After an unusual experiment in 1990 in three Montreal high schools, experts expressed surprise at the results. Each day for three weeks, students watched a 12-minute news and current affairs television program produced by a company supported by a group of Montreal businessmen. According to Scott Conrod, director general of the Laurenval School Board, students “would look at the news clips and start to talk about what was happening in the world. The teachers were quite amazed.” The project, called Youth News Network (YNN), is the creation of Roderick MacDonald, a former Montreal-based TV producer who is trying to persuade school boards across Canada to sign up with YNN. The proposed network, which would carry advertising into schools, has provoked angry criticism in some parts of the country. Despite that, MacDonald says that more than 100 schools will be participating when YNN begins operating, in both English and
French, in September.
MacDonald’s network has generated controversy because critics say that he is trying to offer advertisers a captive audience of impressionable high-school students. Under the terms of the deal that YNN is offering school boards, the network would provide a school with about $50,000 in TV sets and other equipment for up to five years. In return, school boards would have to agree to expose their students to a 12-
minute newscast containing -
2lh minutes of corporate advertising each school day. Critics of the plan say that commercial TV should have no place in a school system. YNN’s proposed network is modelled partly on
Channel One, launched in the United States by publisher and broadcaster Christopher Whittle. The controversial channel currently broadcasts sponsored news programs in more than 11,000 schools. But some states, including New Jersey, New York and North Carolina, have refused to let their public schools sign on with Channel One because of the ads.
In Canada, some education advocates have voiced reservations about YNN’s plan. Patricia Kipping, a director of the Halifax-based Association for Media Literacy of Nova Scotia, says that she is “very concerned that schools are willing to sell their brain space to a profitmaking company.” For her part, Jan Morgan, commissioner of the Laurentian School Board in Lachute, Que., says that YNN’s news broadcasts might benefit students. But she added that it is g unacceptable for a school to o permit advertising in its s classrooms. Referring to
0 claims by YNN officials that
1 advertising would play a u small part in the network’s
operations, Morgan asked:
“If the advertising doesn’t
matter, why is it such an important part of the exercise?”
As well, the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations has claimed that the
the three-year-old, Knoxville, Tenn.-based news network has overstated the value of its
productions. In a Dec. 8 statement, the organization said that it should be possible for corporations to contribute to education, “but choosing and controlling educational materials is not one of them.”
Network supporters dismiss claims that students would constitute a captive audience. “Anyone who says that this is a captive audience hasn’t been in a school for quite a while,” said Montreal’s Conrod. “If it’s crummy, the kids won’t watch. This is going to have to stand on its own merits.” Linda Welch, assistant head of the English department at a high school in Aurora, Ont., and a member of the network’s 22-member educational advisory council, defended the commercials because, she said, advertising is a normal part of North American life. Added Welch: “To pretend advertisements don’t happen is to be an ostrich.”
Network officials contend that schools that sign on with YNN stand to gain more than just access to daily public affairs programs. MacDonald said that the network would supply them with TV sets and other hardware that could be used for communication among schools and for interactive broadcasts, in which students could ask questions and receive answers during some programs. Added MacDonald: “The day is coming very shortly when students will sit in class asking questions of a Canadian astronaut in space. We found a way to put this technology in schools, which everyone acknowledges is needed.”
Supporters of the proposed network conceded that advertising is essential to the venture’s economic success. MacDonald told Maclean ’s that the cost of installing and operating the service in up to 2,000 schools could be as much as $200 million over 10 years, all of which would have to come from advertising. MacDonald said that the network is looking for advertising from firms interested in supporting education. So far, only one company has agreed to be a sponsor— Procter & Gamble Inc. of Toronto, which manufactures, among other things, such youth-oriented items as Clearasil acne medication. (Among the advertisers on Channel One are Reebok International Ltd., which makes athletic shoes, and Frito-Lay Inc., maker of Doritos tortilla chips.)
While the debate over YNN’s plans heats up, network officials said that they are waiting for decisions by the Nova Scotia government and Halifax-area school boards that could be critical to the network’s future. In July, 1992, YNN applied to the province for as much as $9 million in loans. At the same time, the City of Halifax has agreed to borrow $2.5 million to build a YNN headquarters and studio building, which they would lease back to the network.
For his part, MacDonald says that if YNN has done anything, it has encouraged people to think about the role of the corporate sector in education. Many educators themselves agree that the system is not changing enough with the times and that schools must become an extension of society. But clearly, some people may still feel that YNN is too much, too soon.
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