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Gahr High to Tune In a Television News Experiment

February 26, 1989|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

CERRITOS — Critics have expressed dismay at the prospect of commercial television in the classroom. But students at Gahr High School, one of six schools in the nation that will soon view daily teen-oriented news broadcasts complete with commercials, say they are quite capable of "tuning out" commercial messages.

"Commercials don't make me run out and buy things," said junior Heidi Harris, 17.

Their teachers agreed.

"These people aren't manipulated by anybody," Assistant Principal Gary Smuts said of students at the high school in Cerritos, part of the ABC Unified School District. Added Mario Baca, a teacher at Gahr: "If they can tune out English literature, they can tune out commercials." Baca, it all but goes without saying, teaches English literature.

Only Western School Participating

Starting March 6, Whittle Communications of Knoxville, Tenn., will begin beaming a daily news show called "Channel One" into classrooms at Gahr and selected high schools in Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. About 10,000 students, including 2,000 at Gahr, will take part in the pilot program.

Gahr, the only Western school participating, was chosen because of its ethnic diversity, school officials said. According to Smuts, 49 ethnic groups are represented at Gahr. Whittle spokesman David Jarrard said the six schools constitute "a real cross section of the country."

Whittle also produces informational posters with advertising that are distributed to schools throughout the country.

The "Channel One" shows will be 12 minutes long, including two minutes of commercials.

Produced in Los Angeles, the program will be transmitted to the schools each morning by satellite. Each program will include the day's headline news, a report of special interest to teen-agers and a service segment, say, on money management. At Gahr, students will watch the show during their morning homeroom period. School administrators will have the option of previewing each day's program and not showing it if they find it objectionable. Gahr staff members said the right to pull the plug on a particular program was an attractive feature of the project. "If we don't like it, we turn it off," Smuts said.

Students Are Captive Audience

The "Channel One" concept of beaming ads into classrooms along with educational programming has been criticized by Action for Children's Television, a Boston-based child-advocacy group, among others. Critics say students in the classroom are a captive audience for the commercial messages that will be part of the program. Youth-oriented products such as soft drinks, jeans and cosmetics will be advertised on the show, Jarrard said. Whittle has assured educators that ads will be "appropriate" for a classroom. No ads will be accepted for alcoholic beverages, tobacco, contraceptives or feminine hygiene products.

So far, Gahr has received no complaints from parents or other community members about its participation in the program, Smuts said. In exchange for participating, each school will be given $50,000 worth of electronic equipment, including 25-inch color TVs for each classroom, two videocassette recorders and a satellite dish. The satellite dish is being installed on the school's roof, but the TVs have not yet arrived.

Jarrard estimated that the pilot program has cost the communications company $5 million to date. If it is successful, 8,000 schools will receive the program next year.

Media analyst Joseph Turow, who teaches communications at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of many observers who question the propriety of commercializing the classroom. But "Channel One," Turow said, "is almost inevitable, given our society. Teen-agers are among the hardest audiences to reach. What Whittle has done is to say, 'If we can't reach them anywhere else, let's reach them in school.' Unless the public sector puts its money where its mouth is in terms of education, I'm afraid we'll see more of this."

Whittle spokesmen say the fact that students will be required to watch the show does not mean they will go out zombie-like and buy the products advertised. "Kids are inundated with commercial messages," Jarrard said. "There are commercial messages on their clothes! They tune them out, and they can tune them out in school." Company chairman Chris Whittle noted that high school students are better equipped to make independent consumer judgments than very young children.

Same Ads as at Home

Gahr students pointed out that the commercials on the show will be the same ones they see on their home TVs. "We don't pay that much attention to the commercials," 17-year-old senior Rosa Valenzuela said. A number of students said peer pressure is a much more potent factor in their consumer choices than advertising.

For the most part, students were enthusiastic about the preview program they have already seen. Seventeen-year-old Calondra Jolly, a senior, liked the youthfulness of the on-camera staff, who are not much older than Calondra and her classmates. "We can relate to them more than we can relate to people on the regular news," she said. Students also praised the show's graphics and use of contemporary music. One criticism: too many news items per segment.

Several students said they are looking forward to the program because they neither read newspapers nor watch TV news, in part because they find regular news boring. "We're uninformed," Harris said. "That's why this is good."

Classmate Bobbie Wardhaugh, 17, agreed. "We're getting the knowledge," she said. "If we have to watch a couple commercials, it's worth it."

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