Cable Nets Back Interactive College-Prep Project

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Several cable networks are backing a CD-ROM-based college educational initiative targeting African-American high school students that's being rolled out during Black History Month.

The interactive CD-ROM, dubbed The Key: An Interactive Guide to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, provides information about historically African-American colleges and universities, as well as practical tips on the college-application process, according to Ember Media president and CEO Clayton Banks, the former cable executive.

Lifetime Television, Scripps Networks and MTV Networks are among several companies sponsoring more than 500,000 copies of the CD — the second such effort targeting the African-American community — which will be offered free to 5,400 public schools and community organizations around the country.

Banks, who spent nearly a decade in the cable industry — most notably as senior vice president of sales and marketing of the defunct Sega Channel and vice president of affiliate relations for Comedy Central in the 1990s — enlisted then President Clinton and radio-show host Tom Joyner to appear on the CD-ROM.

Among the features of The Key: profiles of more than 100 historically black colleges and universities; free online Scholastic Aptitude Test and ACT test preparation guides; instructions on how to complete a college application; and listings of scholarship and grant money sources.

"We wanted to go after kids in the inner city who may not have the resources in the home to ask for a view book for colleges," Banks said. "We wanted to develop something for them that would get them motivated about higher education."

Banks said the interactive nature of the CD-ROM, which includes music and other entertainment features, was created to not only entice high-school students, but to keep them interested in the college-admissions process.

"We needed to have strong relevant information that would help, but we also had to add an entertainment flavor," he said. "Kids today want their information in an engaging way, so we added some multimedia elements."

Banks said sponsorship costs for both the African-American and Hispanic projects range from $20,000 to $50,000, although he would not disclose specific outlays by each sponsor.

MTV also would not reveal its sponsorship fee, but MTV vice president of public responsibility Alicin Reidy said the venture provides MTV with an opportunity to positively reach out to its core young adult audience.

MTV is also a sponsor of Ember Media's bilingual interactive guide to the top colleges and universities for Hispanics, which highlights accredited colleges and universities where Latino students constitute at least 25% of student enrollment.

"One of the things that affects our demographic for every channel is education, and this was a great way to reach our audience," Reidy said. "We're all about creating access and opportunity, so this seems like a relatively turnkey way to provide information to families and kids who are thinking about going to college or even how to start looking."

Banks is already preparing to develop new editions of both the African-American and Hispanic-targeted CD-ROMs, and hopes other cable networks and MSOs will view and support this endeavor as a valuable educational tool for reaching their constituents.