A majority of University students don't know anything about one of the largest student activities on campus-which is interesting because that activity is based on perhaps the most visible and prevalent industry in our society: television.

Although more than one in four dorm rooms have a television and although a commons room is often considered useless without a TV and VCR, queries about Cable 13, the University's student-run television station, cause puzzled looks and confessions of ignorance. The fact is that for most students, Cable 13 means nothing more than the public service announcements that run on the screen of the TV monitor on the second floor of the Bryan Center.

For the students who work at Cable 13, however, the station is often as important as any one of their classes. It's their job, their hobby, their passion. "You realize how much you love it when it's 7 in the morning and you've been working all night on a show and you don't care," Danielle Lemmon, Trinity '96, says.

Within the walls of the station's underground studio located behind the Bryan Center-whose entrance resembles the vaulted ceiling and glass walls of a greenhouse-these students are working in a production environment that is the envy of other college stations across the country. "We get as many calls from people nationally as people on campus," says Trinity senior Steve Zapotoczny, co-chair of Cable 13. They call the oldest entirely student-run television station in the nation with questions about programming or steps to follow when establishing their own stations as one seeks advice from a grandfather.

The station grew out of the Freewater Films committee's video programming group that formed following the purchase of the film committee's first television camera and became an official committee of the Duke University Union in 1976.

"The very first student activity fee separate from [Duke Student Government] was for Cable 13," recalls Peter Coyle, one of the original participants in Freewater's video programming group and current associate dean of University Life. The levying of this student activity fee was passed following a popular referendum in the spring of 1976 and Cable 13 began broadcasting in black and white with rented equipment the next fall. In 1979, during the same year that the standard Union student activity fee was established, Cable 13 made its first color broadcast.

Continued technological improvements have created a facility that not only proclaims itself to be the oldest, but also the "most technologically advanced student-run station in the nation." Today, the station's budget of almost $40,000 is part of the overall Union budget that draws its resources from a pool of money supported by various funds within the University. The aid provided from these funds keeps the direct cost per student at less than $4.00. Although there has never been any direct challenge to Cable 13's use of student activity funds, this figure continues to seem somewhat disproportionate in comparison with the station's limited student involvement.

The gap between those who are integrally involved with the station and those who barely know of its existence has not always been as vast as it seems today. In the early 80s, commons rooms would be full of students congregating around the TV to watch a Cable 13 parody of The Late Show with David Letterman. "In My Room," a long-running interview show that was most recently hosted by Chris Collins and Kenny Blakeney, was extremely popular in the mid- and late-80s. "Popularity fluctuates year to year," Coyle says, referring both to viewership and to participation. "It comes and goes with issues on campus."

This being the case, many involved with Cable 13 believe that the interest level among students may be growing. In the past three years, the number of students participating in programming has risen from a core group of a little more than 20 people to between 150 and 200 last year. The circumstances nourishing today's optimism play almost like a made-for-television movie themselves and are attracting the gaze of many in the film industry. The plot line is to a large part the story of Zapotoczny's and Trinity senior Seth Squadron's, Cable 13 co-chairs, involvement at the station.

During his senior year of high school, Squadron eyed schools with strong communications programs such as Syracuse University and Boston University, but learned of Cable 13 on a visit to the University's campus as a prospective freshman. From the moment he arrived as a freshman, Squadron jumped head-first into programming at the station with the live sex talk show, "Come As You Are."

Meanwhile, although he had been interested in the University of Southern California because of its film school, Zapotoczny took longer to get as involved because of his commitment to the track team. "I came here from a different perspective," he admits. Other freshmen on his hall, notably Trinity senior Mark Sable, who has since produced several shows for Cable 13, were becoming regulars at the station and encouraged Zapotoczny to work on "Come as You Are." As a result, three quarters of the way through his freshman year, Zapotoczny found himself co-producing with Squadron.

Following this initial collaboration and facing a potential leadership crisis within the committee, the two decided to apply for executive positions on the board. In addition, they started their sophomore year by producing a football documentary that followed the Blue Devils into the locker room and onto the field of the Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa, Fla.

