In a victory for opponents of commercialism in schools, the Cable News Network (CNN) has backed off plans to sell sponsorships on “CNN Student News,” a program it produces for classrooms that has been commercial-free since it began in 1989.

Earlier this year, the network had floated the idea of introducing advertising, distressing activists who always saw CNN as a “purer” news alternative for schools than the Channel One service.

“It’s not worth the trouble,” said Turner Broadcasting System spokesman Brad Turell.

A textbook company already had expressed interest in buying a sponsorship, but CNN hadn’t completed the deal, he said.

CNN founder Ted Turner had touted the non-commercial nature of the program, formerly called “CNN Newsroom.” Teachers are instructed to tape the half-hour show of news reports geared to middle and high school students when it’s shown each school day at 4:30 a.m. Eastern time.

About 18,000 schools worldwide use “CNN Student News,” the network said.

It’s the chief competition to Channel One, a service started in 1990 that broadcasts a 10-minute news program, plus two minutes of commercials, to more than 12,000 schools. Channel One provides free video equipment to schools in return for a promise to show their program to students.

The national Parent-Teacher Association, which believes that children “should not be used as a pawn in commercial enterprises,” has recommended that schools show the CNN program instead of dealing with Channel One, said PTA President Shirley Igo.

“We’re glad that CNN came to its senses,” said Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, an advocacy group that opposes commercialism in schools. “CNN has built up over the years a reservoir of good will because they didn’t show ads. It was very stupid of them to squander that.”

Commercial Alert is widely credited—or blamed, depending on your perspective—for the demise of ZapMe!, a company that supplied schools with free computers and internet-based educational content. The catch: Sponsors’ messages appeared in the margins of the computers’ web browsers.

Commercial Alert ran a public-relations campaign that was highly critical of ZapMe!’s business model, which ultimately caused ZapMe! to pull the plug on its service. The organization had launched a similar campaign against “CNN Student News” before the network backed off its plans.

CNN believed it was unfair to compare what it was planning with Channel One, which uses product ads similar to those on commercial TV. Under guidelines CNN had prepared, the sponsor would be allowed to identify itself for up to 10 seconds at the beginning of a segment, and an on-screen logo would be repeated during closing credits.

Only nonprofit foundations, educational product companies, or corporations supporting educational initiatives could apply. CNN believed its rules were more stringent than public broadcasting, which accepts sponsorships but claims to be commercial-free.

“We understand that this is a hot-button issue, and to put Turner Learning at the center of controversy would be a disservice to its mission, that we are fully committed to, and that we have provided commercial- and cost-free for the past 13 years,” Turell said.

The program costs Turner Learning, a division of CNN parent AOL Time Warner, between $5 million and $10 million a year to produce. The company was hoping to make improvements to “CNN Student News” and wanted to cap its costs.

Turner Learning will hold off on a final decision about sponsorships until it names a new chief executive for “CNN Student News,” Turell said.

Commercial Alert had argued that despite the guidelines, CNN would still be allowing ads that virtually any corporation that claimed an educational component could buy.

“It’s sort of the camel’s nose under the tent,” Ruskin said.

Ironically, the flap over commercialism at CNN comes at a time when Channel One is hurting. The company’s parent, Primedia Inc., is seeking a partner to help pay for equipment upgrades, although it emphasizes that Channel One is not for sale.

Channel One was strongly profitable for several years, but has slumped recently.

One reason is that some advertisers consider the service expendable because—not being students—they don’t regularly see their commericials, said someone familiar with the business who asked not to be identified.

Commercial Alert also began a letter-writing campaign to advertisers last year, urging them not to buy commercials on Channel One.

Asked what impact the campaign had on Channel One’s business, executive Jim Ritts said, “Virtually none.” The company has suffered from the same ad sales slump affecting all of television, said Ritts, president of Primedia Television.

He was bemused by the dispute over sponsorships on “CNN Student News.”

“The notion that it hasn’t had a commercial purpose from the beginning is laughable,” Ritts said. “They’ve been promoting the CNN brand.”

Links:

CNN Student News
http://www.CNNstudentnews.com

Channel One
http://www.channelonenews.com

Commerical Alert
http://www.commercialalert.org