Thirteen years ago, executives from cable's leading operators and networks banded together in a campaign to enhance American education and their own image. They formed a consortium to bring educational television into schools, throwing in free installation and monthly service to back their claim that there were no strings attached.
Today, Cable in the Classroom, as it is known, delivers more than 500 hours a month of top-of-the-line shows from 39 networks to an estimated 81,000 schools.
The industry contributes at least $2 million a week to the Alexandria, Va.-based initiative, creating or adapting programs, producing a monthly program guide and putting educators into the schools. A not-for-profit entity with a $2.3 million annual budget and a board of directors made up of top cable executives oversees the endeavor.
Through local cable operators, Cable in the Classroom offers in-school training seminars and prizes for taping the most shows.
By the time teachers or school librarians pop a tape into the VCR, the MSOs and local operators have installed the cable, removed commercials and waived monthly fees and copyright restraints. Schools are able to show the programs immediately or put them in the library for at least a year.
REPORT CARD TIME
Now — with more than a decade under its belt and a new director at the helm — the initiative is taking a close look at its own performance.
By the end of December, a task force of executives and educators that convened in July will release a strategic plan for the next three to five years.
Among other things, the plan will seek means to measure usage of Cable in the Classroom, and attempt to gauge how many schools and families are even aware of the program.
"In the 12 years since Cable in the Classroom started, the cable industry has changed a great deal,'' said executive director Peggy O'Brien. She joined the nonprofit organization in May, after more than 30 years in education, including stints at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
"We know a lot more about the importance of media and interactive learning," O'Brien said. "We have a lot more technology. We want to take the best of what we've got and aim it into the next century.''
Cable in the Classroom doesn't intend for TV to substitute for textbooks. But by using the medium, schools acknowledge that cable presents some of the most sophisticated treatment of many of the subjects they teach.
They use ESPN's Sports Figures
to teach basic math and physics; The Weather Channel's Weather Classroom
to instruct on how tornadoes form; CNN Newsroom
to spotlight national and international events; and Home & Garden Television's Restore America
to show how famous historical homes have been renovated.
Court TV offers a youth-oriented look at legal affairs. Discovery Health Channel programs demonstrates the effects of drug addiction on teens. And teachers can use television to acquaint kids with life as a disabled person or a minority and to delve into a discussion of genetic engineering.
"This is a poor school. Our kids don't all get the opportunity to travel," said Joyce Pace, media specialist at Parker Bennett Elementary School in Bowling Green, Ky., an avid Cable in the Classroom user who recently won a TV for her school. "This gives our kids exposure to different countries. For them, it's like taking a trip.''
BRING IN THE INTERNET
In its review, Cable in the Classroom will consider how to quantify participation — something it has not done consistently. It will also ask schools how easy its programs are to use and how valuable they've been.
The planning process will also consider how to incorporate the Internet and other technologies that were not as prevalent in 1989.
Tracking Cable in the Classroom's track record is also crucial to its benefactors: the cable executives who seek a competitive advantage and a good-citizenship image.
Some of those executives said an analysis of the benefits is especially important in a soft economy in which MSOs, like all corporations, will likely look for places to trim costs.
In addition to helping young people, companies acknowledged that they use Cable in the Classroom to distinguish cable from satellite television, encourage families to subscribe and to sell schools educational products that go along with the program.
"The more you can quantify results, the better you are these days,'' said Discovery Communications Inc. president Judith McHale, who chairs the CIC board. "The bottom line is increasingly important. We have something we can be enormously proud of here and we need to show this to the CEOs make it possible.''
So far, many people close to the program suspect that its merits are not well known, either within or outside industry ranks.
Part of the challenge is getting hard numbers about how often Cable in the Classroom's services are actually used.
When materials are borrowed from the school library or taken from the Internet, participation is automatically gauged. But the television programs can be taped from home or in the classroom after hours, so there isn't any notice on whether a teacher is taking part.
[EXTRA] CREDIT WANTED
"It's been one of the best-kept secrets in the cable industry. There is not widespread recognition,'' said National Cable & Telecommunications Association vice president of public affairs Jim Ewalt, who works closely with the Classroom folks. "Part of the review should include, 'How does the industry get some credit for the good things it is doing?' We've invested billions to provide education programs for free to schools. We need to report what our contributions are and get some credit for it.''
In Albany, N.Y., where Time Warner Cable delivers Cable in the Classroom to more than 200 schools, the program is not well-known even among school administrators, conceded Peter Taubkin, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the local cable system.
In part, that's because cable networks are already familiar to students and teachers who may not see classroom delivery as part of a broad, industry-wide offering.
Taubkin fights that anonymity through a regular online newsletter for schools, teacher workshops and incentive programs. Time Warner in Albany also maintains regular contact with area teachers' associations and the state education department.
He said follow-up efforts are particularly important, given the turnover among a population of teachers that is disproportionately reaching retirement age.
"We're in a competitive environment," he added. "Newspapers hold themselves up as resources. Public broadcasting networks do; Internet-service providers.
"Despite the fact that we've been around for 12 years, we're still the new kid in the town in terms of materials in the classroom," Taubkin said.
BE MORE FLEXIBLE
The Internet and the newspaper are always available. Not so Cable in the Classroom.
In Bowling Green, where Parker-Bennett Elementary School is a huge fan of the program, the principal speculates that more teachers would be more receptive if shows were available on a more flexible timetable.
As it stands, teachers must tape programs when they are aired — usually only once or twice, and typically during late-night and early-morning hours when the networks can spare some airtime.
"If they don't think to tape it that night, that's a teaching moment that is lost forever,'' said Parker-Bennett principal Anna Senter. "It's an excellent teaching tool, but our teachers are required to do so much already."
Despite its large following, Cable in the Classroom can get lost in a widening world of educational resources and educational mandates.
"The teachers don't really see that they are part of Cable in the Classroom, as such,'' said Rocco Staino, library director of North Salem Middle and High School outside New York City.
Staino, a strong proponent of the cable initiative, is a gatekeeper for his school. He reads the Cable in the Classroom guide each month, forwards updates to faculty and even penned a story for a recent edition of the guide on how resource directors can make full use of the offerings. He considers this part of his job.
But in the classroom, he said, teachers are hard-pressed to take on extra tasks, even if they're the result of free gifts to learning. They face pressure to raise academic standards, he said, and that stress means there's less time to look for new tools.
"I've spent a number of years serving on educational advisory committees for WNET," the major public-TV broadcaster in New York, said Staino. "The stations discussed for years, 'How do we get teachers to use our programs?' It's the same question now.
"Teachers are doing what they have to do each day to get through. But once something is integrated into their curriculum, it is likely to stay there for a number of years."