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Upstart TV Networks Give It Old College Try

The companies and big advertisers seek to tap lucrative student market served by campus cable.

September 02, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Students aren't the only ones clamoring to get into college.

These days, upstart television networks are seeking admission to the college cable systems that feed dorm rooms, campus apartments and student centers. Along with major advertisers, these networks are chasing one of the most desirable crowds around: free-spending college students.

"The college market is not what a lot of people think -- it's not kids just scraping by," said Kristin Gilger, director of Arizona State University's student media program, which runs the campus station, Sun Devils TV. "College students now have a lot of disposable income. They have jobs and most are not dependent on their parents for an allowance. And nearly every student has a TV in their room."

That's a turn-on for media firms and advertisers.

During the last few years, several TV operations aimed at college students have sprung up, including one recently acquired by media giant Viacom Inc. These start-ups are trying to tap the college market, which boasts nearly 17 million undergraduate students and, by some estimates, more than $150 billion in disposable income.

"College students represent a tremendously attractive audience," said Brian Bedol, president of CSTV: College Sports Television, a 24-hour network. "College students are difficult to reach ... and they are just beginning to develop their brand loyalties."

Bedol founded CSTV in April with two others, including a former Nike Inc. executive, and a $15-million investment from Coca-Cola Co., which plans to promote the soft drink within the network's programming.

CSTV's goal is to get on 150 college cable systems this year. The channel reaches a wider audience through DirecTV and a Midwestern cable system. Advertisers, Bedol said, including Honda Motor Co., Anheuser-Busch Cos. and Adidas, have been quick to sign up for the college plan.

Other networks have zeroed in on the attractive demographics of the college scene. By seeking a degree, marketers say, students qualify as upscale trendsetters.

"College is a time of discovery," said David Isaacs, co-founder and chief executive of Zilo Networks. "Most of these kids are making first-time decisions about everything from what car to buy or what laundry detergent to use."

Zilo, a 5-year-old New York-based company, produces its programming by filming, often with the help of students, events it sponsors. They include music concerts, with performers such as Michelle Branch, and sports competitions during spring break in Cancun, Mexico. During the school year, Zilo provides 12 hours of entertainment each week to more than 275 campus cable systems, including USC's Trojan Vision, which is piped into dorm rooms.

To help sponsor its events, Zilo relies on advertisers that target 18- to 24-year-olds, including Coca-Cola, Arista Records, AT&T Wireless and the makers of Depo-Provera birth control.

Last week, Zilo and the U.S. Army partnered up to roll out their "Off the Hook Comedy Tour," which will make stops this fall at a dozen historically African American colleges. Not incidentally, the Army is using the tour to encourage enlistees. Zilo's other promotion is "Glamour on Campus," a tour of more than 100 campuses, including USC and UC Irvine, to produce health and beauty segments for Glamour magazine and the network.

"We try to integrate the products with the entertainment," Isaacs said. "It's tough for a traditional media company to let the sponsors be first, but we can do that."

College students, he said, aren't fazed by the strong advertiser presence. By the time kids reach the age of 18, Isaacs said, "They have seen more than 400,000 television commercials. They are very used to corporate sponsors paying for stuff."

Last fall, Viacom paid $15 million to buy struggling College Television Network, which primarily provides programming feeds for airport-like monitors and kiosks in student centers at more than 700 campuses.

Viacom folded CTN into its MTV Networks unit. The company plans to change the network's name in a few months, create an MTV-like identity and then begin a planned march, complete with campus veejays, to get onto cable systems that serve residence halls.

"There's a lot of growth potential," general manager Stephen Friedman said. "We can be edgier and much more targeted [than MTV]. We have this opportunity to get inside the bubble -- on college campuses where kids are every day -- and that's a tough place to get into."

Since MTV took over ad sales, College Television Network has tripled its number of advertisers and doubled its revenue. Friedman declined to provide detailed figures.

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