Channel None

For nearly 30 years, many schools aired a daily news show in exchange for free AV equipment. Channel One was a hit—but the ads drove seemingly everyone crazy.

Today in Tedium: Cable news is a controversial thing in 2019, seen as something of an epicenter of our frustrations and damaging to the dialogue due to a strong focus on ratings and ideology over delivering it to us straight. Much has been made of the way the presentation of the news influences people, as well as what news shows say about advertisers—see the many advertiser boycotts over the years. Three decades ago, long before cable news had arguably started to lose its way, a well-meaning startup had a lot of potential to teach children how to better engage with the news—giving media literacy a classroom context. And it was a pretty good idea, perhaps even ahead of its time! There was just one problem: The ads, which really peeved people off. Today’s Tedium ponders the legacy of Channel One News, the most controversial part of your homeroom. — Ernie @ Tedium

Our sponsor today is a really fascinating service called Masterworks. More on them in a bit.

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The iconic Magnavox TV that Channel One installed in classrooms around the country. (Nate Grigg/Flickr)

The guy who ran the company that came up with Channel One Television was a publishing genius who specialized in captive audiences

It was a brilliant idea, if you break it down: Give cash-strapped K-12 schools around the country something they might not have access to on their own—a free TV in every classroom—on the condition that once a day, that TV plays a 12-minute television show. The school can play the show whenever they want … but they have to play it, along with the two minutes of ads that came with it. They can’t turn the TV off during that time.

It was perfect homeroom fodder, giving kids something to do during the half hour they had to sit in class after the announcements came on the PA. They were stuck there—so they might as well watch the news.

The man in charge of the company that came up with this idea, Christopher Whittle, was a genius at building a captive audiences where one didn’t exist before, and Channel One was the feather in his cap.

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Chris Whittle, a publisher-turned-education-reformer who spearheaded Channel One’s existence.

Whittle was an interesting figure in media, astutely realizing the importance of information outlets that targeted niche use cases. As a student at the University of Tennessee in the late 1960s, he co-founded 13-30 Corp., a company that produced a network of guides for college towns—essentially like Time Out for the Division I set. After departing to travel the world for a while, he came back to Tennessee and helped guide the firm through some rocky years.

Over time, this success put 13-30 in the position to buy the iconic Esquire magazine at a time when the iconic title was struggling in the late 1970s. With Whittle at the helm and 13-30 cofounder Phillip Moffitt taking over as Esquire’s editor in chief and CEO, the magazine became one of the greatest turnaround stories in publishing throughout the 1980s, eventually attracting the interest of Hearst, which bought the title in 1987. (Moffitt stuck with Esquire after the sale; Whittle, who served as publisher, kept with the original company, which had been renamed Whittle Communications by this time.)

During this period, Whittle had gained a reputation for coming up with extremely unusual but successful publishing formats that focused less on massive circulation but more on reaching specific, captive audiences. The company’s roots in college towns eventually helped it find its footing in all sorts of niche areas.

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To many, a doctor’s office. To some, a business opportunity. (TryJimmy/Pixabay)

One example: In 1984, 13-30 started publishing Physician’s Weekly, which wasn’t a magazine but a wall calendar with a single advertiser. Why a single advertiser? Because the target audience for this publication, doctors, were getting barraged by advertisers in the many medical journals they were getting—mostly pharmaceutical companies. These calendars went up in hospital dining rooms and doctor’s lounges around the country, and similar publications showed up in doctor’s offices. Their narrow focus on a single advertiser and placement outside of the context of a giant pile of medical journals made it a much more valuable product.

By 1988, the ambition Whittle had shown previously had kicked into overdrive. At his home base in Knoxville, he had invested heavily in a ritzy new headquarters. (Eventually, the property was sold to the government and converted into a federal courthouse.) That same year, Whittle launched a magazine that was simultaneously mass market and niche. The publication, Special Reports, was designed to be distributed in doctor’s offices around the country, with a focus on issues important to women. (It was also designed to exclude competition—the firm specifically limited the number of magazines doctors could carry.) The idea was innovative, and effectively flipped the concept of magazine readership on its head—rather than a single magazine being read by two or three people, literally dozens would read a single issue of Special Reports, because they were in a doctor’s office, and what else were they going to do?

Eventually, it was replicated by a variety of other magazine publishers, with perhaps the best-known one these days being WebMD Magazine.

It’s in this climate that Channel One News came about in 1989. Inspired by MTV, the model worked. (One example of the MTV inspiration: Rather than calling its studio a mere studio, it was called the “hacienda” after a 1994 redesign.)

The concept, as he explained in a 1989 New York Times op-ed, was to leverage private business to fill a clear gap in education:

At a time when the current Federal budget favors defense over education by a 10-to-1 ratio and the outlay for textbooks per pupil in many states is $20 annually, few would dispute that America’s schools have a serious funding problem. And, given the budget deficits, there is little hope for meaningful Government help. How, then, are our resource-starved schools going to cope?

