New Channel Fits Between Nick, MTV

Between Nickelodeon and MTV, there are a lot of youth who want programming that’s involving and interesting, that they can take part in and be connected with other teens throughout the world.

That’s the philosophy behind Varsity TV, a 24-hour-a-day/7-day-a-week channel aimed at teen-agers that officially launched this week. It’s been co-founded by Joe Shults, who helped launch MTV, Nickelodeon and VH-1, and Kelly Hoffman. The channel’s in about a million homes so far. Recently it received its first commitment by National Cable Television Coop, which has 14.5 million basic cable subscribers nationwide. Varsity TV hopes to be in 10 million homes, most if not all digital, by the end of the year through NCTC and other providers, and 20 million by the end of next year.

“We have a uniqueness of content, especially teen-created content,” said Bruce Orr, Varsity TV’s vice president of marketing.

Although the channel’s only been made public within the past few days, Orr said plans have been under way for more than three years. The co-founders started by forging relationships with high school students and teachers, gathering thousands of student-created videos onto its web sites and promising to run about 20% of teen-created content on the new channel. Orr said this approach has given Varsity TV not only word-of-mouth throughout the country among its potential audience but encouraged teens to get involved in the burgeoning channel.



“We perceive ourselves to be activists for teens. We’re not trying to talk at them or to them. We’re effectively their voice, the voice of this generation. In many ways, we’re the first network to allow the audience to create its own content,” he said.

Programming includes original shows on teen-age cooking, youth-oriented entertainment news and reality-based shows plus the best of TV from around the world, including shows from the BBC and New Zealand. Interspersed throughout are the short films created by teens, several every hour.

Orr said the channel’s approach provides a lot of opportunities for advertisers. Varsity TV hopes to have six charter sponsors by the end of the year, including two or three by mid-year. While there will be traditional spots, Varsity TV envisions a partnership between advertisers and teen-agers that could in longer-form spots take viewers behind the scenes at a professional sporting event or what it’s like to work as a teen-ager at a sponsor’s company.

“It’s an interesting dynamic change for the industry. We’re in a pretty unique position to have charter sponsors more effectively and meaningfully work with this audience. For the teens themselves, it offers the opportunity to put their talents to use more creatively. … Imagine the opportunities for us to creat more learning opportunities where kids can create the story, tell the story, learn and end up with a piece of video production in which the brand has been the empowerer,” Orr said.

There’s no telling where the sponsorship could lead the brand, the channel and the audience, Orr said. He said it will work best for the marketers who believe that it isn’t just traditional advertising alone that can meaningfully engage and empower a teen. Varsity TV’s advertising team wants to help the brand-building and creating a relationship with the audience.

“We are advocates for teens, and we’re looking for charter sponsors that are also advocates of teens. For marketers who are advocates like we are, we will consider providing category exclusivity, which is pretty unique. That’s because, we believe that nurturing more meaningful relationships with marketers will result in us developing stronger, more meaningful relationships with the audience,” he said.

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