YNN making headway despite opposition

After years of bitter controversy, Youth News Network (YNN) says it's finally making headway....

After years of bitter controversy, Youth News Network (YNN) says it’s finally making headway.

By the start of the new school year this fall, YNN expects to have 30 Canadian high schools signed up to receive its broadcasts on a six-month test basis. It also hopes to have instituted changes designed to appease its most persistent critics.

Opponents of advertising in schools, however, appear unlikely to relent.

YNN’s offering consists of a 10-minute news and current affairs program, broadcast into high schools on a daily basis. The program is followed by two and a half minutes of paid advertising. To date, just three Canadian schools are wired to receive the broadcast.

Montreal-based Athena Educational Partners first began pushing the YNN concept – modeled on Channel One in the U.S. – approximately a decade ago. And, from the outset, the network has been the target of organized opposition from educators and parents.

The Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations (CAMEO), an alliance of close to 50 groups across the country, keeps tabs on YNN and orchestrates activities such as e-mail and letter-writing campaigns to counter its initiatives.

Efforts like these have proven quite successful at hobbling YNN’s progress. But Rod MacDonald, president of Athena, says he’s found a solution that may help to win over the network’s detractors.

YNN is proposing to drop commercial advertising from its in-school broadcasts and replace it with PSAs and sponsored social marketing messages.

"We’ve decided to develop a series of social advocacy themes on our own, for which we’re going to attempt to get corporate and provincial government sponsorship," MacDonald says.

Marketers of consumer goods and services, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to advertise on YNN’s online education portal – a new Web-based initiative that should be up and running by the start of the school year.

These moves, however, may not be enough to quell anti-YNN sentiment.

John Pungente, executive director of the Jesuit Communication Project in Toronto and president of CAMEO, says the members of his group have no objection to the idea of partnerships between private companies and schools.

What upsets CAMEO is the fact that the YNN broadcasts have no direct connection to the curriculum, and require schools to revamp their timetables so that students can view the programming. The organization also warns that schools have no way of knowing what political or philosophical biases may inform the material.

The YNN contract with schools stipulates that 80% of the students must watch the broadcast 90% of the time, Pungente says. "No one should have that kind of unlimited access to kids."

There are a number of commercial-free alternatives to YNN available, he adds – among them Cable in the Classroom, which offers a roster of specialty channels (including Discovery Channel, A&E and Bravo!) as well as news programming for teens from CNN, CBC Newsworld and YTV.

For his part, MacDonald says that the letters and e-mails he has received from students and teachers have been generally positive, and have included suggestions for further coverage of various topics.

YNN’s U.S. counterpart, Channel One, has been operating for 15 years. It now reaches approximately 12,000 American schools, where it is seen by more than eight million students each day. This kind of penetration enables it to charge upwards of US$200,000 for a 30-second spot.

Channel One has been the subject of controversy as well. Recently, for example, a coalition of advocacy groups urged U.S. President Bill Clinton to cancel a planned appearance on Channel One, which they accuse of infusing classrooms "with the degraded values of the commercial culture."

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