At the cusp of the millenium, as technology becomes more accessible and affordable to the mass, it is of no surprise that television is now, more than ever, permeating our lives. Images being beamed into our homes, giant TV screens catching our eye in shopping malls bombarding us with product slogans and "Today’s hot items are…", television is now focusing its next assault on our Canadian high schools. The newest weapon in its ‘blitzkrieg arsenal’ is the Youth News Network (YNN) which is designed to zero in on unsuspecting teens. The YNN network is set to be introduced into Canadian high school by the end of 1999 and has many parents, teachers, administrators and educational associations in a frenzy. It would be to easy to dismiss YNN and its promise of quality news casts and glitzy equipment to impoverished and continuously under-funded schools but one must first carefully weigh the benefits and disadvantages of such an endeavor. In this paper I will describe what is the Youth News Network, what its potential benefits are to our schools and then discuss its numerous disadvantages.
In 1993, then in 1996 and now once again in 1999, our Canadian high schools are being taunted to join a nationwide network called the Youth News Network –so far without success. As described by MacDonald (1999) on the official YNN website, YNN operates on the basis of requiring schools to have their student population view a daily 12.5 minute video program provided by YNN. The program consists of some 10 minutes of news and current events reporting, and 2.5 minutes of commercials. One 30 second spot in the 2.5 commercial minutes is said to be set aside for public service announcements. For signing a five-year contract the school receives the loan of some electronic equipment in the form of video monitors in each teaching space, some video and editing equipment, some computers, a satellite hook-up and wiring.
For reasons I will make apparent, YNN is being compared to its American cousin network Channel One. Though YNN states that it is not a clone of Channel One (MacDonald, 1999), definite similarities exist between the two. 1- Both networks are funded solely by advertising. 2- YNN and Channel One cater to high schools offering them free audio-visual equipment in exchange for in-class viewing time of their news broadcasts and advertising. 3- Schools are required to sign a contract with the networks (3 years for Channel One and 5 years for YNN) before they own the equipment they are loaned. 4- Neither of the two networks are recognised as news organisations nor are they licensed by their respected federal governments. This being said and since there is not yet any available research on YNN, I will be using much of the research and conclusions that have been drawn from Channel One in extrapolating what impact YNN could have on Canadian high school students.
What YNN and Channel One are offering to Canadian and US high schools is a wonderful opportunity to become connected to world –but at what cost… These two networks do offer very interesting programming possibilities to students and the equipment loaned to them can be used for other educational purposes. Though, educationally speaking, Channel One and YNN do not necessarily rise above all else in terms of ‘teaching tools’, nor do they sit at the bottom of the pack. In researching this topic, I found conflicting sources leading to somewhat inconclusive arguments concerning Channel One’s effectiveness in teaching. The general pattern that emerges from these studies indicates only a slight gain (if no gain) in the students’ knowledge about current events (Tiene, 1993). Good news and bad news about Channel One also emerged from my research. The bad news for teachers is that students do not appear to have a better grasp of the latest news developments –which happens to be the specific problem Channel One was attempting to address (Tiene, 1993). On the other hand, the good news is that research has also shown that Channel One has an ability to teach students about topics that are of particular interest to them (Tiene & Whitmore, 1995). Unfortunately for Channel One and YNN, it has been often noted that students will most always show more ease in learning something they consider to be interesting (Biehler & Snowman, 1997), (Essa & Young, 1994), (Dr. D. Mills, personal communication, 1999). Nonetheless, students are learning from watching Channel One broadcasts. So why are people so vehemently opposed to Channel One and YNN?
As Channel One sceptics accuse US high schools of selling their souls to the ‘techno-devil’, the true underlying issue for their disapproval is against advertising being forced upon their children during class time (Greenberg and Brand, 1993-94). Channel One’s most controversial feature is its two minutes of advertising. What should be of an even higher concern to Canadians is the 30 seconds of additional advertising that will be aired on YNN broadcasts. Though research has not shown Channel One to be very effective in terms of its potential for teaching, studies have indicated Channel One does have an impact on students’ spending habits (Reese, 1996). The same could be assumed in terms of YNN’s impact on its future viewers.
Though TV advertising, as a subset of television, permeates our children’s lives, should it have a place in our schools? Possibly… In studying media techniques and in building awareness of media persuasive strategies, yes. But what YNN and Channel One bring into the classrooms is nothing more than a corporate ploy to sell, sell, sell. Greenberg and Brand (1993-94) reported that they did not observe any discussions about "using Channel One to further understanding of persuasive strategies or consumer needs and motivations". This leaves students alone in attempting to make meaning of the advertising seen on Channel One. Unfortunately, these students might not be capable of such an undertaking. They might not be as media-savvy as some might think. In fact, Fox (1995) reports that students often confuse commercials with public service announcements. Since Channel One also airs public service announcements, one could question how coincidental this occurrence actually is.
What is clearly researched, and is something that advertisers have always known, is that viewers and non-viewers of advertising shown on Channel One and in homes, share different opinions towards advertised products (Fox, 1997). Viewers are more likely to think highly of advertised products than non-viewers, they are more likely to purchase products they have seen advertised, and in-school showing of advertisement can perhaps offer an implicit endorsement of advertised products (Greenberg & Brand, 1993-94). So why the big fuss to reach this young population? Because demographers tell them so -money making today and tomorrow!
In the last several years, families have begun to have fewer children. The advertising world’s response to this trend has been to directly target this group. Since today’s teen excerpt what experts are calling "pester power" and "kidfluence" on their parents, it seems like the natural course of action for advertisers to take (Clark, 1999). Children between the ages of 4 and 12 spend over 17 billion US dollars per year (Reese, 1995). They are no longer simply the buying power of the tomorrow, but the big spenders of today. Advertisers and marketers are well aware of children’s buying power and are now, with motors such as YNN and Channel One, attempting harness that power in their own favour. These new interactive technologies and in-class programs are the advertising world’s response to the demographic trends taking place in today’s society.
The favourable educational impact of the Youth News Network and of Channel One having been dismissed, one must therefore concentrate on the impact of advertising in the classroom. I believe the impact of such a bond between schools and the corporate community will have a negative impact on Canadian students and that advertising should not be viewed in classrooms under the circumstances I have mentioned. It is not unimaginable to think that Channel One, and perhaps YNN in later years, will design and market a parallel offering for elementary schools (Greenberg and Brand, 1993-94). If teachers and administrators feel the need to show news programming and current-affairs in Canadian classrooms, there exist an alternative to YNN. As suggested by Lute (1999), Cable in the Classroom (CITC) offers any Canadian school free cable access and cable hook-up. All their programming is copyright cleared and commercial-free. In this unobtrusive format, one needs not stop to consider what the agenda of the broadcasting corporation truly is. Then our interest truly lies in the education of our future generation and not the sheer hunger for their money.
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