that 59 percent "usually" watch-a fairly close figure.)
Sixteen percent of these students say they "ever seek out more information about a topic shown," a much lower response than we got for the corresponding questions in our survey.
In response to a question about whether Channel One stories came up in classroom discussion, 36 percent of the subjects in the Carlin, Quinones, and Yonker study said "yes." In contrast, only 17 percent of students in our study agreed with the statement in Item 11.
Finally, in regard to the contentious issue of advertising, Carlin et al. found that Channel One's commercials were the least watched part of the show. (Only 45.4 percent typically watched.)
Knupfer conducted a 1994 survey of several thousand secondary school students in schools that subscribed to Channel One. These students had watched the program for almost a full school year. Her results were often surprisingly similar to ours. As in our study, slightly over half of Knupfer's subjects agreed with the statement "students learn a lot from Channel One" (Item 7). A similar percentage agreed that Channel One stimulates thinking about the news (Item 3). Only 18 percent of Knupfer's subjects felt "the ads have too much influence," while 18 percent of ours, on Item 13, felt they "perceive certain products more positively because of the ads." About 65 percent of Knupfer's subjects felt that the "school should continue Channel One," while only 14% of those in our study believed that the school should "get rid of Channel One" (Item 16).
Advertising Revisited: An Exception to Other Findings
Greenberg and Brand also studied some of these issues in 1993. They produced some results that were quite similar to those above-and a few, mostly associated with advertising, that were quite different.
As in the study by Johnston et al., they found no statistically significant differences between viewers of Channel One and non-viewers in degree of interest in the news or amount of news consumption from a variety of sources, including newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. But in looking at reactions to Channel One's commercials, they found that viewers were more positive about products advertised than were non-viewers, implying that the ads were achieving their intended effect. However, the respondents to our survey were skeptical about whether advertising had any effect (with only 18 percent acknowledging positive feelings as a result of the ads carried). But Greenberg and Brand did not find differences between viewers and non-viewers in the reported purchase of products advertised; similarly, only 13 percent of our subjects said that they had bought something because they'd seen it advertised on Channel One.
Finally, Greenberg and Brand found that viewers of Channel One's commercials were more likely to want what they saw than were non-viewers. Greenberg and Brand concluded, as a result, that Channel One's viewers were thus becoming more "materialistic."
The General Consensus
The research literature tends to support many of our findings, with some variations, especially in regard to Greenberg and Brand's findings about advertising (above). It appears that the impact of Channel One is neither as dramatic as its strongest supporters might hope nor as negative as its most determined detractors might imply. Most students seem to be paying attention to the program, and many find that they are more interested in the news as a result. Some even try to find out more about certain stories afterwards. About half feel they are better informed as a result of the program. Some feel it has helped them with their classes, especially in history.
In contrast to these generally positive findings about Channel One, most other research supports our conclusion that the student audience has greeted Channel One's commercials with a lukewarm reaction at best. Since much of the criticism of Channel One has focused on the perceived vulnerability of the student audience to the program's commercial messages, this is an important finding.
Finally, judging by our results and those of other surveyors, Channel One is well liked by its audience. Many more students want to keep the program than want to discontinue it.
All Things Considered: Our Conclusion
It seems clear that Channel One might have more significant educational value if teachers followed up on the show's topics (Johnston 1995). Likewise, Channel One offers more opportunities for learning than most schools seem able to handle. The Channel One Network has the potential to revolutionize the way schools use educational television.
When schools subscribe to Channel One, the project wires them and provides the equipment for all kinds of televised learning opportunities. Schools can easily link commercial cable television into this system, providing a great deal of informative programming from such education-oriented networks as the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, the Public Broadcasting Service, Cable News Network, C-SPAN, Arts and Entertainment, and so forth. With VCRs, schools can record on-air programming and show it in a proper educational context at a later time.
In addition, the Channel One project provides more than just daily newscasts. Every day, as part of a service called the "Classroom Channel," Channel One broadcasts several hours of educational programming, formerly shown on the Public Broadcasting Service, free of charge to participating schools, for classes to watch "live" on the school network or to be taped for future use.
