- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Not everyone wants their MTV. At least that’s the idea Shane Walker is banking on.

Mr. Walker is founder and chief executive of the U Network, a new television service that aims to reach young adults with programming produced primarily by college students.

Its signature will be “The W Show,” a weekly series that chronicles President Bush’s re-election campaign.

The U Network will also air news, short films and shows such as “Geek Chic,” which focuses on the nation’s top technical students, and “Student Start-Up,” which profiles business school students who start their own companies.

The programs won’t feature the salty language and gratuitous sex that — in Mr. Walker’s view — are the hallmarks of MTV.

“College students have so much creativity, so much energy. We’re going to show the world what these kids are all about,” he said.

The U Network is more of a brand than an actual TV network. “The W Show” and the other programs are produced under the U Network banner and then distributed to campus television stations.

Twenty-eight stations are now carrying U Network shows, and Mr. Walker said he has contracts pending with an additional 74, including stations that serve George Mason and George Washington universities in this area.

Since campus TV stations also tend to reach surrounding communities, the U Network reaches about 2 million viewers, Mr. Walker said.

In addition, U Network programs are being seen on a dozen stations in the United Kingdom that reach about 3 million viewers, he said.

The network is based in Muncie, Ind., but it operates a small Washington-area bureau in Leesburg, Va.

Mr. Walker, formerly an independent film producer, declined to name his financing sources.

The U Network faces fierce competition in the race for viewers between 18 and 24, a demographic advertisers covet because most people in that age group have not formed a loyalty to any one brand.

This year, MTV introduced mtvU, a network that reaches about 6 million viewers on 700 campuses.

Also, an investment group led by former Vice President Al Gore recently bought the Newsworld International cable channel from Vivendi Universal Entertainment for an undisclosed sum.

Mr. Gore’s group plans to transform the network — now seen in about 17 million homes — into a public affairs channel geared to young people. The former vice president has said that it will not be a partisan network.

The U Network, which debuted Sept. 8, is distinctive because its programming is conceived and produced by young people themselves, Mr. Walker said.

“If I get an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next MTV, you bet I’m going to take it,” said Matt Kory, 20, a Ball State University marketing major and U Network producer whom Mr. Walker recruited after he met him waiting tables at a restaurant.

Christopher Doyle, 23, a U Network junior executive, said there are “millions of students who are tired of turning on MTV and seeing Ozzy Osborne.”

Most of the early attention given to the U Network has focused on “The W Show,” which features interviews with young people working on Mr. Bush’s re-election.

Mr. Walker does not plan a similar program on the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

“Listen, MTV is doing such an amazing job covering [Mr. Kerry], I couldn’t possibly compete,” Mr. Walker said.

An MTV spokeswoman said her network covers both presidential candidates fairly.

Mr. Walker’s decision to exclude Mr. Kerry from the U Network’s presidential coverage is “hard to defend,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonprofit group that seeks to raise reporting standards and receives its funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Mr. Rosenstiel had not heard of the U Network or “The W Show” before a reporter contacted him for this story. In general, though, it’s only fair to present both sides of a story, he said.

“Even if you are the Weekly Standard or the Nation [political opinion journals], does that mean you don’t cover the party you disagree with?” Mr. Rosenstiel said.

If the U Network becomes a full-fledged TV network, it will follow other channels that had humble beginnings.

When cable television pioneer Robert L. Johnson started Black Entertainment Television in January 1980, for example, it aired just two hours a week.

If Mr. Walker wants to transform the U Network into a 24-hour cable channel, his biggest challenge will be persuading Time Warner, Comcast and other major cable systems to carry the U Network, according to Gary Arlen, an independent media analyst.

Each system has a limited number of slots for new networks. Increasingly, the systems are only opening space in their lineups if they have a financial stake in a network.

TV One — a network aimed at black viewers that was introduced in January — landed on Comcast systems because Comcast Corp. is one of its partners.

“The distributors have a stranglehold on what they’ll allow on their systems,” he said.

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