Upstart television stations always encounter an uphill battle when working to establish themselves in the cutthroat broadcast television industry. Case in point: The WB has come a long way from its meager “Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane” beginnings to striking the “jackpot” with ratings-friendly “The O.C.” predecessors like “Smallville.”
Even more daunting, though, is starting a television station from scratch on a college campus, where the entire budget for the station barely matches the salary of a UPN intern — but where the amount of work necessary is twice as much as fetching coffee for the cast of “The Parkers.” The organizers of Yale TV are familiar with these obstacles: The four-year-old organization has only been broadcasting on closed-circuit channel 24 for two years, during which time it has struggled to find consistently quality programming and, more importantly, to lure Yalies from national networks to a campus channel.
According to YTV programming director Emerson Davis ’06, the station currently broadcasts movies and other footage from a looped video cassette for 22 hours of the day. During the day, much of the channel’s programming consists of film projects, some completed several years ago by Yale students who have since graduated. From 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., YTV broadcasts its primetime programming, including new episodes of the seven ongoing series currently on its roster. It also runs reruns of five series on hiatus, including the dating reality show “Bulldog Blind Date.”
The station currently does not have a system in place to track the number of people watching its programs, YTV technical director Kyle McNally ’07 said; the Nielsen rating system used for national television shows relies on phone surveys not possible at the campus level.
But few Yale students interviewed for this article admitted to watching YTV on a regular basis.
Warren James ’07 said he would rather resort to watching C-Span than be stuck with YTV, and made the familiar complaint that most YTV programs are bewilderingly eccentric. He recalled one YTV film he had seen, which depicted a schizophrenic cross-dressing man frantically trying to kill cockroaches in his kitchen. Meanwhile, a hand pops out from the schizophrenic cross-dresser’s garbage disposal.
“All throughout the movie, you’re left just confused and with the feeling that you need to take a shower,” James said.
Sometimes, YTV offers even less than offbeat movies. At 7:23 p.m. yesterday, YTV aired a broadcast innovation: it ran neither a blue nor black screen but a fuzzy gray one, adorned only with a grainy YTV logo at the right hand corner of the screen.
But fresh — and less bewildering — programming is limited to primetime because YTV operates via a manual system, requiring a person in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall to insert video cassettes into a machine as they are broadcast in real-time.
Davis said YTV is currently in talks with YaleStation to implement a new online broadcasting system that would streamline the station’s operations, which Davis called an “incredible innovation.”
But this change in broadcast infrastructure will not address another obstacle YTV faces: a lack of capable and dedicated people to produce new television shows.
Alexander Cote ’05, who produced last year’s series “The Yale Show” and the upcoming series “Idiot Wind” with friend Nicholas Evans ’05, said many students have ideas for new programs but fail to realize how much commitment creating a show requires.
“[Evans] and I haven’t been to class all semester. I think I go to one class a week,” Cote said. “Our life is ruled by this show and by this process.”
Cote is a former scene editor for the News.
Alexander Johnson ’08 — who is currently organizing “Queer Eye for the Yale Guy,” a Yale version of the Bravo hit — has also learned how time-consuming production can be. The show has been in the pipelines since last year, and though another group of students managed to film one episode, Johnson opted to start completely anew this season with a different cast for the Fab Five.
His crew will only begin filming the first episode, featuring straight guy Ross Kennedy-Shaffer ’08, in early April.
McNally said another challenge is training people interested in television because very few students arrive at Yale with expertise in scriptwriting and production skills.
“Because Yale is not a conservatory school, it doesn’t really teach film production,” he said. “YTV fills the space that classes don’t.”
The equipment necessary for this training is costly, however, and several YTV board members cited problems accruing enough funding to sustain the organization’s projects. Specifically, the Undergraduate Organization Funding Committee (UOFC) provides only $600 per semester — no more money for YTV to carry out its capital-heavy projects than the UOFC provides to other undergraduate organizations.
“YTV itself is always down [financially]: we never have enough funds,” McNally said. “$600 is not enough money to upgrade equipment.”
Alexandra Reeve ’05, the station manager of YTV and one of its founding members, said YTV must raise additional funds by selling “Valengrams” in February and selling t-shirts before the Harvard-Yale Game in November. YTV also plans to institute an advertising system that would help remedy the station’s cash-flow problems. At other colleges, Reeve said, where campus stations receive a healthy amount of financial support from school administrations and student governments.
Two-year-old CTV at Columbia University also runs 24 hours a day with several serialized programs. But CTV has an annual operating budget of approximately $15,000, according to CTV president and Columbia senior Chris Danzig, dwarfing the income YTV receives from the UOFC. CTV receives the bulk of this money from the student government on an appeals basis, Danzig said.
Still, Danzig said that though CTV is fortunate enough to have its own miniature sound stage, $15,000 is not nearly enough to produce professional-level programming. But in contrast to YTV, CTV’s larger budget allows them to provide funds to people interested in producing shows for the network.
“[Yale TV] acts as more of a distributional source than a production source,” Danzig said, comparing YTV and CTV’s roles on their respective campuses.
Danzig said CTV has faced similar problems to YTV in terms of attracting people to produce quality television shows. But he said his station has remedied this problem by shifting its approach to producing programming.
“At first, we thought people would be doing a ‘Seinfeld’-type show or an ‘Access Hollywood’-type show,” Danzig said. “It’s conceptually good, but it’s tough receiving an Ivy League education and producing a broadcast-quality television show.”
Instead, CTV has focused on more standard-format television shows that are less heavy on pre-production and post-production, Danzig said. He cited one show in which representatives from the College Republican and Democrat organizations on campus debate on a set topic.
“There’s no editing, no titles,” he said. “[The show is] very rich in content, very sparse in style.”
CTV also broadcasts shows that incorporate students’ academic concerns, such as a live review session for finals in core curriculum classes, courses which virtually every freshman at Columbia must take. Danzig said the study show, broadcast every semester, is extremely successful.
“Pretty much the entire freshman class watches the reviews,” he said. “And the phones are off the hook until it’s off the air.”
At other schools, the very notion of having a college station is still a dream yet to be realized. While Cornell University offers a theory-intensive communications major, it does not have an on-campus television station. Instead, students interested in gaining experience in
the broadcast industry can get involved in “Campus Insights,” a student-run television program independent from Cornell but funded by its Student Activities Office. The 30-minute program is broadcast via PEGASYS, a local public access channel, and documents campus events and other topical issues.
Stacey Delikat, who graduated from Cornell last year and now works at CNN in New York, said her experience with “Campus Insights” was valuable in preparing her for her current career. She believes that winning a campus station would be a worthy but far-fetched goal for Cornell.
“It was enough trouble for us to appeal to Student Activities to get a few hundred dollars to get new equipment,” Delikat said. “To actually lobby for a station, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
Danzig admitted that establishing stations on college campuses can be challenging, especially at schools such as Yale and Columbia that do not offer communications programs. He said he hopes the possibility of intercollegiate collaboration will emerge as the stations at individual campuses grow.
“If there was a centralized college network, where people could pluck shows off of and everyone puts their best shows on the Internet, it would be an interesting solution to problems [our stations face],” he said.
YTV members agree that there is still room for improvement at their network. Regardless, they feel that for a young organization such as theirs, much has been accomplished in the past four years.
“We’ve grown from having no equipment and borrowing somebody’s father’s camera,” Reeve said. “There’s really been major growth in the scope of our projects.”