Whatever Happened to Channel One?


What is Channel One and when did it begin?

Founded by Knoxville (TN) advertising executives and entrepreneurs Chris Whittle and Ed Winter in 1989, Channel One offered secondary schools free television sets, satellite dishes, and a news program in exchange for a 12-minute news program of which two minutes were commercials (companies that advertised on Channel One, for example,  were Mars–makers of Snickers–Proctor & Gamble–maker of Clearasil). Schools signed agreements with Channel One to show these programs at least 180 days a year.

Within a decade, Channel One grew from 400 public and private schools to 12,000 enrolling, according to one source, about one-quarter of U.S. students. Channel One spent $200 million to equip schools allowing administrators and teachers to use the monitors and satellite dishes for other programs when not viewing the news program.

A New York Times reporter watched a class viewing Channel One in 1999:

At [principal Anthony]Bencivenga’s school in New Jersey, a classroom of sixth graders recently tuned in, as they do at 8:30 every weekday morning. For anyone educated before the Channel One era, it is an arresting sight: 25 children’s heads craned upward to focus on a video screen mounted near the ceiling; the broadcast is the only sound in the room. Their teacher, Kathy Ferdinand, says it is no big deal, though when she received her teaching degree from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., television was not considered part of anyone’s curriculum.

“I think we’ve been very adaptable to it,” she said. “The information base is solid, and they do look at a varied portion of the world’s cultures.” Social issues also come up, like divorce, addiction and depression. “Debriefing them, you sometimes have to be gentle,” she said of her students. “You’re coping with this in the classroom.”

At the same school, when soft drink ads appeared, the reporter noted one middle school boy said:

“My whole class started banging on the desks when the Pepsi commercial came on,” one boy said, humming the “Joy of Cola” theme song that Pepsi introduced this spring.

Youthful looking reporters and anchors appeared on the show (CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Lisa Ling worked at Channel One–see video here)

For an excerpt of Channel One News in 2014, see YouTube video

What problems did Channel One aim to solve?

Many districts could not afford the equipment necessary for transmitting TV programs to schools and in-classrooms monitors. Channel One offered cash-strapped districts free equipment. For those schools and districts that signed up, they got hardware they could not buy out of their regular budget in exchange for a 12-minute news program aimed at youth accompanied by commercials.

Another problem was U.S. students’ lack of knowledge about world, national, and local affairs and lack of civic activity. A key part of the rationale for the news program-cum-commercials (beyond lack of money to purchase equipment) was to give children and youth up-to-date world and local news–current events–that would inform them  and lead eventually to civic engagement during school years and later as members of communities.

Did Channel One work?

No evidence I have seen has shown that watching Channel One’s current events led to increased civic engagement of youth. There is limited evidence, however, that youth  favored those products advertised during the two minutes over similar non-advertised products (see here).

What happened to Channel One?

Whittle sold Channel One for $250 million to Primedia in 1994 and the program was bought and sold numerous times until it landed in the portfolio of publishing giant, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014.

During its journey, Channel One was continually criticized for those two minutes of ads seen by a captive audience of children and youth. Most educational associations opposed Channel One because of the commercials. From the National School Boards Association to the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, to  elementary and secondary principals’ groups, educators came out against Channel One. Moreover, researchers criticized the current events shown (e.g. sports, weather, natural disasters) rather than social and political events. Channel One did conduct mock presidential elections beginning in 1992 running through 2016 mobilizing young viewers to make decisions on candidates.

The ads, however, generated the most attacks upon Channel One causing reduced viewership and increased antagonism from both parents and educators (see here, here, and here).

Channel One died at the end of the 2018 school year. After 29 years as a “free” televised news program that included commercials, it closed its doors.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

7 responses to “Whatever Happened to Channel One?

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Christopher Whittle was also a co-founder of the Education Industry Association (EIA), an organization that began as the Association of Education Practitioners and Providers (1990) self described as “an education industry trade group devoted to promoting education reform through entrepreneurship.” From the get-go, both organizations enjoyed support from The Milton and Rosa Friedman Foundation. By 2001 the organizations had merged.

