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Students, and Advertisers, Want Their College TV

Do college kids really need to watch more television?

Don’t bother answering, because they’re going to get it in a way that’s revolutionizing the concept of TV marketing.

Television networks dedicated purely to college students are being piped into dorm rooms, common areas and cafeterias, dispensing a healthy dollop of music videos, comedy, informational programs and, yes, commercials, alongside their dose of the Great Books. They claim to offer something MTV, aimed at queasily lusty 13-year-olds, and older-skewing VH1 and broadcast networks can’t provide.

"What’s missing there is a home base and a destination that truly reflects that unique stage of life and state of mind when you leave the nest for the first time," Howard Handler, president of the Burly Bear Network, said. "You’re in this incredible age of self-discovery and experimentation and self-definition."

College Television Network, or CTN, is a public company that airs via satellite feed in cafeterias and public areas of 800 colleges with 12 hours of programming a day, seven days a week, with about eight minutes of commercials an hour. It has an estimated 8 million viewers a week.

Another operation, Zilo Networks, is available on 225 college cable-TV pipelines, including New York University and the University of California schools. It has a weekly audience of about 5.5 million and offers about three hours programming repeated four times a week. The network airs primarily between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. – the college prime time – and shows 16 minutes of advertising per hour.

Burly Bear can be seen on 450 campuses, with four hours of programming repeated three times a week to about 1 million young-adult viewers. It shows about 10 minutes of commercials per hour and is also available for an hour on Wednesdays and Thursdays on TBS, which reaches 86 million homes.

MTV is also considering entering into the college-television fray, but has yet to launch a college-specific channel.

Marketers say the college-TV market is potentially the most important consumer group to emerge in years.

"The 18-to-24 demographics is the most coveted demographic among consumer advertisers because this is where the purchasing habits get established," CTN president Tom Rocco said. "These kids leave home for the first time, they’re buying shampoo, pants, razors, socks, food for the first time. This is where brand purchasing habits and loyalties get established."

There are more than 14 million college students in the United States, more than half of the 25 million Americans aged between 18 to 24. And each of those students carries an average of $760 per month in disposable income not tied to books.

"They very much have the ability to go out and buy an entry-level car," Handler said.

And that fact has attracted more than pizza-delivery and study-guide companies. General Motors, Coca-Cola, Mastercard, Motorola, Wrigley and Chrysler are among the three networks' advertisers. But you won't find any booze or cigarette ads: The trio have refused tobacco and alcohol advertisers.

None of the networks has yet turned a profit, but each expects to within a year.

For their money, the companies get original shows like Zilo Networks’ Exiled, a kind of Real World-meets-Blair Witch Project, and Get Stupid, in which a hyperkinetic host dares college kids to lick toilet seats or French kiss men who’ve just vomited dozens of pudding cups. CTN offers skateboard-heavy Gravity Games and Glamour fashion updates. And Burly Bear serves up Dave & Steve’s Video Game Explosion, featuring witty banter along with reviews of the latest installment of Grand Theft Auto or The Sims.

Then there are music videos. Lots of music, sometimes frenetically mixed in with original programming and occasional news clips – like the ones CTN offers from CNN and Zilo may be showing from Fox News Channel – to appeal to the frantic lifestyle of the modern young adult.

"Everything we do on the air is the music video, it’s information, it’s quick," Rocco said. "These kids are multitasking. They’re on their cell phones, their Palm Pilots, they’re talking, they’re having lunch all over the place."

What you won’t get, though, is the kind of whipped-cream-on-the-beach stuff that’s fodder for Girls Gone Wild videos or any movie with Seann "Stifler" William Scott in it.

"Not everything is Animal House," Zilo president Campbell McLaren said.

Not that the networks aren’t still zany enough to attract a generation weaned on scatological South Park jokes, the Farrelly brothers and the sight of Tom Green sucking on a cow teat.

"Being The Good Clean Fun Network is the kiss of death," McLaren said. "However, if you do the right stuff, you can do it without drinking."