Controversial In-School Network Faced Several Legislative Threats

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WASHINGTON ( -- Add Primedia to the list of media clients caught up in the Jack Abramoff lobbying disclosures.
Photo: AP
Jack Abramoff and his firms served as lobbyist for Primedia and for its Channel One from 1999 through 2003, according to U.S. Senate and House records.

Mr. Abramoff’s guilty plea has sparked expectations that it would affect members of Congress, and it’s already emerged that he worked as a lobbyist for the Magazine Publishers Association on postal reform issues. But he and his firms also served as lobbyist for Primedia and for its Channel One from 1999 through 2003, according to U.S. Senate and House records.

Lobby disclosure forms show Primedia as employing Mr. Abramoff and Tony Rudy and their lobbying firms over several years, with work for Channel One and other company entities. Mr. Abramoff has offered a guilty plea to various charges of trying to illegally influence legislators, while Mr. Rudy, a former chief of staff to Rep. Tom DeLay, has been identified in media reports as an unnamed official cited in court documents related to Mr. Abramoff’s case.

In a statement, the company acknowledged using Mr. Abramoff and his firm but said only that “Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig” -- one of the firms Mr. Abramoff worked for -- “worked for Primedia several years ago. The work was performed well and was on budget.”

Primedia jettisoned the lobbying firms in early 2004.

Unclear connection
Although it is not clear what Mr. Abramoff’s firm did for Channel One, the network has faced a number of legislative threats, as critics of in-school advertising have pushed for regulations to limit how marketers reach students. Channel One also derived much of its ad revenue from government agencies, including the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and military recruitment efforts, all of which are subject to having their spending curtailed or increased by acts of Congress.

In the last year Channel One has faced a challenging advertising market. Announcing its third-quarter results in November, Primedia blamed disappointing Channel One results on U.S. government agencies not renewing or reducing their ad campaigns. It said at the time that U.S. government campaigns were down 76% in the quarter and 31% year to date.

A company spokesman attributed the advertising decline on shifts related to the war in Iraq.

Government cuts
Government agencies, some of which continue to use Channel One, cited budget cuts or reallocation of resources for their reductions in ad spending on the in-school network, though there were suggestions that the Iraq war was only one factor.

The drop was apparently mostly due to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy dropping Channel One for its youth anti-drug message.

“We did not buy Channel One, and they are not in our current buying plans,” said Tom Riley, a spokesman for the drug office. “We changed because a tightened budget forced us to re-examine our teen buy. We talk to a wide variety of people to get the best information about teen viewers. Our media buyer is 100% focused on getting the best buy for our dollars.”

Tim Talbert, an Air Force spokesman, said a budget cut forced the Air Force to reduce some advertising, including dropping Channel One. He said the Air Force expects to be back on Channel One this fall.

The U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy and the Centers for Disease Control have all used Channel One. The Army and CDC continue to use it while the Navy is currently in negotiations. A Navy spokesman said the service has been using Channel One since 1999, and the participation has grown slightly from 15 spots in 2004 to 17 in 2005 with hopefully a few more to be added in 2006.

Channel One has always been controversial, with critics questioning whether the time children spend watching its ad-supported newscasts in the classroom could better be spent on lessons and whether schools should facilitate the use of in-school advertising mediums.

One longtime critic of Channel One, Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, questions whether the lobbyists departure in fact did have an influence on the advertising revenue.

“Jack Abramoff played Congress and the executive branch like puppets in a puppet show,” Mr. Ruskin said. “It would hardly be a surprise if his absence on Channel One’s lobbying team led to decreased Channel One advertising revenues.”

A Primedia spokesman said Mr. Abramoff's work for Channel One did not include any effort to secure government agency advertising.

Mr. Ruskin criticized the government agencies stepping back into Channel One. “It is not the proper role of the federal government to prop up such companies.”

MPA ties
The Magazine Publishers Association hired Mr. Abramoff's law firm in 2000 and paid it $2 million over three years to work on postal reform. While Mr. Abramoff was not the MPA's main contact, he was on the lobbying team, an MPA spokesman said. At the suggestion of the lobbying firm -- but not Mr. Abramoff -- MPA gave $25,000 to "Toward Tradition," a group created by Mr. Abramoff that the government now suggests was used in an unethical fashion.

Chris Giglio, a spokesmen for MPA PR agency Rubenstein Associates, said the MPA finds the allegations about the use of the $25,000 “troubling.”

“We are looking into it seriously and are in the process of addressing it,” he said.

A Primedia spokesman said it was not recommended by Mr. Abramoff or his firms that it send any funds to “Toward Tradition,” and no such donation was made by Primedia.

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