America's colleges are centers of learning and culture — and great places to advertise cars and electronics.
Their parents might not like it, but the nation's 15-million-plus college students watch an average of nine hours of television per week, according to Student Monitor, a New Jersey-based firm that conducts surveys at colleges across the country. The service also reports that 75 percent of students on and off campus have cable — usually built into their housing fees — and that TV advertising is their biggest source of information on products.
It is not surprising that networks and investors are racing to reach the increasingly powerful 18- to 24-year-old audience.
"Talk about how different it is: When I went to college starting in 1984, we had one phone in the dorm room for three of us,'' said David Isaacs, co-founder of ZILO Networks Inc., which burst onto the college-network scene with last year's acquisition of the College Campus Television Network.
"Now, kids have their own cell phones, pagers, cable television and probably more Internet access than almost any other place,'' he noted. "And until recently there haven't been a lot of companies doing things to take advantage of that marketplace.''
His upstart is one of three networks that have moved on (and off) campus in an attempt to capture this once-elusive demographic, which spends roughly as much time watching television as using the Internet.
Two of them, Burly Bear Network and ZILO TV, broadcast into dorm rooms, while the third, College Television Network, is available only in campus common areas, such as student centers and dining halls.
The networks generally barter their services, offering them free of charge in exchange for carriage.
Each college acts as its own independent cable operator, and the programming is delivered in a number of ways.
Some of the campus-oriented networks are available with regular cable service. Columbia University, for instance, receives networks like ZILO via its service provider Time Warner. On the other hand, schools use a satellite system to pick up CTN.
Despite their different approaches and programming, each network has reported an increase in customers, advertisers and investors.
"We have a single-channel universe,'' said Jason Elkin, chairman and chief executive officer of College Television Media Group, parent of a television network that broadcasts to 8 million students a week in dining halls and other central areas. "If you're at UCLA, where we have a massive presence in the dining facility, you have 20 televisions hanging down that play 24 hours a day. No one can change the channel.''
College Television Network, supported by a $62-million investment from Willis & Stein Partners LP of Chicago, reaches 1.5 million students daily at 850 schools. It added 1,876 locations last year alone.
ZILO TV, which stages and televises events on campus, is backed to the tune of $7 million by a partnership led by Sutter Hill Ventures and Redcoat Capital. After a year of broadcast, ZILO has garnered 4 million viewers.
Burly Bear, which produces late-night shows from Saturday Night Live
creator Lorne Michaels, has recently secured $12.5 million from a partnership that includes NB Capital Venture Partners, Bear Stearns Constellation Ventures, New York City Investment Fund, Citigroup Investments and Michaels's own Broadway Video Entertainment. The network will use the funding to expand beyond its 5 million viewers in dorms at 600 universities.
"This is one announcement in a whole slew of announcements, which go with a very strong, powerful media plan,'' said Clifford Friedman, senior managing director of Constellation Ventures. "From my perspective, the college is a very good market with very desirable demographics.''
In addition to congregate and dorm-room programming, college tastes are creating a market for companies that design television packages for education and entertainment. As one provider notes, the current college generation grew up with niche programs rather than the more general NBC-CBS-ABC offerings. Cable followed them to college, added as dorms were retrofitted for the Internet.
"Kids want ESPN. They don't want Home Shopping [Network]. And they are used to making that choice,'' said Edward LaMont, operator of Campus Televideo of Greenwich, Conn., which assembles packages for 165 colleges.
As a result of the pent-up demand, college students are bound to find banks of televisions greeting them in the dining halls, television crews recording their activities and television programs waiting for them when they return to the dorm late at night.
And, they will watch lots of commercials.
ZILO TV, which broadcasts 12 hours of programs per week on 150 campuses and claims 3.2 million subscribers, advertises AT&T Wireless products, General Motors Corp. cars and Razor scooters.
Burly Bear helps pitch Mountain Dew, 20th Century Fox flicks and Lipton tea. College Television Network has a client roster that includes Nike, Bristol Myers, Philips Electronics and Volkswagen. Last year, the Atlanta-based network reported revenues of $13.5 million, up 65 percent.
Student Monitor found that electronic commerce from college students totals nearly $1.2 billion annually, with clothing, computer and airline tickets representing 60 percent of the spending.
Its surveys also found that, on average, students have a discretionary income of $165 a month, and that more than half of them get their information on products and services from television commercials.
"This is an audience with access to every modern media platform, their own tastes, their own money. But they have not had a media brand they could call their own,'' said Burly Bear CEO Howard Handler, a former marketing executive at both the National Football League and MTV: Music Television.
Burly Bear's primetime runs from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. The network produces 12 original shows, aired four hours daily. Among its programs are Sexology, which deals with relationship issues; Press Junkie, which delivers movie reviews and celebrity interviews and Half Baked, a cooking and gossip show geared to the "partying'' audience. The shows are low-cost and employ a simple, reality-based premise.
The New York-based enterprise, launched in 1992, also airs classic Saturday Night Live
episodes and clips from Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
ZILO also features reality shows and has a primetime that runs from late night to early morning. The network's lineup includes True Stories, in which students discuss their lives before a theater audience and Cheerleaders, a new show that looks at the University of Delaware's winning squad. The network is also scoring with Get $tupid, which televises students acting out stupid dares for money. The show is a multi-platform hit, with about 40 percent of viewers logging on to an online, unedited version that runs simultaneously on CollegeHumor.com, the immensely popular Web site that ZILO partnered with last year.
The most tenured and widely aired service, College Television Network, roughly follows the format, though certainly not the demographic, of CNN's Airport Network. Programs air continuously. But primetime is considered the dinner hour, according to CTN's Elkin.
The station features clips from CNN, professional sports and music segments and reports on politics. Featured as well are interviews by Lisa Ling and specials such as a special campus Politically Incorrect
with Bill Maher. CTN also produces spots in collaboration with PC World
Each of the college networks emphasizes a calendar of live events and Internet off-shoots as well. ZILO, for instance, sponsors and broadcasts Extreme Team College Games, a face-off on 15 campuses of such alternative events as speed wall-climbing, scooter competitions and adventure car racing.
CTN INSTALLS DISHES
In contrast to the others, CTN is a whole delivery system, which installs the televisions and satellite dishes. Like the rest, the service is bartered, rather than fee-based.
The network's goal is to add advertisers and expand to 3,000 locations. CTN is looking into the possibility of extending broadcasts to 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. military.
The other networks also have big plans for the future.
Burly Bear aims to add a number of programs in the fall and is seeking an eventual presence on regular cable channels.
"I see us on mainstream cable stations," said Burly Bear CEO Handler. "If you think about it, Nick at Nite lived on Nickelodeon for an amount of time before finding its own home."
ZILO has just signed a contract with Barnes & Noble to pipe its programs into campus bookstores. In the works is a plan to air True Stories
in the United Kingdom.
Each network claims to be unique, saying there is little overlap. Elkin said his company could not aptly be considered a "competitor" to the others.
"Oh, gosh, no," he said. "Follow the money. We did $70 million last year. Burly Bear is a five-hour loop played over and over. Bless their hearts, I wish them well, but it's a little bit frustrating being compared [with them]. These are different worlds."
But he and his counterparts at the other networks believe there is an ample audience for multiple players in the college arena. As the Student Monitor noted, the college audience is immense in its interests.
"If you look at the broad range of cable offerings here, there are dozens and dozens of programs they watch,'' said Eric Weil, a partner at the student research service. "You have a mass market and so far we're only talking about three networks. I would think there would be room for them and more.''