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The past: his prime. Sabin is breathing new life into vintage television.
This—the following few thousand words—is about him. Which is also to say that this is about This, the name of the Chicago-based television network he created late last year that is already available to more than 60 percent of the country. Any story about him must also include U and Me—or, given one’s preference, U and Me and Me-Too. After all, nearly everything that comes next has to do with Me. (Doesn’t everything?) Although to be fair, a true and total accounting of his work (recently, at least) involves U, Me, Me-Too, and This. But not so much yet about That. At the moment, he is unsure what to do about That. (More on That later!)
For now, meet him—52-year-old Neal Sabin—nationally revered broadcasting impresario. While he lives in the present, he works almost exclusively with television from the past. On his stations, you will find more than 100 vintage TV series that stretch, in generational terms, from the start of the baby boom to the close of Generation X. The Jack Benny Show; Perry Mason; Alfred Hitchcock Presents; 77 Sunset Strip; The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; Bewitched; Barney Miller; Police Woman; The Incredible Hulk; Cagney & Lacey; The A-Team; and so on.
Per official duties as executive vice president of Weigel Broadcasting, Sabin oversees, programs, and invents and nurtures the personality (or “stationality,” in his parlance) of four local stations. The U (as in WCIU–Channel 26) is his general-market station with urban skew and freshest programming choices (The Bernie Mac Show, The Insider, selected Cubs, White Sox, and Bulls games). Meanwhile, Me-TV (as in “Memorable Entertainment”) and its spinoff, Me-Too, are his retro offerings. Their promos arrive in a thunderbolt of mock egocentrism, unfurling a breakneck cavalcade of iconic television characters celebrating themselves: “Who—me?” asks Arnold Jackson (Diff’rent Strokes). “Goodness me!” shouts Shirley Feeney (Laverne & Shirley). “Me! Me! Me!” whines Lucy Ricardo (I Love Lucy). “Woof!” barks Lassie (Lassie). The superimposed translation: “Me!”
Venture number four and Sabin’s latest brainchild, This, is the movie network that he runs in partnership with MGM—every flick therein from the MGM vault. All four stations are available both to the noncable world—no monthly purchase required!—and to Comcast and RCN subscribers; DirecTV and the Dish Network, however, offer WCIU and Me-TV only.
As for sequence, Sabin’s success with WCIU begat Me-TV in 2005, which begat Me-Too in March of last year, which begat This eight months later. WCIU itself originated in the 1960s as a UHF outlet—typically hardscrabble, ever-disappearing stations infamous for airing the acutely offbeat and niche ethnic programs. Three choice listings from WCIU’s unruly formative years: Bullfights (“Entire corrida of six fights from the Plaza Monumental in Mexico City”); The Phil Lind Show (“Phil looks at new methods for treating the mentally ill and talks with former mental patients”); and The Swinging Majority (“Art Roberts hosts a teen-dance show”). Still under family ownership more than 40 years after its inception, Weigel Broadcasting stands as the last independent television outfit in the city and one of the last in the country. So while the network affiliates in town (WBBM, WMAQ, WLS) blare forth with new, expensively created fare, Weigel’s channels beam with Sabin’s intuition and pluck. “Neal is doing the best television in Chicago with the least amount of resources and the toughest obstacles,” says the former Chicago Sun-Times columnist and local television/radio sage Robert Feder.
Some compelling anecdotal evidence: First Lady Michelle Obama told the Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, during the presidential campaign that she ignored the debates in favor of watching The Dick Van Dyke Show. She never said on which channel exactly, but it airs only in Chicago—courtesy of Sabin’s ability to persuade mystified big shots at the William Morris Agency to allow him to showcase it locally—and approximately in the time slots during which the candidates were having at each other. (The first lady’s press office did not respond to inquiries.) Carl Reiner, The Dick Van Dyke Show’s creator, says, “A couple of weeks after she made the comment, it occurred to me—she was talking about the fact that your guy Sabin made it possible for her to enjoy the show on those nights.”
On the flip side, some hard empirical evidence: WCIU’s afternoon block of court shows (Judge Mathis, People’s Court, et al.) often put the station number two in the market during the daytime, behind only the ratings supernova WLS–Channel 7. And per Nielsen’s November 2008 sweeps book, Me-TV tied or bettered in overall area viewership the cable networks Animal Planet, Bravo, CNBC, Oxygen, Sci-Fi, the Cartoon Network, the Travel Channel, and TV Land, a conceptual cousin that lately has decided to forgo some of its throwback slate for newer series (the reality show High School Reunion, for instance) aimed at a younger demographic. In raw numbers, about one out of every three Chicago households watches Me-TV for at least 15 minutes a month.
“My fantasy is that Channel 5 will let Neal hire me to host an occasional all-night special [on Me-TV] where I’m sort of a video DJ playing episodes from my favorite shows and commenting during the breaks—you know, taking phone calls, reading e-mails,” says Bob Sirott, WGN radio midday host, NBC5 news anchor, and ardent devotee of The Honeymooners (Me-TV, weeknights, 11 p.m.).
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Photograph: Lisa Predko; Television provided by www.predicta.com; Stylist: Lisa Perry; Grooming: Karen Brody