One answer is to tap the enormous potential of business. Corporate funds could be provided through the development of partnerships between business and education in which each party receives direct and immediate benefits. Channel One, our recently announced television project for schools, is a good example of what can be done.

So yes, it was big business entering schools—and it never hid that. So it was controversial. But the argument was compelling and the TVs were free. Whittle, an unapologetic supporter of bringing big business into schools, later noted that Channel One’s pitch won over as many as 40 percent of school districts nationwide.

Whittle Communications fell apart spectacularly in the mid-1990s, so much so that Vance Trimble, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote a biography of Whittle that highlighted Whittle’s tendency to push things over the edge. Investors like Time Warner got burned in the process as his ambitions outpaced his pocketbook.

The only part of the business to survive was Channel One—which was sold off and outlived its parent by nearly a quarter century.

“Chris had this vision of greatness. I think from the time he was in his teens Chris determined that he was going to be a great national figure in America, one way or another. And in this context he felt the only way he could get there was to do these huge, major, earth-shattering projects that would wind up on page one of the Wall Street Journal.”

— Nick Glover, an employee of Whittle at the time Channel One was launched, explaining to Trimble the approach Chris Whittle took throughout the 1980s and 1990s when announcing the various endeavors he worked on. Whittle seemingly wanted to be president, and while that never happened, he did get plenty rich, and gained a deeper interest in education in the years after Channel One’s launch. One other well-known effort of his is Edison Schools (now known as EdisonLearning), which manages public charter schools around the country. The firm, which came about while Whittle Communications was falling into disarray, was once one of the biggest names in charter schools, though its influence has waned in recent years.

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Anderson Cooper, on the scene in Somalia.

Five well-known television news personalities that got their first journalism jobs with Channel One

  1. Anderson Cooper. Roughly 15 years before he became the public face of CNN, Cooper launched his career through Channel One in an interesting way. He started with the network as a fact checker, then decided, without anyone asking him to do so, to head to Myanmar with a forged press pass to cover student protests in the country, recording his own footage of what was happening on the ground. He then sent the footage to Channel One, in the hopes that it would appear on air. The gambit worked, and Cooper would soon report from a number of war-torn regions of the era for Channel One—most notably Bosnia and Somalia. This work led to a job doing similar work with ABC (minus that period where he hosted The Mole), and eventually, to his role at CNN.
  2. Brian Kilmeade. Nearly as well-known as Cooper these days is Kilmeade, one of the primary hosts of the president’s favorite TV show, Fox & Friends. Kilmeade, who has had a job at Fox News for the past 22 years, got his start with Channel One, also working in sports radio with football legend Jim Brown. (Kilmeade and Brown, fun fact, were announcers at the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship MMA event, with Kilmeade handling post-fight interviews.)
  3. Lisa Ling and her sister, Laura. Lisa Ling, most famous as a panelist on The View and for her documentary reporting series on CNN and OWN, was one of the most high-profile hosts on Channel One throughout the ’90s, and, like Cooper, did a lot of international reporting. Her sister, Laura, was a producer at Channel One—and herself became internationally known after she and a colleague, Euna Lee, were imprisoned after illegally entering North Korea in 2009. The journalists, who were working on a documentary about North Korean defectors, were eventually recovered through a series of diplomatic negotiations by President Bill Clinton. The sisters wrote a memoir about the well-remembered incident in 2010.
  4. Serena Altschul. Well-known for her time at MTV News during the late ’90s and employed by CBS for the past 16 years, Altschul was an early Channel One anchor who translated that success into a long career in TV journalism. (And her Channel One career broke out of the classroom, too; her MTV show Breaking It Down With Serena was produced by Channel One.) A well-known face on CBS Sunday Morning these days, she’s the only person on this list to have made a guest appearance on a Jay-Z track.
  5. Maria Menounos. Starting with Channel One while still in college around 2000, Menounos later became a popular entertainment journalist, working on shows such as Extra, Access Hollywood, and E! News. She’s also dabbled in acting, runs a digital network dedicated to coverage of popular TV shows with her husband, and has taken part in numerous WWE wrestling events over the past decade—both as a correspondent and, in some cases, a participant.

A 1994 episode of Channel One News, with ads.

Channel One survived for nearly 30 years with a giant target on its back the entire time

When Channel One departed from the closed-circuit airwaves in 2018 with literally thousands of hours of reports to its name, many probably lamented.

But some fairly loud critics cheered.

It was a popular service in the 1990s, and Channel One effectively introduced lots of kids to important stories that they may not have been learning about in the classroom, but the fact that the audience was captive couldn’t be ignored.

The problem that likely hastened its demise is pretty much the same one that followed it around the entire time it existed: Those two minutes of ads.

Those ads not only attracted critics—they attracted adversaries. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a group opposed to aggressive advertising against children, was a major voice in opposition to Channel One over the years. But perhaps the most prominent and persistent one is an Alabama man named Jim Metrock, who has for decades run an organization called Obligation, Inc. that has primarily made its mission to get Channel One and services like it out of schools.