Both then applied for the chairmanship of the committee in the spring of 1995. "We felt like this place was in such a hole that it needed two people to take leadership," Zapotoczny says. The first item on their agenda was to improve the facilities. The station was still using the original 20- to 30-year-old equipment-and production quality reflected this fact. Drawing from an equipment depreciation fund that had accumulated more than $135,000 since the station's establishment, the co-chairs made a sweeping overhaul. The result was a "semi-state-of-the-art" studio whose technology remains unmatched by comparable student-run operations.

Intending to make full use of these improvements, Zapotoczny and Squadron decided to move from the realm of talk shows and documentaries to that of drama. With the college soap opera as a foundation, they came up with "Ivy Tower," a drama that takes place at the fictional Randolph University.

Zapotoczny and Squadron gathered writers, actors and a production crew from the University and greater Durham communities through advertisements. Because they were more successful than they had expected to be in their publicity efforts, Zapotoczny and Squadron found themselves surrounded by people interested in the opportunity to take part in a "Beverly-Hills-does-Durham" show.

Only one person in their crew, which numbered between 150 and 200 people at any given time, had any professional experience in the entertainment field beyond Cable 13. "We just b-s'd people and pretended we knew what we were doing," Squadron says.

The preliminary preparations and the filming of the initial episode took two months. But the dedicated producers finished cutting the debut episode just three hours before its well-publicized and well-attended premier in Griffith Film Theater. During a 96-hour marathon editing session, the two took turns napping for several hours while the other worked.

Fear motivated them more than anything else, as they had sold-not just gratuitously distributed-450 tickets to the University community. "We were scared," Squadron says. "There was a line past the mail boxes and people kept coming up asking if there were tickets left." Too tired to celebrate their accomplishments at the reception following the screening, Squadron and Zapotoczny are remembered by those attending the premier as "walking zombies."

The two would later reap the benefits of their sleep deprivation. After the first episode's undeniable success, production continued and the show evolved into a five-episode series. Although the quality of the first episode was already better than anything Cable 13 had previously produced, the marked contrast between the first and the fifth shows indicates that everyone involved improved their skills during the exercise of producing the drama. Last spring, when the second episode of "Ivy Tower," titled "Class," was awarded a Telly Award, Cable 13 became the only student-run station to be honored in this non-network television programming competition whose field included such popular shows as "Baywatch." "Ivy Tower" was a finalist in the National Association of College Broadcasters drama competition for the fourth episode, titled "Hard Times," as well.

Still, whether or not "Ivy Tower's" fame has generated enough interest to sustain last year's growth remains questionable. But Squadron and Zapotoczny, who aren't planning to undertake such a grandiose television production again, are in the process of reorganizing the station to build an environment where growing interest can be nourished and directly transformed into actual programming. "We want to be sure that what happened our freshman year-that is a vacuum of knowledge, a vacuum of equipment-does not happen again," Squadron explains.

Their strategy is two-fold: Increase the knowledge and dedication of their executive board and actively publicize. The two co-chairs believe that the response of the executive board has already been impressive. "We've established set positions and procedures," Zapotoczny says.

To head their publicity campaign, they are relying primarily on the efforts of Trinity senior Amanda Crowe whose mother was once an employee of the British Broadcasting Corporation and who came to the United States as a researcher and assistant agent with The Beatles. Crowe spent the summer working as an intern in NBC's print advertising department where she learned strategies for targeting audiences that she intends to implement for Cable 13.

Some of the most compelling reasons that Crowe and other Cable 13 staffers can offer students who are even slightly interested in joining the station are examples of former producers who have trekked the post-graduation road from Durham to Hollywood.

Recent Trinity graduate Lemmon first became involved with Cable 13 during the fall of her senior year by arranging and publicizing the shooting of "Ivy Tower." When Squadron left to take an internship in Hollywood during the spring of 1996, she stepped in to co-produce the show with Zapotoczny. "Second semester I basically lived there," Lemmon says of her time spent at Cable 13.

