Ads come to the classroom

By Ellen Goodman

The Boston Globe

BOSTON—Let me begin by saying that I do not think Chris Whittle is a capitalist pig. Honest, Chris. Some of my best friends are entrepreneurs.

If I were to characterize the genial and creative head of Whittle Communications (and after our several conversations, I think I am entitled to), I would describe him as one of those people who want to do well by doing good. Like the pop business manuals say, he thinks of a crisis as an opportunity.

The crisis at hand is the miserable state of education. To talk to Whittle is to hear the word “cultural illiteracy” sprinkled like crumbs along a path of reasoning he wants you to follow. He talks earnestly about teenagers who think the Holocaust is a Jewish holiday and Geraldine Ferraro is a talk show host.

The opportunity, as he sees it, is to produce and beam a national news program right into the schools. He would provide color TV monitors, VCRs, satellite dishes and 10 minutes of fairly zippy daily news. In return, the schools would provide a guaranteed teenage audience for two minutes of commercials.

The test run of this trade-off is a program called Channel One that began March 6 in schools in Kansas City, Detroit, Knoxville, Cerritos, Calif., Billerica, Mass., and Cincinnati. If all goes well, Whittle hopes that Channel One will be broadcast in 8,000 high schools, which means that more teenagers would see this than any other program except the Super Bowl. Commercial heaven.

Whittle likes to talk about this—indeed likes to think about this—as “an enlightened partnership between the business community and the educational community.” It’s a entrepreneur trying to take some of those juicy advertising dollars and transfer them into schools while making a profit along the way.

All of which makes it harder for him to understand the opposition. Peggy Charren, head of Action for Children’s Television (ACT), calls this a “great big gorgeous Trojan horse.” If the schools go for this take-off, she says, “they might as well auction off the school day to the highest bidder.”

Arnold Fege of the National PTA also calls this a “pernicious trade-off.” Imagine, he says, students being required by the schools to watch Pizza Hut commercials. “The prime intent is to use the public schools to sell a product.”

This classic standoff makes Channel One look more like a wrestling match than a news show. The entrepreneur describes his work as an example of the “private sector getting involved in the public sector.” It’s private enterprise creating (profitable) solutions for public problems.

Public-interest advocates point to this as a blatant example of the “privatization of the public world.”

If the schools allow advertising on television, asks Charren in high dudgeon, what’s to stop them from having advertising in a textbook? If those ads mean that the schools could afford twice as many books, says Whittle, let’s hear it for the ads.

This argument about values is likely to be replayed throughout the 1990s as strapped communities try to get more bang for their diminished tax bucks. The schools want business involved in partnership. The business community has a vested interest in an educated work force and citizenry.

But it is one thing when business is interested in young people as students. Quite another when they are interested in students as consumers. It is one thing when the marketplace supports the schools. Quite another when the schools become a marketplace.

Channel One—at least in its prototype—is a slick, if rather lightweight, daily news hit. It will sorely tempt any school principal to trade a captive student audience for some video equipment.

But schools are expected to teach students values rather than deals. How does a principal explain this commercial exchange? That he sold his students, literally? Must the teachers enforce required viewing of messages from Nike or McDonald’s?

At the very minimum, the schools become the sponsors of commercials. This is a deal they can refuse. The schools are not commercial turf. They are the marketplace for ideas.