Tuesday, April 2, 2002
New York David Mandel and Steve Lookner are building an audience one college dorm room at a time.
They're co-hosts of "Dave and Steve's Video Game Explosion," the most popular program on Burly Bear, a television network most people over age 25 have never heard of.
The two sit, Wayne and Garth-like, in front of a camera, and expound upon the latest electronic toys. Instead of thumbs-up or thumbs-down, their rating scale ranges from "buy it" to "turn off your console, go outside, and get some fresh air."
Burly Bear is now coming off college campuses for the first time.
"We're distinguishing ourselves as producers of high-concept, relatively low-cost programming with lots of fresh faces and energy to burn," said Howard Handler, Burly Bear's CEO.
Burly Bear was started in 1995 by five friends from Connecticut. While on a ski vacation, they saw a TV channel devoted strictly to vacation resorts that was only available at those locations.
Just out of college, they thought a similar network aimed at 18-to-24-year-olds would work, believing that few existing networks spoke that age group's language.
Universities across the country had been wiring their dormitories for cable TV. They had room on those systems for a handful of channels specific to them, but few ideas what to show. Burly Bear stepped into the vacuum.
The network is now available on 450 campuses, and occasionally is offered on cable systems that serve college towns.
They get shows like "Half Baked," a rock 'n' roll cooking program; "Impostor," a hidden-camera show that stages stunts like sending preppy breakdancers to the sidewalks of Harlem; the newsmagazine "Campus Crime"; and "Celebrity Highway," a cartoon that mocks celebrities.
"Welcome to 'Impostor,"' host Jordan Kranis says, "the only hidden-camera prank show in America ï¿½ not hosted by some Hollywood pretty boy."
He speaks from a cramped studio in midtown Manhattan that's also the home for every other Burly Bear show. Technicians haul out different backdrops for the different hosts.
Burly Bear gets a thumbs-up from Joe Capizzi, a senior at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "I think it's really funny," Capizzi said. "It kind of reminds me of MTV's 'Jackass' in a way."
Burly Bear is carried on a cable system near SUNY New Paltz, in New York's Catskill Mountains. Fortuitously, that's where Lorne Michaels, executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," has a vacation home. He happened upon Burly Bear one day while channel-surfing.
Michaels' production company, Broadway Video, bought a majority stake in Burly Bear in 1997.
"We're a bit of a farm club," Handler said. "We have the potential to feed talent into some of the other things that he's interested in."
Handler, who used to work with Michaels and in marketing for the NFL, was brought in when the business grew beyond the capabilities of the founders. He wrestled Burly Bear back into concentrating on television shows after a brief flirtation with being a Web business.
Two of the founders, James Mairs and Matt Fry, started an independent production company to make "Half Baked." The show has just ended its run at Burly Bear.
The new management has stayed generally true to the original mission, but "when you take on bigger entertainment partners they bring a certain quality to it," Mairs said. "It loses its innocence a little."