November 22nd, 2001

Advertising to be Curbed in Schools; Policy Will Phase Out Channel One, Commercial Logos

By Gregory Roberts
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Tight restrictions on advertising and commercialism in Seattle Public Schools were approved by the School Board yesterday, spelling an end to the controversial Channel One news-and-commercials video service and to vending machines adorned with glistening images of Coca-Cola bottles 6 feet tall.

But the struggle over corporations in the classroom is not over, as it heats up throughout the country as well. In Seattle, the next battle could be a spinoff of the vending-machine debate, with the focus on the nutritional evils of soft drinks. Several board members said that issue looms large on their agendas.

For now, the board finally put in place a set of rules governing advertising and commercial activities.

“It’s a good first step,” said Michael Preston, the board’s most severe critic of in-school advertising.
Brita Butler-Wall of the Citizens’ Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools agreed with Preston. But she said, “The campaign is definitely full steam ahead.”

Like Preston, Butler-Wall’s group would like to see Channel One turned off immediately, instead of phased out over four years as the board decided, and wants corporate logos essentially barred instead of subject to judgment calls by principals as to whether they constitute advertising or product identification.

Still, Butler-Wall said the new policy represents a dramatic improvement over the board’s decision in 1996 to actively seek advertising to ease a budget crunch.

That decision was quickly reversed after hostile public reaction. In 1997, the board created a citizens advisory committee on commercialism, which wrote its report in 1998. But the issue languished until earlier this year.

The first draft of the policy was diluted yesterday by the full board, which voted to restate its goal as to “significantly restrict” advertising, instead of to “prohibit” it. Efforts by Preston to further mute Channel One and to bar logos were defeated.
But the board approved stronger wording on vending-machine regulations, and administrators agreed to make over the machines with low-key, generic facades replacing ads. The move could cost the district $250 per makeover in revenue forgone from its exclusive five-year, $5.8 million contract with Coke that expires in 2003.

Channel One came to Seattle in 1991. In return for a free loan of televisions and in-school networking equipment, schools agreed to show students Channel One’s daily feed of 10 minutes of news and current-events programming, wrapped around about two minutes of commercials. Currently, five of the city’s 10 high schools and eight of its 10 middle schools are signed up.

Resistance to pulling the plug immediately on Channel One came from board members who worried about abruptly depriving schools of equipment used for other educational purposes. Preston likened the service to a heroin pusher, and said Channel One intended all along to hook the schools with the free televisions.

By all accounts, commercial activities in U.S. schools have mushroomed in the past 10 years to include everything from school-bus advertising to rooftop displays to corporate naming rights for athletic leagues. Channel One claims to pipe its programming into 40 percent of the nation’s middle and high schools.

But resistance also has grown, spurring congressional investigation of the issue. Although some states have passed laws prohibiting a range of commercial activities, Washington has not, and policies vary from school district to school district.
The Seattle meeting yesterday was Preston’s last after 20 years on the board.  But Don Nielsen, who lines up at the other end of the commercialism spectrum on the board, also is stepping down. Their replacements, Mary Bass and Dick Lilly, lean more to Preston’s view, Butler-Wall said.

“The future looks good,” she said.

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