Channel One can provide schools with access to the wealth of information now available in television broadcasts and videos. The authors recently conducted a utilization study in schools that subscribe to Channel One. That study's findings indicate that television is becoming a more frequently used medium of communication and education (Tiene and Whitmore, in press). We hope that schools subscribing to Channel One will begin to take full advantage of the technology they receive, which could be a springboard into education's electronic future. In this case, the benefits could compensate for whatever compromises have been made in subjecting students to a couple of minutes of commercial advertising each day.
Carlin, T., Z. Quinones, and R. Yonker. "The Perception of the Educational Value of Channel One Among Secondary Level Teachers and Students." Paper presented at the Association for Educational Communications and Technology Conference, Washington, DC, 1992.Cheatham, B., and A. Cohen. "'Channel One' Forges Ahead Despite Complaints About Ads." School Library Journal 35 (1989): 9-10.Ehman, L. "Using Channel One in Social Studies Classrooms: A First Look." Paper presented at the National Council for the Social Studies Conference, Washington, DC, 1991.Gorman, G., and L. Primavera. Report of the "Channel One" Weekly Series Assessments. Unpublished document, 1991.Graves, B. "Classrooms Tune In!" The School Administrator (March 1990): 8-16.Greenberg, B., and J. Brand. "Television News and Advertising in Schools: The 'Channel One' Controversy." Journal of Communication 43 (Winter 1993): 143-51.Johnston, J. "Channel One: The Dilemma of Teaching and Selling." Phi Delta Kappan 76, no. 6 (February 1995): 437-442.Johnston, J., E. Brzezinski, and E. Andeman. Taking the Measure of Channel One: A Three Year Perspective. Institute for Social Research, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1994.Knupfer, N. "Channel One: Reactions of Students, Teachers, and Parents." In Watching Channel One: The Convergence of Students, Technology, and Private Business, edited by A. Devaney. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1994.Knupfer, N., and P. Hayes. "The Effects of the Channel One Broadcast on Students' Knowledge of Current Events." In Watching Channel One: The Convergence of Students, Technology, and Private Business, edited by A. Devaney. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1994.Rist, M. "Whittling Away at Public Education." The Executive Educator (September 1991): 22-28.Rudinow, J. "'Channel One' Whittles Away at Education." Educational Leadership (December/January 1990): 70-73.Rukeyser, W. "No Hidden Agenda: A Response to Rudinow." Educational Leadership (December/January 1990): 74-75.Stewart, J. "Grand Illusion: The Collapse of Chris Whittle's Visionary Company." The New Yorker (October 31, 1994): 64-81.Tate, C. "Opinion: On Chris Whittle's School-News Scheme." Columbia Journalism Review (May/June 1989): 52.Tiene, D. "Channel One: Good or Bad News for Our Schools?" Educational Leadership 50, no. 8 (May 1993): 46-51.-----. "Exploring the Effectiveness of the Channel One School Telecasts." Educational Technology 33, no. 5 (May 1993): 36-42.-----. "Teens React to Channel One." Techtrends 39, no. 3 (April/May 1994): 17-20.-----. "Channel One's Report Card: Teachers Evaluate the Program." International Journal of Instructional Media 21, no. 3 (Fall 1994): 181-9.Tiene, D., and E. Whitmore. "Beyond the Channel One Newscast: How Schools Are Using Their Schoolwide Television Networks" Educational Technology (in press).Whitmore, E., and D. Tiene. "The Effects of Viewing Channel One on the Current Events Awareness of High School Students." Mass Communications Review (in press).Whittle Communications. The Whittle Educational Network information packet. Knoxville, Tennessee: Whittle Communications, 1992.Drew Tiene is Associate Professor of Instructional Technology at Kent State University. He has served as a juror in the Global Japan Prize Contest for educational television programming. He also wrote the "educational television" entry for the most recent edition of the International Encyclopedia of Education.
Evonne Whitmore is Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University. She has completed several different studies about the effects of Channel One, and is currently researching stereotyping in television news.