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On TV, college is the new high school


When executives from the WB started thinking about a new student drama that would mirror the lives of their 12- to 34-year-old audience, they bypassed the traditional standby, high school.

So did the creators of Oxygen's new comedy Campus Ladies, who sought a setting for adults who dream of recapturing their youth.

And at Black Entertainment Television, where the top-rated show follows the lives of eight university students, executives are keenly aware that college is fast becoming TV's new high school.

For decades, pop culture has relied on the rule-bound, awkward and frustrating high school years as the foundation for iconic coming-of-age movies and shows such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused and Beverly Hills, 90210.

But lately, that venue is shifting to the college campus, where freedom is new, identities take shape and the possibilities for danger and frolicking -- not to mention notes from censors -- are boundless.

Where high school shows focus on the gawkiness of the half-child / half-adult, college represents "the prime moment of fun," said Evangeline Morphos, Columbia University professor and consulting producer on the WB's Bedford Diaries, an ensemble drama that will make its debut in March. "You're liberated from your parents, you're liberated from pimples. You come into the person you are."

College is "the reward for surviving high school," said director Judd Apatow, creator of 2001's one-season comedy Undeclared, about a college freshman whose father moves into the same dorm.

And yet, compared with the many successful high school shows -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The O.C., Veronica Mars -- it's hard to think of a successful college show since Felicity, a romantic and idealized view of college life that ran from 1998 to 2002.

It's not for lack of interest: College Hill, a reality show featuring students at historically black colleges, is the top-rated show at Black Entertainment Television.

BET's core audience is 18 to 34 and black, said Robyn Lattaker-Johnson, BET's vice president of development. "We believe if you build it, they will come. ... You're living the best time of life when you're in college. They're having a lot of fun, it's sexy." This year, BET will debut a docudrama, Season of the Tiger, that looks at Grambling State University's football team and marching band.

"One reason for the dearth of college shows is that it's difficult to be honest about campus life on network or basic cable," said Apatow, who also directed the feature film, The 40 Year-Old Virgin. "People tend to not want to see young people make enormous, shocking mistakes, but that's what happens. It's part of that experience."

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