Colleges Turn to Cable-TV Ads to Recruit High School Viewers

Times Staff Writer

Lee Miller was watching MTV at home one evening last fall when, suddenly, students appeared on the 24-hour music video channel talking about the virtues of Golden West College. It was a commercial for the Huntington Beach school.

"I thought, 'That's pretty neat. We should be doing it,' " recalled Miller, a recruiter for Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. "I don't know why nobody thought of it before."

In a time of declining enrollment at many community colleges, the realization of cable television's potential to target specific audiences has sent some Orange County colleges scrambling to get low-cost commercials on the air aimed at high school-age viewers.

"It's a good young-adult market," Miller said of MTV. "Seventeen- to 24-year-olds watch it, and that's what we want."

Orange Coast College currently is running a fast-paced commercial with music on MTV and the USA music show "Night Tracks" through three Orange County cable operators. The 30-second spot begins with the narration, "People are building their futures now at Orange Coast College," then shows scenes of students in computer and science labs, on an ocean expedition, in cooking classes and on the athletic field.

This spring, Golden West College plans to re-run its successful fall ads, in which good-looking, smiling students sing the praises of Golden West's affordable education and beautiful campus. Saddleback College in Mission Viejo isn't far behind, making some careful cable advertising studies of its own.

Although major cable networks are broadcast via satellite nationally, most homes receive these signals through community cable outlets. Networks like MTV and ESPN, the 24-hour sports channel, provide regular spaces for local carriers to insert their own advertising.

With no less than 11 cable carriers in Orange County, colleges have begun to see the potential for reaching the exact audience they desire at bargain prices.

"It surprises a lot of people that for $40 a spot you can get your ad on MTV or Cable News Network," said David Proctor, an advertising representative for Group W Cable in Newport Beach.

Golden West College, which has seen its fall enrollment decline from 17,627 in 1983 to 15,122 in 1985, ran its campus-produced ads on MTV and ESPN during September and October, reaching 15 cities in northeast Orange County and southeast Los Angeles County. The cities included Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, Downey and La Mirada--with a total of nearly 86,000 subscribers, said Chris Bailey, advertising manager of Rogers Cablesystems.

The four ads, rotated throughout the campaign, were produced by Golden West's Telemedia Production unit. They featured impromptu, "testimonial-style" interviews with Golden West students talking about what they liked about their school. In one ad, a male student insists that his Golden West education is as good as he could get anywhere, even someplace like UCLA.

"If we had written a script, we could not have gotten better comments about the college," said Fay Hendry, Golden West's public relations director.

In a survey that Golden West conducted at Pacifica, Marina and Westminster high schools, the spots received a 12.7% viewer response for MTV and 5.1% for ESPN. Bailey said a 20% response in multimedia advertising means an ad is doing "very well" and that a 15% response for television alone is good.

Hendry said the students she talked to responded positively to Golden West's "informational approach" in the ads, instead of a "slick and glitzy" content.

Golden West's advertising costs were $3,000 for 64 showings, Hendry said. Another $3,000 has been committed to the spring cable ad campaign, she said, as part of a concerted effort by Golden West officials to strengthen its ties to local high schools.

"It was very effective for us," Hendry said. "Everyone is concerned with declining enrollment, particularly among 18- and 19-year-olds. This opens up a whole new market. We can pinpoint such a specific target."

Miller said Orange Coast is hoping that its ads will help reverse an enrollment decline from 31,000 students in 1981 to about 25,000 today.

Orange Coast's commercials are running over Rogers, Group W and Community Cablevision cable companies. In addition to the cities Golden West reached over Rogers, Orange Coast College's ads can be seen in Newport Beach, Santa Ana, Fullerton, Buena Park, Placentia, Corona del Mar, Irvine and Tustin. Group W's Proctor said his company reaches 63,000 homes with the potential for 170,000 viewers.

Ironically, Orange Coast cannot air the commercials in much of its home city of Costa Mesa because that community's cable carrier does not yet have the capability to insert local ads.

Miller said Orange Coast's three-week MTV blitz, which ends Jan. 16, will cost $2,300, with the ads running four times each weekday in prime time and more often on the weekends. The campaign is designed to lead up to Orange Coast's walk-up spring registration period.

"Our general message is, 'Come to Coast,' " Miller said. "We want to get the word out that we're here and we're something worth looking at."

Although Saddleback College ran some cable ads about a year ago, marketing assistant John De Leva said the school is making a careful study before it invests much of its $51,000 annual marketing budget into cable commercials.

"Now that we have the time, we're going to look it over and see what's in our best interest," De Leva said.

Bailey said many potential advertisers have been slow to discover the cable market.

"The schools needed someone like us to come along and say, 'Here we are,' " he said.

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