As a 1999 New Republic article explains, the criticism that the service received shifted over time. At first, liberal groups like teachers’ unions led the charge against ads in the classroom. But over time, the more liberal criticism faded out, and conservative groups picked up the slack, taking issue with not only the commercials but the content of the programing.

That’s where Metrock, an Alabama businessman, comes into play. He extended the work of Pat Ellis, a concerned parent. Metrock, already a critic of ’90s trash TV, had found his life’s work, and he would become a thorn in the side of Channel One for more than two decades. Ellis and Metrock soon drew blood, getting their senator, Richard Shelby, to hold Congressional hearings on the channel and drumming up support for a backlash.

Channel One, which had been sold to the company Primedia by this time, didn’t take this lying down—the firm hired its own batch of conservative voices to support the network, including social conservative Ralph Reed, who served as a consultant. With the support of Reed, they drummed up support on the right-leaning figures like Grover Norquist. But Metrock outlasted them all, standing firm in his resolve against the channel’s commercials and its content. By the mid-2010s, around the time that Channel One sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and built out its digital content offering, he was the most prominent critic left standing, and had likely played a role in getting numerous school districts to drop Channel One.

“I realize that I have to see this through,” Metrock wrote of his efforts in 2014. “Although I wish the work is done; it isn’t. No student should put up with Channel One commercials robbing them of their school time. I have come too far to quit now.”

Reading Obligation.org after the fact is fascinating, because he seems to have considered the problem from every angle—attacking on-air talent, the reporting, the many food ads, the fact that they had to hire lobbyists because of him, and even the fact that Channel One gave schools free TVs without properly disposing of them after the fact.

Obligation and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood put seemingly endless energy into vilifying this service for having a business model, and over time, it appears to have worn the service down.

The farewell video for Channel One News, including many of the personalities featured over the years. Cooper appears about a minute in.

Channel One was, for years, a respected journalistic institution, winning multiple Peabody Awards. It launched the careers of literally dozens of broadcast journalists, including one of the single most famous television journalists of the past 30 years. And it had, at least for a time, figured out how to reach teenagers with news coverage.

But because ads were involved, it was a constant target. And it should be argued that its advertising was far less pervasive than other mediums. In 2013, the average hour of broadcast television featured 14 minutes and 15 seconds of ads—nearly a quarter of the hour. Channel One, meanwhile, averaged around 2 minutes out of a 12-minute program, or 16.7 percent. Meanwhile, Statista found that, between 2000 and 2013, the ratio of ad pages in magazines hovered above 40 percent. And that’s to say nothing of online advertising, which is far more persistent and unavoidable than Channel One’s commercials ever were. But we wouldn’t take issues of Time out of the school library or force an ad blocker on students, would we?

Channel One was deservedly controversial, but was it as bad as its critics said it was? I’m not sure I’m convinced.

$700M

The amount in funding that Chris Whittle has raised for his latest education endeavor, the “global school” called Whittle School & Studios, according to Town & Country. The school, launching this fall with pilots in the Washington, DC, area and in China, aims to bring a broader world community approach to the education process, with a single set of educators collaborating globally. Since Whittle Communications shut down in 1994, he has increasingly pushed consistently controversial charter school ideas of this nature. (Of note: When he tried to raise around $700 million for Edison School in 1994, he failed, so this is sorta like comeuppance.)

Channel One is perhaps one of the most interesting services to consider in retrospect because of what it represented, and what its critics might have missed.

In 2019, we live in a time where no audience is truly captive. Doctor’s offices have WiFi, so there’s no reason to pick up the magazines because our phones make it easier to read what we want. We even get 4G in the subway now, so even those subway newspapers that I love are in danger.

Heck, students even carry around Chromebooks these days.

But given the fact that media literacy in this country is so bad—clearly obvious, considering all the fake news we have around and how often people fall for it—the service was clearly a good idea that, if more widely embraced or its model tweaked in a way that was less predicated on ads, could have proven a great way to encourage an entire generation of kids to focus on critical thinking when they see things in the news.

Now, I’m sure I won’t convince the Jim Metrocks of the world otherwise, but here’s what I’ll say: When I was in middle school in 1992, I had Channel One in my class. I can’t tell you what ads were playing with those newscasts. But I remember, vividly, Anderson Cooper’s reports from Bosnia. That was compelling television, but it was also objectively reported news of the kind there isn’t nearly enough of in 2019.

Ultimately, 12 minutes wasn’t enough to satiate my budding news habit. In the days before I had access to the internet, I would turn on CNN or Headline News and watch it, getting a better understanding of my world in the process. And I would read the local newspaper at an increasing rate.

Eventually, I went to journalism school. And then I got a job at a newspaper. And now you’re reading this newsletter in your inbox. I guess what I’m saying is that Anderson Cooper may be responsible for my career.

Obviously, I didn’t become a news anchor. I don’t have the cheekbones or the demeanor for it. But I did become a journalist. And let me just say this: IT WAS WORTH LIVING THROUGH THE STUPID ADS.

Thank you, Channel One, for directly influencing my career path. To the array of critics that spent 30 years trying to kill it: You squandered an opportunity.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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