Channel One, the satellite network beamed into middle and high school classes around the country, would be banned from schools in a Portland, Ore., school district under a lawsuit brought by a father who objects to two minutes of commercials shown during class time. The service provides schools with free televisions and other equipment in exchange for airing its programming.

Gary Boyes says the 12-minute television segments are aired each day to a wide-eyed audience of students trapped in their classrooms and include ads for snack foods, soft drinks, and movies.

By the end of the school year, students will have watched the equivalent of five full days of Channel One programming, days that could be used for instruction at a time when the state is already slicing instruction time because of budget cuts, Boyes said.

“Most parents actually believe Channel One has something to do with school,” Boyes said. “It’s a commercial interest occupying the public school.”

The satellite network provides daily news and entertainment programming to 12,000 schools across the country, with an estimated audience of 8 million children a day. A Channel One web site says programs show news geared toward teenagers and interviews with young people in other parts of the world.

Parent company Primedia Inc. of New York owns Seventeen magazine and other publications. “Channel One’s contract with schools implicitly supports local decision making and clearly accommodates any school implementation of an opt-out policy,” said Jeff Ballabon, vice president of public policy for Primedia.

Twelve of the 17 middle and high schools in Oregon’s Salem-Keizer School District show Channel One, said district spokeswoman Mary Paulson.

Individual principals reportedly decide whether to show Channel One based on educational value. Because so many of them have the channel, there must be value, Paulson said.

“We stand by the principals’ decisions,” she said.

A similar objection to Channel One was brought before the Texas Board of Education last November and was voted down.

Board members there noted that children are exposed to advertising in a variety of other ways at school, including over the internet and through newspapers and magazines provided in classrooms and school libraries.

Boyes filed the suit April 17 in Oregon’s Marion County District Court on behalf of his son, Gary, 18, and daughter, Shanna, 13.

It asks the school district to void contracts providing televisions, VCRs, and video cameras to schools in exchange for obliging students to watch the 12-minute segment on 90 percent of school days.

The suit argues that time spent watching commercials deprives children of a right to an education under the Oregon Constitution. It also objects to the Salem-Keizer district accepting more than $5,000 worth of television sets without an open bidding process.

It is the first such suit filed against Channel One in Oregon, said Boyes’ attorney Mark McDougal.

“If it were up to them, little kids would be counting McDonald’s french fries to learn how to count,” McDougal said.

Channel One’s commercialism has been controversial for years, despite the free technology schools receive.

“There have been a few other lawsuits [that challenged the presence of Channel One in school districts], but none in recent years,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a national nonprofit organization intended to protect children from commercialism.

Commercial Alert launched a campaign in 2001 to remove Channel One from schools.

“They misuse the compulsory education laws to force kids to watch ads in school,” Ruskin said, adding that Channel One wastes school time and promotes destructive values to students.

“They glorified the movie ‘Dude, Where’s My Car,’ where two pot heads got so stoned they couldn’t remember where they left their car,” he charged.

Primedia’s Ballabon countered by noting that Channel One enjoys a 99-percent renewal rate in schools nationwide.

“Channel One stands by schools and they stand by Channel One, because the shared objective is improving education,” he said. “Ruskin, on the other hand, has teamed up with groups that openly have said they want to dismantle public education and that oppose technology in schools.”

San Jose’s Overfelt High School, the first California public high school to contract with Channel One, spent six years fighting a lawsuit for its decision to accept the service.

Although a California judge ruled that schools in that state could continue to contract with Channel One, Overfelt ultimately cancelled the service in 1996, caving in to pressure from activists who opposed the commercialization of the classroom.

Links:

Channel One
http://www.channelone.com

Salem-Keizer School District
http://www.salkeiz.k12.or.us

Commercial Alert
http://www.commercialalert.org