Hooked up to a gift horse, or a Trojan?: Is free cable TV an offer our schools should refuse? Look what happened in America, says Charles Glass

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The Independent Online
IF THE cable television companies keep the promise they made last week every school in Britain will soon be connected to the cable. In an apparently benevolent act of corporate largesse, the companies are giving the schools, without charge, both the cable itself and the television programmes it carries.

There may be no such thing as a free school lunch any more, but television will cost nothing. Children in schools throughout the country may soon be sending thank you cards, probably via electronic mail, to Bell Telephone, AT&T, Associated Newspapers and the other companies to whom they will be beholden. 'We are looking to develop cable in the classroom,' Niall Hickey, spokesman of the Cable Television Association, told me, 'like in the United States.'

Most American schools are already connected to cable thanks to Chris Wittle, whose Channel One is seen in 8,500 schools across the States. Wittle has just sold his communications company, including Channel One, to concentrate on his newer venture, the Edison Project, which will manage state schools, much as private companies here are now running prisons.

Wittle built Channel One into a profit-making venture by spending dollars 50,000 per school to install cable, television sets and video recorders. He did it all for free. In exchange, the schools agreed not to install any other cable services. Channel One, with partners including Britain's Associated Newspapers, earned dollars 85m and a pre-tax profit of dollars 13m last year. Not bad, really. But where did the profit come from? Not from the schools, who got everything for nothing.

A clue is given by a pilot cable project from United Artists Communications currently under way in Croydon. The Cable Television Association explains: 'People at school today will be consumers later. If you give free services to schools, they may want to buy other services.' That is, students may one day have their own houses and want to subscribe to their own cable service; and the cable, which provides telephone as well as television, once in the school, may replace BT or Mercury.

None the less, it still sounds too generous to make much money. The cable companies won't see a large return on their investment by waiting hopefully for children to grow up and schools to switch to their telephone services. They may make something selling the hardware to the schools, because many of the American parent companies of British cable firms manufacture television sets, video recorders, telephones and computers. But, as with Channel One in America, some schools will be given these things anyway, depending on the number of pupils. Inevitably, as in America, a few schools will be left out. Those that do not stand near a road where the cable is already laid will, if they want cable, have to pay for it.

To return to the United States and its Channel One. Wittle made his dollars 85m last year from advertisers. Companies wanting to sell to a captive audience of children in the confines of their schools bought time to promote their blue jeans, breakfast cereals, video games, chocolates and soft drinks. This might sound innocuous to some; to others it is a worrying prospect.

Consider a few statistics from across the Atlantic. By the age of 17 most Americans will have seen more than 350,000 television commercials. American children watch television for three-and-a-half hours each day at home. Compare with this figure: American children and their parents sit and talk to each other for an average of two minutes each day. Often the only adult with whom they have any lengthy contact is their teacher. When the teacher abandons them to the vicarious experience of television viewing, as their parents have, then nearly everything they know will spring from that box, its programmes, its advertising.

In Britain, according to the BBC, children between the ages of four and 16 are in front of the television for nearly two hours and 40 minutes a day. There does not seem to be a figure for time spent talking with their parents, but in the age of two-parent working households, fast food and television, it is probably diminishing. Will British teachers, like parents, abdicate their responsibility to teach and, like parents, leave the children to sit in front of the television?

That is not the plan. Niall Hickey at the Cable Television Association says the school cable service should enable teachers to record the worthwhile programmes - for example, the French teacher might record the French news - and play them to the students later. This has always been the argument for television and video recorders in schools: used responsibly, children will benefit from them. How many people use them responsibly? Hickey adds that once most of the schools are on the cable 'it will be worth people developing specialist programming and an educational network'. But there is only one way for such a network to make money, as Chris Wittle proved: advertising.

The conservative American philosopher Ernest Van Den Haag wrote in The Fabric of Society in 1957, when television was beginning to make its impact on American society and culture: 'All mass media in the end alienate people from personal experience and, though appearing to offset it, intensify their moral isolation from each other, from reality and from themselves . . . It lessens people's capacity to experience life itself.' Probably no one is proposing that television in schools replace teaching by a human being and its goal of intellectual exchange between pedagogue and inquiring young mind. But no one proposed, when television was introduced into our houses, that the flickering screen would supersede parental care and become a universal and mindless child minder.

The gift of cable may prove to be a blessing, as in Chile, where it is apparently used not to show television and advertising, but to connect to international computer and information networks paid for by the state. Or it may be a Trojan horse that, once inside the schools, inflicts unexpected damage. Profit- making enterprises give things away - 'free' lunches for journalists, company directorships for members of parliament or sponsorship of racing cars and symphony orchestras - for a reason. Even a drug dealer donates a first dose of crack or heroin to create a market or advertise his product. Before any school opens its portals to free cable television, students, teachers, parents and governors must debate its merits and examine the American model it is imitating.