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Colleges Cope With Reality TV

Dave Fitzgibbon, manager of news and video services at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said his office has received half a dozen requests by reality TV shows to film on location at the campus.
AP
Dave Fitzgibbon's job is to protect the image of the University of Nebraska. So when producers of a reality show called "Campus Cops" asked him if they could tag along with the school's police force, the answer was easy: Forget it.

But Fitzgibbon has welcomed other reality programs, including TLC's "Perfect Proposal," and he is hoping the Lincoln campus will make the cut for a new WB show called "Big Man on Campus."

Many colleges won't touch reality TV, for fear its sometimes shallow, drunken and libidinous characters are not the best ambassadors of campus life.

But in the cutthroat world of college marketing, Nebraska is one of a growing number of schools tolerating, and even selectively welcoming, the TV fad.

"The recruiting market, it's insane right now," said Fitzgibbon, Nebraska's director of news and video services. "I'm really of the mind that any coverage, good or bad, is good coverage, especially because we're here in Nebraska. People on the coasts tend to see us as flyover country. Just getting our name out there puts us on the map."

For many budget-strapped colleges, reality TV is advertising they could never afford.

"Colleges that fight for visibility, most of them have no natural medium for it," said Christopher Small, executive vice president of GDA Integrated Services, which gives marketing advice to more than 300 schools. "The anguishing decision always is, is some publicity better than no publicity?"

The evidence is mixed.

  • MTV's "Fraternity Life" may have helped the New York state University at Buffalo attract a record number of applications last fall. But administrators also punished three students who were caught on tape breaking into the Buffalo Zoo as a prank.
  • The University of California at Davis also saw a bump in applications after a season of "Sorority Life" was filmed there, but says it was deeply disappointed in how campus life was portrayed.
  • At UC Santa Cruz, home to a season of "Fraternity Life," students captured and pan-fried for pledges an exotic fish from a campus pond. The incident never aired but prosecutors subpoenaed outtakes, and the school banned MTV from campus.
  • BET's "College Hill" put Southern University in Louisiana onto the TV screens of millions of prospective students, but viewers also got a somewhat sex-centered view of college life. A BET spokesman acknowledged there were some disputes with the school over content, but said they were satisfactorily negotiated. A Southern spokeswoman said she was unable to make administrators available for comment.
  • And last year, Virginia Commonwealth University allowed MTV to offer student passers-by cash to eat worm burritos and get doused in wet topsoil for a show called "I Bet You Will." But one student and a parent were disgusted by a stunt involving bubble gum and complained.

    "After that, we all were like, is this really worth it?" said Cynthia Schmidt, the Richmond school's director of marketing.

    Often, schools say they are approached only after students have signed up, so the only question is whether or not the finished product will include shots of the campus. When a University of North Texas librarian tried to pass as a bartender at a sultry New Orleans saloon for TLC's "Faking It," nobody asked the school's permission to feature her, just to shoot in the library (which the school granted).

    At UC Davis, school officials say they cooperated with "Sorority Life" to protect students, but to little avail.

    "At the time we felt it would help the sorority if we permitted MTV to come on campus so that there was at least a chance they would be portrayed more wholly," said Maril Stratton, the school's assistant chancellor for communications. "Maybe catch them in class. What a novel idea!"

    Instead, she said, the show barely filmed on campus, though it did put up the sisters in a Las Vegas penthouse and built a temporary spa in their back yard.

    "I don't think MTV ever really did show them in the fullness and reality of their lives," Stratton said.

    At Buffalo, where both "Sorority Life" and "Fraternity Life" filmed a season, administrators gathered every Monday afternoon around a conference room television, popped a bowl of popcorn and nervously watched an advance tape of that week's episode.

    "We had our bumps and bruises," said Vice President of Student Affairs Dennis Black, recounting the zoo break-in and the students who were punished with community service. "It wasn't a Mom-and-apple-pie presentation. There was some reality to it."

    But on balance, Black said, the experience was positive. Not only did applications rise, but alumni called to say how good the campus looked. Somehow, MTV never showed snow on the ground.

    By Justin Pope