From Humble Roots, to a bright future

And on some random day in 1976, the TV gods gave light to the nation's first student-run television station. Of course, everything was in black and white and shot with borrowed equipment, but the TV gods are not always benevolent gods.

That's not to say, however, that the Duke University Union's Cable 13 has not been blessed over its 27-year history. Despite moderate funding and a conspicuous lack of a communications major at Duke, the station still remains the largest student-run enterprise in the country and has earned four Telly awards for "excellence in college broadcasting" since its inception.

The early years, although hindered by a lack of technical wherewithal, managed to be rather successful - a taped Jimmy Buffett show at Cameron Indoor Stadium, several live feeds of Duke basketball games before ESPN infiltrated the market. Cable 13 served as one of only six choices on students' dials, and it carved out a little niche alongside the heavy-hitting networks.

Then, as the station was able to throw together a few loose dollars, it moved into the basement of the Old Chemistry Building and began cranking out classic original shows like the incomparable '80s relic, Cyrus X. Hosted by a goofy white boy with an even goofier afro, Cyrus X was a talk show produced by drunkards for drunkards, and that's not even accounting for the slew of shirtless and bikini-clad men and women randomly boogying in the background.

The station then "rolled" through the next several years, offering several mostly forgettable original shows and a bunch of music videos. Relocated into its present studio below the Bryan Center in 1989, Cable 13 enjoyed its most prolonged wave of success in the early '90s with shows like the Sportscenter-knock-off Duke Sports Inferno and Cameron Corner, which was first hosted by Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis, a former Chronicle sports associate editor. The mid-'90s soap opera Ivy Tower, deemed "one of the true jewels of the station" by present station chief Mike Marion, was so successful that it not only won numerous awards, but it was also picked up by other college stations around the nation.

Now, with a proactive executive board overseeing the production of 15 shows (most, including ones hosted by Alex Wade and Iciss Tillis, are still in pre-production), Cable 13 is enjoying more success this year than it has in any since the Ivy Tower days. Marion cites the purchase of better equipment, the willingness to green light new shows and a more concerted publicity push as the reasons behind Cable 13's resurgence. Heading into its Premier Week starting Feb. 3, Cable 13 once again finds itself a topic of campus conversation-and not just some obscure group that throws together a TV sequence every so often.

"When I started here, the station was kind of in a lull," staffer Bill Hatfield said. "There were only a few shows that were active, and other than that, it was kind of dead. It's a great feeling as a senior to leave now in the middle of this renaissance."

  • Greg Veis

LIVE from Cameron

When I arrived at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday to watch the Cable 13 staffers put together a live feed of the women's basketball game against Florida State, I never dreamed I would be a part of the action.

I joined Mike Marion - this year's head of Cable 13, a division of the Duke University Union - and other members in the crow's nest above Cameron an hour and a half before tip off. They had transported the entire studio up a small staircase with no rails at the top of Cameron - and I tried to hide my embarrassing moments of vertigo as I climbed the stairs as gracefully as possible.

They had spent three hours yesterday moving equipment in their cars from the studio to Cameron, as well as two hours that morning before I arrived. Marion said other than moving the equipment, a live feed isn't more technically challenging than a taped show.

Cable 13 does about four or five live feeds from Cameron each year - something Marion's very proud of. "Not many people get access to do live feeds in Cameron," he said. But like his counterparts at the national networks, Marion, too, complained about Cameron's poor arrangement for TV crews.

"It's awful!" he said. "First of all it's cramped." I immediately asked him how many more people would be joining us in the crow's nest, and he replied that it usually took between nine and 12 people to run this type of live feed. I began worrying how we would fit more than five in a space smaller than a Central Campus kitchen.

In addition to three camera operators, for the main cam, reverse cam and baseline cam, the show required someone to run the audio board, the graphics console, a director, a producer and an on-air talent. Both Kevin Parker, who operated the graphics console, and Kevin Grange, who worked the audio board, brought experience from the technical side of live theater production to Cable 13. The director, Wai-Ping Chim expertly handled all the problems that happen during a live show, from randomly fuzzy screens to no-show personnel.

The baseline camera operator, Dennis Williams, also happened to be the field director. He's in charge of recruiting students to work on shoots outside the studio, and as fate would have it, one didn't show Sunday afternoon, thrusting me from the role of observer to participant.

At first, I thought Marion, who produced the show and handled most of the communication between the director and other staffers, was kidding when he mentioned the operator of the main camera was a no show. But as soon as I saw the expectant look on his face, I knew I had been placed in the line of fire.

After a brief introduction to the zoom and focus tools, followed by instruction on how to follow fast break action, I practiced my newly acquired skills by following patrons' "fast breaks" to the snack counter.

I kept expecting a real, qualified camera operator to show, so I never really got nervous until the count to live got under one minute.

"Thirty seconds to live," Chim said. "Fifteen seconds...10...5, 4, 3, 2, 1. We're live."

After tip off I grew more comfortable with following the players' movements up and down the floor, positioning the camera properly to show throw-ins from out of bounds and keeping the basket in most shots. One thing I never did figure out is where to put the camera during time outs. The crow's nest is too awkwardly placed to film the huddles well, and I had no clue what action to follow on the floor, so basically my camera became the "mascot cam."

