October 19th, 1996

Whittle TV News, Poorer Districts Linked in Study

By Gary Putka
Wall Street Journal

Viewership of Whittle Communications L.P.’s classroom television program is skewed toward students below the poverty line, says a study issued by a new group that wants the show removed from schools.

The study also found that poorly funded schools were far more likely than well-funded ones to show Channel One , Whittle’s 12-minute school news show. The findings seem to support critics’ contention that educators accept Channel One , which carries commercials, for the television equipment that Whittle furnishes them, rather than for educational enhancement.

Whittle, of Knoxville, Tenn., questioned the data in the study and said it had no indication that Channel One viewership was weighted toward any income group.

Set against a backdrop of continual complaints over Channel One from some educators and others over the last two years, the study’s conclusions were somewhat predictable. But the statistics in the study provided the first glimpse of Channel One ‘s demographics from a source other than Whittle, whose pioneering use of alternate advertising media has made such data hard to come by.

Using school surveys conducted by Dun & Bradstreet for its own marketing profiles, professor Michael Morgan of the University of Massachusetts found that Channel One reaches 38% of schools with over 25% of their students in poverty, but only 17% of schools with a poverty level below 5%. Six in 10 schools that spend less than $2,600 per student each year carry Channel One , Prof. Morgan said, while only one school in 10 that spends more than $6,000 per year carries the program.

The study also found a slightly higher tendency toward the program by schools with larger black-student populations. The study was conducted by Prof. Morgan for Unplug, a new nonprofit group advocating "commercial free education."

Prof. Morgan said that the findings indicate that schools in high-poverty areas are "desperate" for TV equipment, which Whittle supplies for free while schools use it to show Channel One . Although these students are most in need of more spending on instructional resources, he added, "they are spending the most time in the classroom watching commercials."

Jim Ritts, Whittle’s president for educational-network affairs, said that the company keeps no data on the income levels of Channel One ‘s viewers. But he said Whittle data show that viewership closely mirrors the minority proportions in the population, causing him to question the study’s overall validity.

Mr. Ritts said another inconsistency was the study’s finding that Channel One penetrated 26% of secondary schools, as against the 40% Whittle says it has.

Even if poor students were more likely viewers, Mr. Ritts said, Channel One "evens the playing field" by supplying them with more news. "For any group or individual to say these schools should not have Channel One is a classic case of cultural elitism," he added.

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