Harvard University students have produced a TV soap opera called “Ivory Tower” on and off since 1994, but hardly anyone has ever seen it.
That’s because Harvard, like most schools, has no distribution system for the shows its students produce. From time to time, “Ivory Tower” has aired on a local public-access channel, but usually the budding producers have to settle for screenings in common rooms. “It’s not a very good situation,” says Stevie DeGroff, a junior who is the show’s marketing director.
Now “Ivory Tower” and other student-produced shows across the country might have gotten their big break, thanks to a new, internet-based TV network. The Open Student Television Network (OSTN) launched in April 2005, and it has signed up a wide array of schools in the past few months: The network now claims 30 member schools, with access at 208 institutions.
OSTN is part of a burst of TV channels targeting college students, mostly over the internet. There is also mtvU Uber, a slick, nine-month-old internet TV channel from Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks that boasts a variety of content, from music videos to student-produced short films. Cdigix Inc., a Seattle company run by a former News Corp. executive, aims to deliver music, on-demand movies, and TV to students through the web. So far, the company has signed up 50 schools, including the University of California at Los Angeles and Yale University.
Thus, even as big TV companies strive to create broadband channels, there are already several streaming into dorm rooms across the country.
“These web-based channels for college students … will undoubtedly help shape how the networks move content online,” says Brad Adgate, executive vice president at Horizon Media, a New York consulting firm.
The college channels also might become incubators for future TV shows. Ross Martin, director of programming for mtvU Uber, says part of the mission of the online channel is to uncover bits of content that could grow into full-blown series on its mtv2 and MTV channels.
The launch of these broadband channels parallels an explosion of amateur TV and film content on the web, fueled by the ever-dropping cost of producing a professional-looking product. Popular video-sharing sites such as YouTube.com have led more students to pull out video cameras and post their work. Students at Boston College this past winter created a web-based spoof of Fox’s teen soap “The O.C.” and have drawn an audience of about 400,000 people.
OSTN, a nonprofit linked to Case Western Reserve University, solves a big problem confronting campus TV curriculums: Students are making more shows, but individual colleges don’t have enough programs to build true TV schedules. That makes it hard to develop much of a regular audience, even if campuses do have a distribution system. By aggregating offerings from different schools–in essence, syndicating college shows–there is more than enough content to fill a network.
The student shows can be very high quality, which isn’t surprising considering that many Hollywood shows are created by fresh-out-of-college 20-somethings. “These kids are very serious,” says Shane Walker, OSTN’s vice president of programming.
Brown University juniors Matt Vascellaro and Kent Haines decided last spring to produce a five-episode mockumentary about student government called “Elected.” Brown doesn’t have a television-production program or station, so the two producers relied on a few friends to help them write each 30-minute episode, cast dozens of students, build sets, and gather filming equipment. It took the pair about eight months to finish the project. Vascellaro says he edited the entire show on a laptop computer in his dorm room. Like most students working on campus shows, Vascellaro intends to pursue a career in entertainment, and that’s one reason OSTN is valuable, says Don Tillman, executive director of Trojan Vision, the student TV station at the University of Southern California. “This allows students to review each other’s work and get noticed,” he says. Trojan Vision, whose 300 student participants make it one of the largest student TV operations, delivers six of OSTN’s 29 programs.
OSTN operates only on Internet2, an ultrafast, separate version of the web designed for academic researchers. As a result, only students and faculty can view it, though most colleges and universities are hooked up. To get a wider distribution, some student producers have developed web sites to screen their shows. “Elected,” for example, can be viewed at http://www.electedtv.com.
The mtvU Uber site is still in its infancy; the site had only 92,000 unique visitors during March, but it’s available to anyone with an internet connection.