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Teens Rule At Varsity TV

Varsity Television President Joe Shults stands next to a row of tapes produced by teens for his cable network in Austin, Texas.
AP
Joe Shults is building a network to serve a ready-made audience: The viewers who will help create its programs.
It's a TV network whose "affiliates" are high schools across the land and whose producers are camcorder-outfitted students.

"It's a confederacy of kids," says Shults, whose venture, Varsity Television, gives teens a public outlet for the television they already are creating, while it gives them the incentive to make more.

Billed as "a network exclusively by, for and about teen life," VTV is reaching for America's 36 million teens on several media platforms.

The Web site went online in fall 2000 (and a pending deal with America Online would give VTV additional exposure).

The 24-hour cable channel signed on in a handful of homes in January. And a video-on-demand VTV has just been introduced.

Each has teen-oriented fare from such sources as CBC and CTV of Canada and England's Granada TV and the BBC.

But the key to Varsity Television's appeal is its reservoir of shows from do-it-yourselfers at 1,900-and-counting affiliate high schools.

During its first three years, MyVTV.com has streamed more than 20,000 teen-created videos in a growing library that includes news, sports, music, drama and a remarkable trove of animation.

"We're a reflecting pool for what's going on in their lives," Shults says.

A former member of the team that started MTV, Nickelodeon and VH1, the 46-year-old Shults runs his privately held company at headquarters in Austin, Tex., a handy vantage point from which to propose that teens "don't trust the big media."

His market research found that teens reported feeling ill-portrayed by the media, while they complained that "there's nothing on TV that speaks to us."

Enter VTV. Rather than focus on trendsetters and celebrity idols, as Shults explains in his native Texas drawl, "we're putting a spotlight on real, mainstream kids."

But setting this stage for the nation's teens has been a painstaking process: a school-by-school outreach to establish VTV's "street cred" with educators and students alike, then bring them into the fold.

Initial skepticism was inevitable, especially in light of Channel One, which has been vilified as well as praised for its news-with-commercials package piped into participating classrooms.

Big difference, says Shults. "They direct a signal to kids sitting in schools. We take the students' content and liberate it from the schools. It's inside out."

Dave Davis admits to misgivings at first. "But we couldn't see any problems with it and so we went ahead," says the broadcasting teacher who now serves as liaison to VTV at Hillcrest High School in Springfield, Mo.

Hillcrest students had produced a weekly show for local cable access since 1989. But VTV is like playing in a whole other league, says Davis, whose students have landed numerous pieces on the globally accessible Web site, while drawing inspiration for future pieces from the work they see by students elsewhere.

"VTV will raise the bar for the schools that pay attention to it," Davis says.

Elisia Harkins agrees. She is the media teacher at Notre Dame High School, whose students have done reports on such topics as teenage obesity and the Iraq war for classroom viewing on this Sherman Oaks, Calif., school's closed-circuit TV system.

"But the students take more pains when they know their story will be seen by students in other places," Harkins says. "They go the extra mile."

Along the way, they also learn the how-to of television itself, says James Steyer, founder of the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which is aimed at helping children navigate the pop-culture assault aimed at them.

"Kids creating media is one of the most effective ways to promote media literacy," says Steyer. "When kids create the media, they learn to decode media: How media can manipulate and mislead them when they're on the receiving end."

By the end of the year, VTV's linear cable channel will be available in 5 million to 7 million homes, increasing to about 12 million by the end of 2004, says Shults.

Varsity Television as video-on-demand is now available to a limited number of Comcast Digital Cable customers in Philadelphia, and parts of New Jersey and New England.

"But regardless of how it's delivered, we're actually the first of a new generation of television," Shults declares. "It started by gathering a community - then letting them be involved in the content."

By Frazier Moore