As a public policy major, Lemmon went through the process of recruiting and originally was planning to move to Atlanta, Ga., to take a position with a management consulting firm. In April, however, she told her parents that she was going to Hollywood, Calif., two weeks after graduation to take an internship with Woods Entertainment, Inc. Once in California, Lemmon applied for a permanent position at Fox 2000, a subsidiary of Twentieth Century Fox, whose debut movie was this summer's blockbuster "Courage Under Fire." With the five tapes of "Ivy Tower" resting on her shelf, Lemmon beat out hundreds of other applicants to receive the job.

Lemmon believes that her hands-on experience has proved invaluable in the volatile world of Tinsel Town. "People out here are disillusioned," she says. "They said they want to make movies, but they didn't know what it was like. At least when you come out here [from Cable 13] you know what it's like and you have a path to follow."

Lemmon is not Cable 13's only Cinderella. Squadron spent last semester in Hollywood and Trinity senior Steve Ross, last year's co-producer of the sports show "Cameron Corner," worked with Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels' company, Broadway Video, Inc. Zapotoczny's work on "Ivy Tower" led to the opportunity of working with Mel Gibson this summer.

"Ivy Tower" is not the first show for which Cable 13 has been recognized, however. The National Association of College Broadcasters recently ranked "Third Eye Video" as the number one music show in the country, and a music video produced at Cable 13 won a $10,000 award from Rolling Stone magazine for best music video.

There is no denying the fact that at a university where communications, and even journalism, lack any substantial niche in the established academic curriculum, Cable 13 provides a unique and valuable opportunity as a dual classroom and laboratory for actual production. Involvement can lead to lucrative internships and contacts in a competitive entertainment industry. Zapotoczny and Squadron found an unexpectedly strong alumni base in Hollywood that is excited about the recent activity at the station; they have plans to bring alumni who are established in the industry back to campus as guest speakers for the Cable 13 staff.

Even with increased numbers within the Cable 13 station, however, the territory in front of the television screen remains unexplored. While informal surveys have been taken regarding what types of programming students enjoy and would like to see more of in the future, no scientific study has ever been done to evaluate the actual level of student and community viewership.

Concrete information remains uncertain and programming decisions often rely on word-of-mouth, however. Sable, who produced the sex talk show "Come as You Are" during his freshman year, has experienced inconsistent viewership. "In my freshman dorm, the entire dorm was in the commons room watching," Sable says. But he knows that this type of success is rare. "The hardest part about having a show is that you feel no one's watching. The best I could hope for was a cult following."

Today's typical viewer has grown up surrounded by sophisticated editing and special effects in a world where some leaders find out what is happening in their own countries from their television sets. One factor contributing to low viewership may be the fact that students who watch Cable 13 must overlook the lack of technological sophistication to which they are accustomed. "We're competing visually with the networks," Zapotoczny says. "But it's impossible with our resources to meet their quality."

Squadron acknowledges this fact, saying, "We're not going to do the McLaughlin Report better than McLaughlin."

Both Zapotoczny and Squadron believe that the college market turns on a certain kind of humor. Despite the number of "Fletch" and "Airplane" remakes that may be proposed and nixed, it is an alternative humor, perhaps one linked to the experience of sitting around and watching TV with beer in the refrigerator at the end of a day when game theory and public voting patterns have become irrelevant.

To its advantage, Cable 13 programming enjoys a relative freedom from many of the FCC censorship regulations limiting the sex, violence and profanity that can be aired on the major networks. For example, a scene from the first episode of "Ivy Tower" shows a student guzzling liquor from an upturned bottle. "Some of our best scenes came when we just went out and did them," says Trinity senior Tracy McFalls, who played the part of Soleil on the show. In fact, the filming of this party in the first episode was more of a real-life experience for the actress than a staged scene. "They called me at 10 p.m. and I filmed it at 1 a.m., and I don't remember much about it," she recollects.

What this freedom creates in the best instances is a candid nature so that even when stereotypes are recognizable, they are rarely forced. In fact, perhaps as a direct result of the quality of production or camera work, being less polished provides college programming with an immediacy that network programming traditionally lacks. Issues that college students face and the spaces they inhabit are explored not as a study of a younger generation by an older one, but by individuals who actually live within the culture.

Though silly shows still abound and long on-air pauses still occur, the programming can be fascinating and charming because it is real and it is us.