May 8th, 2009

“Private” TV in Public Schools is Alive and Well

By Mose Wiles
Media by Choice

If I were trying to sell something, my fantasy would be to design a slick, hip marketing campaign that came with exclusive rights to a highly targeted audience that was bored out of its mind and also completely captive to my message—and when I say captive, I mean held there by the force of law. That’s what I would call a sweet deal.

That’s exactly what Alloy Media and Marketing gets when it starts promoting a Web video show based on a popular series of mystery novels among girls 13 to 16 called “Private.”

Alloy bought the controversial in-school compulsory TV network called Channel One a few years ago from a publishing conglomerate, Primedia, at a time when critics thought the Channel One business model was dead. For years the TV network, which airs daily in-class content and ads in exchange for providing audio and video equipment to schools, had sustained withering criticism from parents and civic, educational, health, religious, and other leaders.

Things got so bad that companies that had been advertising on the network pulled out, leaving the network’s financial viability in doubt.

But the network is still in the classroom of millions of public school children and indeed seems to be doing quite well under its new owner.

Under this latest plan, reported in a New York Times piece called “A book packager takes a step into Web video,” the company will use its Channel One network to promote the new video series, which will appear on its Web site Teen.com. No doubt the videos, like the books, will be a product-placement showcase that weaves brand advertising into the narrative. One advertiser has plans to hold a talent contest; the winner gets to appear in one of the advertiser’s commercials.

To give Alloy its due, the company has done its homework, it knows its audience, and it’s employing all of the latest thinking on what makes content engaging. In short, it’s a model communications company. The “Private” series of mystery novels is highly popular with its demographic of girls 13 to 16. The books are clearly aspirational (not to be confused with inspirational), and they incorporate everything that would appeal to its demographic. There’s little reason to doubt that the marketing campaign will be a success and that big numbers of girls will spend lots of time on Teen.com to not only watch the videos but the ads and the advertiser’s talent show try-outs. Like on American Idol, viewers will be able to vote for their favorite, making the experience participatory.

In a sense the company is doing everything that schools so often don’t do, which is engage students by being compelling. Obviously it’s a lot harder to be compelling when your mandate is to teach fractions rather than create buzz around a brand of jeans, but schools, with their continuing dowdy approach to everything they do, in a sense have created a vacuum that a slick marketing company is only too happy to fill.

But the lynchpin of everything the company is doing is the exploitation of the most impressionable among us, children, in a setting they’re legally mandated to be in: the classroom. And that mandate has teeth. In 2000, two students in an Ohio school who refused to watch Channel One were expelled. Thus, if we follow the logic, we have to accept the idea that under the marketing plan for “Private,” children in school will be compelled under the force of law to watch slick marketing programming whose objective is to sell eyeballs to advertisers. That’s capitalism with teeth. It’s also an indictment of us and our school system. You can learn more about the issue of in-school media captivity on the Web site of Commercial Alert, which has helped lead efforts against Channel One.

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