    One of the first big conferences of EIA (2001) featured these speakers:
    Jack Clegg, CEO of Nobel Learning Communities, Inc. (an educational management company); Michael Milken, Chair of Knowledge Universe (an online education venture) and cofounder of the Milken Family Foundation; Billie Orr, former Associate Superintendent of the Arizona State Department of Education (the state with the most charter schools); and Jeanne Allen, President of the Center for Educational Reform (a conservative think-tank) and former U.S. Secretary of Education under the Regan Administration. Two other former USDE officials were involved in EIA at the time: Chester E. Finn, Jr. a Partner in Edison Schools and William Bennett invested in K12, an online school.

    I tracked the development of the EIA until 2016 when the assets were sold to the Education Technology Industry Network, a division of the Software and Information Technology Association. EIA membership had been eroded by NCLB waivers and the explosive growth of EdTech– entrepreneurs supported with venture capital. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-04-07-when-edtech-networks-combine-siia-s-education-division-absorbs-education-industry-association

    I have notes about the role of David W. Andrews, an early supporter EIA until 2016. He was Dean of Johns Hopkins University School of Education. He was a Platinum member of EIA, served on the board and received EIA’s Friend of the Education Industry Award in 2012. That was the same year he began selling the reputation of his institution to members of EIA.

    Andrews offered EIA members a discounted fee for several tiers of “studies” from scholars at his institution. The pitch was framed as a bargain for EIA members who needed help in marketing a research-based product or service to customers. Johns Hopkins still offers a version of fee-for-service research, but the prices are not at the website (but in my notes).

    I have some other links and notes, but your “What ever happened to…with Chris Whittle” produced my nose-dive into some very old musings and notes on free market education, and more research on David Andrews. Andrews also offered TFA students a reduced rate for courses at Johns Hopkins, was a founding member of Deans for Impact, and served on the technical panel for the National Center for Teacher Quality’s rating scheme for teacher preparation programs–with 19 criteria, checklists for acceptable programs, including specific course textbooks, methods of instruction, minutia for proper lesson plans and more.
    Andrews is now president the private online National University.

    Some Early history of EIA: http://www.edindustrygroup.com/uploads/2/9/2/8/2928545/education_industry_leadership_board_special_report-2004.pdf

  2. Pingback: I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

  3. I have been following Obiligation Inc blog on Channel One and their campaign to end it in schools over the years. Initially it was a “free” service (or not really free as it cost schools instructional time) in exchange for free use of Channel One owned electronics gear. The cost: Show 12+ minutes of programming (usually 10 minutes of news and 2 minutes of ads but this varied by day) on 90% of all school days.

    Channel One changed ownership over the years from Whittle, to Kolhbreg, Kravtiz and Roberts, to Primedia, then to Alloy Media & Marketing, then again to Zelnick Media, and later to Houghton Mililfan Harcourt.

    However, I beleive that Channel One failed when a a lot of parents got word of the commercial messages being shown each day putting pressure on schools to remove it. Next, schools wanted more time for academics which meant less homeroom period time, which is where CH1 was typically shown in middle schools and high schools. With this schools began to turn the program off and this decreased channel one’s audience leading to less ad revenue. The final blow was likely the switch to digital television and this led many schools to abandon their standard definition analog CCTV systems and many schools replaced them with LCD Projectors, Smart Boards, or HDTV Flat Screens, which offered capabilities the CH1 system did not offer such as streaming, ability to display PowerPoint presentations, web sites, and be compatible with the schools computer networks. The cost of upgrading Channel One to HD would have meant a complete replacement of all the equipment at all the schools, so it probably was cheaper to abandon it and donate all of the equipment to the schools shifting the cost of disposal over to the school districts.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment on Channel One, Stephen. I had not followed its history after Chris Whittle so you filled in some holes for me.

  4. Tru Teller

    You mean 28 years, as the program debuted in 400 schools on March 5, 1990. It has a test market of six schools between March 6, 1989 and April 21, 1989, but its official debut in 400 schools was March 5, 1990, ending in June, 2018, 28 years later.

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