The second half moved more quickly than the first, and I suddenly glanced up at the game clock, only to see that it had seven seconds left on it. I asked Chim how my first stint as a camera operator went and she said, "You did really well - I'm not kidding!"

  • Meg Lawson

Review: Deviltime

Once you wrap yourself around the fact that Deviltime simply does not have the means to be as fluid as comedy-news shows on major television stations, then you can see it for what it really is: a well-produced and thoroughly entertaining college program. There might be some technical blunders and even more ill-conceived jokes, but Deviltime still remains vastly superior to any of the other shows that Cable 13 presently airs.

And it's gotten better since last semester.

"It's a whole different show now," said Mary Haynes, one of the show's producers, who interned with CBS over the summer. "We're a lot more organized, and more people are involved and interested, meaning that they're able to put more time into it."

Whereas last semester entire segments would be incomprehensible because of sound problems, the increase in staff, many of whom come directly from a "Behind TV Culture" house course taught by Haynes and co-producer Amy Unell, the show has run much smoother in its "second season." In fact, the producers are so confident that they've cleaned up their technical mishaps that, for the next show, they'll be airing a live feed from K-ville.

Beyond basic production improvements, however, Deviltime has also benefited from landing several new on-air personalities over winter break. University correspondent Ben Wolinsky possesses excellent comedic timing, and Chronicle columnist Rob Goodman is a wonderful addition, showcasing his dry wit in his first segment, "K-ville Kribs." Also, if you haven't seen JoJo the Lemur's classic take on sorority life in the last episode, you're missing out - it's about as good as any guest commentary on SNL's "Weekend Update."

Sure, Deviltime ain't perfect: The rapport between Matthew Pepper and Julie Smith is light years away from Fallon and Fey's and a lot of the anchors' jokes are more John Sununu than Jon Stewart. But there's something about the show - maybe its studio audience or its laid-back feel or the crew's post-show ritual of baking brownies - that you can't help liking.

  • Greg Veis

Preview: What's Cookin'?

There have been cooking shows from time immemorial, and reality TV now dominates the airwaves, but few programs have ever captured the vivid thrill of the culinary art or the sharp taste of what every day life is really like. Certainly, with the possible exception of Lucy and the chocolate conveyor belt, no moment on television has ever done both at once. Until now.

First-time television producer and cashmere robe connoisseur Ronald Pack is bringing his vision to Cable 13: the first ever reality-thriller-satire-soap-cooking show, provocatively titled What's Cookin'? Folks, this is television history in the baking. (Sorry.)

Pack's show follows the lives of several Everymen over an epic course of six episodes as they venture into the final frontier of a college student's world: the kitchen. Hijinx, pathos and scooter chases ensue.

"Cooking is really pretty simple, mostly just about putting in the time and effort," Pack said. As a result of their efforts, however, his characters are thrust into a murky broth of intrigue, sex, lactose intolerance-related catastrophes and exotic locations such as Kroger.

What's Cookin'? also features Harold Hawkins, who has co-written some episodes, and camera work by "whoever happens to be around the apartment that day." Pack hopes the relationships portrayed on the show both entertain and engender further discussion. Ultimately, What's Cookin'? is a cooking show only on the surface - underneath its glossy sheen is a gritty critique of the Duke social scene, which Pack said is "pathetically lame to the infinite power." He added, almost as an afterthought, "Duke desperately needs my help." Never underestimate the transformative power of art.

  • Greg Bloom

Review: The Blue Zone

Get camera from TV station, take camera to friends, do really stupid crap in front of camera, hope it's funny to other people.

Eh, sometimes it's that last part the folks at The Blue Zone need help with.

Dennis Williams, the show's producer and one of its "stars," said that he routinely has to add music to their sketches because the crew's laughter in the background is too distracting. And that makes a lot of sense - it is undeniable that it would be an absolute blast to make The Blue Zone. You know the jokes, you're friends with the people acting stupid, and you probably think it's really gratifying to hit yourself in the junk on television.

Watching it as an outsider can be an entirely different story, though. Some of the segments - most notably, the one where they interrogate drunk freshmen and an upcoming one in which two of the cast members prance around the quad in rabbit masks - are legitimately funny in a Tom Green meets Jackass kind of way. Still others, like the eight-minute potato-gun shooting sequence from the show's second episode, are downright painful to watch.

Despite the show's flaws, The Blue Zone's four resident goofballs - Williams, Junior Gonzales, Trygve Dolber and Alex Ford - aren't unlikable. Even when the show is at it most contrived worst, you appreciate and can somehow relate to the stars' desire to wreak havoc upon Duke's unsuspecting campus. You've seen these types of guys at parties, and even though they're not always funny per se, they're at least entertaining. The fact that Williams is "not too concerned" about the show's production value is endearing in an odd way - a fitting tribute to collegiate sloppiness and, well, beer.

It's mischief merely for the sake of mischief, and if it sees any rerun time 15 years from now, it has serious potential to become a campus cult classic.

  • Greg Veis