New Channel Challenges MTV

Move over MTV: The U Network (search) is coming to college campuses this fall, boasting what it calls a more intelligent, "clean" alternative for today’s young people.

"They’ve dumbed [programming] down — I don’t know why,” said TUN creator Shane Walker, 38, referring to MTV (search). “But we’re going to change it."

TUN aims to challenge what it says is MTV's liberal bias as well as compete with the entertainment channel by including student-based programming and in-house productions co-produced by students like "The W Show," a docu-series based on President Bush’s 2004 campaign; "Dinner and a Debate"; at least two military-themed reality shows; and a "positive" spring break special called "Make or Break."

"I think that MTV serves a purpose," said Walker. "[They’ve] done an amazing job finding a niche, but it’s time for a little variety. We’re going to give them a run for their money, hopefully."

TUN will debut in the fall semester on at least 150 campus channels, according to Walker, who would not disclose which schools have signed contracts with the network. MTV’s college network, mtvU (search), is pumped into over 700 campuses nationwide.

In addition to giving equal time to Republican politics, which Walker says is lacking for the college-age audience, the new network’s mission is to elevate the level of programming for 18- to 24-year-olds, give them balanced information and provide a forum for student-based work with no advertising or commercial meddling.

"[It’s] quality, intelligent programming," said Cass Burt, a recent graduate of Ball State who is working as the coordinator of operations. "What we are trying to do is provide students a voice, a forum for their talent."

TUN is based at Ball State University (search), Walker's alma mater in Muncie, Ind.

So far, the idea for the network has caught on, according to Walker, who said TUN has received a landslide of movie shorts, television shows, music videos and animations covering everything from politics and drama to the fine arts. (The network has been soliciting material on its Web site,, and through campus visits.)

"It’s really a very large grassroots campaign," said Burt.

Meanwhile, the originators say they’ll cover the Bush presidential campaign to balance coverage by MTV and the Rock the Vote campaign, which they say tend to steer young adults to Democratic causes.

"We are trying to be less biased," said Burt. "We believe in the intelligence of our audience to rely on their own judgment and come to their own conclusions."

But Stephen Friedman, general manager of mtvU, scoffs at the critics who say their programming is simplified entertainment for the college demographic.

"To say dumbed-down, I think is a real insult to the college students who are giving us much of our programming," he told "It’s the students themselves who are helping to create the programming."

Aside from featuring independent musicians, news and sports updates, mtvU features reality-based programming like "Stand In," which surprises a college classroom each episode with a famous celebrity who "stands-in" for the professor, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson (search) and author Frank McCourt.

As for the politics, Friedman said mtvU proudly works with Rock the Vote and other groups to encourage voter registration, and even enlisted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to record a commercial with his daughter extolling the virtues of voting.

Friedman said the network is also hosting an essay contest in which the winner will read his or her work before the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

But it’s clear that the TUN creators don’t buy it. Aside from what they say is the liberal inculcation of the demographic, they say students are crying out for something less sexed up and more creative.

"I think a lot more kids are saying, ‘This is insane … 18- to 24-year-olds don’t need to be talked down to,’" said TUN President Lynne White, whose background is in Republican politics. "What this is going to do is it’s going to get these kids' juices flowing, get their creativity flowing."

Ron Spielberger, a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Memphis, agreed that alternatives are always welcome, but warned that it will be a tough road to get college students to flock to a new idea.

"The real issue for them is to get the word out so that people will know it exists," he said. "The other issue is, they have to ask, ‘What’s the objective? Are we just trying to influence minds with our perspective? It may have a cause or flying a flag of some sort, but are we trying to help the youth of America?’"

Burt said the college-age audience has been taken for granted for too long, and that is something that TUN will avoid.

"What we’re trying to do is work in constructive ways instead of playing off the demographic," he said. "It’s going to be attractive to students because it is an independent network that is not driven by commercial interests and the programming itself is truly the newest you can get, it is the future of film."