Why Are There So Few TV Shows Set at University?

I was musing on this question in bed this morning. I’d just woken up from one of those dreams where you’re in class, but haven’t done your homework.

Tthe only recent college/university shows I could think of are Felicity and the genius that is Tommy Lee Goes to College. I don’t know a lot about television production or show selection, but you’d think there’d be more of these. After all, don’t most people remember university favourably?

I suppose duration is an issue. If you’re going to adhere to current practice, you can only justifiably have the same cast for four or five years.

Written by dbarefoot

Darren Barefoot is an author, speaker and digital strategist. He’s the co-founder of Capulet Communications, and co-author of “Friends With Benefits: A Social Media Marketing Handbook”.


  1. Buffy and the scoobies went to college. And so did some of the kids from 90210 I think. The kids from Saved by the Bell did too. I think there are more, but I can’t remember them right now.

  2. Duration might be an issue. I know Grey’s Anatomy is cheating on the surgical residency by saying it’s seven years (instead of five), so they can avoid the issue.

    Class of 96
    It’s Your Move
    21 Jump Street (sort of)
    All in the Family
    Charles in Charge
    Family Ties
    Growing Pains
    Happy Days
    The Waltons
    Saved by the Bell

    Those are the shows I can think of that even have characters in college. In the shows that lasted more than a year, the characters were not originally in college or were just part of a larger cast. The ones that focus primarily on college lasted maybe one season. Why? I think it’s because fewer than 1/4 of Americans ever graduated university. (It’s much lower in Canada!) Most people can’t relate to it. And there’s the duration issue.

  3. I think duration is definitely a problem. And the fact that things change for the characters enough that their target audience can’t relate to them. Saved By The Bell – The College Years was a tragic downward spiral.

    Some great shows have characters in college as part of their regular cast experience (think Rory in Gilmore Girls).

    But for some reason, the “college experience” works exceedingly well for comedy movies (Van Wilder, American Pie II, Oxford Blues, Stealing Harvard, Legally Blonde, Harold & Kumar…)

  4. College is funny.

    High School is tragic.

    And let’s not forget the short-lived but excellent “Undeclared”, by Judd Apatow, the guy who did “Freaks and Geeks”.

  5. Or a show could just pull a Simpsons, and have the cast not change age for 16 years, except for various forays into the future.

    Wait. That requires either a) an immortal cast, or b) a cartoon cast.

    Show of the future, mabey? A cast of ever-young 20-somethings in university for the rest of their (un?)natural lives?

  6. i wonder if producers really think four or five years ahead when developing shows. as far as i know, it’s all up in the air from season to seasoon — even day to day. example: the show magnum pi, where they killed the main character because they thought the show was ending, only it got picked up for another season, so they did the next season as some sort of “dream.”

    if you’re a popular show and have no idea what your network is up to, how can a producer of a new show realistically look five years into the future?

    oddly, the shows that lasted a long time seem to have really dead-end ideas; cheers was on tv forever with as much looking-to-the-future as “people sit in bar and talk about stuff.”

    i think it’s something different. shows related to a specific age group are mostly watched by the age group just below it. high school shows are watched by junior high schoolers. shows about university students would be watched by high schoolers, who are maybe a bad market because they’re too busy surfing the internet and playing playstation3.

  7. I agree with Travis’s line of thinking. In fact, it occurred to me when I typed “don’t most people remember university favourably”–that that’s the very reason for there being few shows. I decided to hold off, though, to see how the discussion emerged.

  8. Maybe it has something to do with the nature of high school having so many dramatic markers for conflict already? Homecoming, the Prom, SATs, college applications all give writers easy ways to create drama and tension… They might have to be clever writing for university students! After all, there’s only so many ways to make the all-night midterm study session interesting.

  9. When I attended the master television class at the VIFF Trade forum, the speaker told us that there has to be a level of “stakes” set up in the show. Doctor, lawyer and cop shows deal with issues which bring a lot of drama and interest. High school shows deal with identity issues and so you can tie a lot of things around those. The issues at college aren’t that pressing, so unless you have a great cast or do a relationship/character drama, it wouldn’t be as attention grabbing.

  10. Let us not forget A Different World: the Cosby Kid Goes to College (and then Proceeds to Drop Out or Something). And didn’t the Fresh Prince and cousin Carlton go off to college at some point?

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