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Neality TV

Tapping into nostalgia for classic shows and movies, Neal Sabin has built plucky Weigel Broadcasting—operator of WCIU, Me-TV, and the new This—into a regional TV dynamo 

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When did Sabin first feel successful? “Soon, I hope,” he responds half seriously.

This much is certain—he is being closely studied at the moment, which is fast becoming the moment of Neal-TV. In broadcast annals at least, the moment is most historic. On June 12th, the next television epoch officially dawns—the much-discussed post–analog age. A brief digital TV primer: For cable and satellite customers, nothing will change. But for the cable-less, who possess a mere television and standard digital converter box (free with government coupon!), a new TV galaxy will open, complete with clearer picture and more channel selections, each network affiliate and over-the-air broadcasters such as Weigel able to beam extra “subchannels” into local homes along with their flagship feed.

Because expanding the television universe further seems needless and burdensome, many planned subchannel offerings are the TV of Dullsville. Currently, WMAQ has a weather map. WLS has a repeat of the nightly news. But Sabin saw this unstoppable future some time ago—okay, around the year 2000. To arm himself properly for what he was sure would come next, he began readying his Me-TV time warp, which ultimately became WCIU’s first subchannel and which debuted on January 1, 2005. (In noncable households, Weigel’s stations arrive as a package deal—WCIU appearing as Channel 26, Me-TV as Channel 26.2 in the revamped television lexicon, Me-Too as Channel 26.3, and This as Channel 26.4.) “Me-TV is our way of being different from other stations,” he says. “Even the cable networks are shying away from older shows because it’s not demographically desirable. But I think that is a real blunder because there are so many baby boomers out there who are familiar with them.”

The Me-TV lineup on a random Saturday—Get Smart, Black Sheep Squadron, the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Knight Rider, and The Greatest American Hero. Sabin excavated each from its Hollywood studio tomb shrewdly and furtively. “When I would buy a major acquisition for WCIU such as The Doctors, I’d also say, ‘Let’s look in the library,’” he says. “A lot of that stuff, I had to tell the syndicators, ‘It’s there! You own it! Find it!’”

“At one point, I was selling him the rights to King of Queens for WCIU,” testifies Tom Warner, formerly of Sony Pictures Television and currently executive vice president of Litton Worldwide Distribution. “He kept pushing King of Queens aside to talk about renewals on all of this library product as well as picking up obscure library shows such as The Flying Nun. I was thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ But eventually all of that became Me-TV. I’ve told him, ‘You should be working for Warner Bros. because you know more about their library than they do.’” Sabin’s surplus of shows is such that in March 2008 he launched Me-Too. “That’s right; now there are two Me-TVs chock-full of classic TV day and night,” decree the promos.

He gives careful consideration to the arrangement and packaging of his bounty, thus setting apart his branded nostalgia trip from others available via download (on Hulu, for example) or special-edition DVD set. On Me-TV and Me-Too, black-and-white noir (Peter Gunn, jazz-loving L.A. private eye) is paired with other black-and-white noir (Naked City, the gritty exploits of New York City cops). “Black-and-white is a dirty word to anyone else,” says Feder. “But Neal celebrates it.” Any Technicolor disturbance during this slate, dubbed “Sunday Night Noir,” is considered blasphemy—except, of course, for commercials, for which an exception is made since they pay the sacrosanct freight. (As a bonus delight, Sabin mixes in retro commercials such as memorable Dr. Pepper and Coca-Cola sing-along jingles.) Me-TV’s funny business is also as the television gods have ordained. Madcap workplaces (The Bob Newhart Show, doctor’s office) are bundled with other madcap workplaces (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, television newsroom). Genres and eras are betrayed only when Sabin’s gut orders it so. “I put on The Odd Couple after The Honeymooners because there’s something about the Ed Norton/Ralph Kramden interplay that’s sort of like Felix and Oscar,” Sabin explains. “It’s a different era and a different setting, but it just felt right.” Short of common theme or time period, things can get straight-up Pavlovian. For instance, Carson’s Comedy Classics once aired on Me-TV every weeknight at 10:30 p.m., the exact time at which Johnny Carson had crossed through a multicolored curtain to a bowing Ed McMahon. “He does more than just throw on a bunch of reruns,” says Phil Rosenthal, the Tribune media columnist. “He’s more of a showman than that. He’s a better producer than that. And he’s a better marketer than that.”

* * *

About his regularly scheduled programming: “There are certain shows that we have on Me-TV such as Route 66 and Rat Patrol that don’t add exponentially to what we’re doing, but they do add to our credibility of being a place for truly classic television. . . . I run That ’70s Show on Me-TV because in certain time periods, I need a younger demographic. And if that demographic sticks around, I can bring them into the classic television tent. . . . With people 50-plus, we rock! . . . I like to remove shows from the schedule before they burn out. I call it The Mary Tyler Moore Show way of doing things—leave on top; don’t run it into the ground; make people want more. . . . I did well with Police Woman at Channel 50. Men like this one. Angie Dickinson still works for them. For a while, I had In the Heat of the Night next. But the numbers dropped. So I said, ‘What do I have in the library that’s in the cop drama category and appeals to men?’ Easy—Charlie’s Angels. . . . Lately, Leave It to Beaver has been one of Me-TV’s strongest shows. Sometimes it even beats WCIU in women and comes in number two or number three in the market with women. Leave It to Beaver! . . . I like The A-Team. No one will ever spend that kind of money to blow up cars and make a live-action cartoon again. It doesn’t do that well, but it’s traveled with me. There will probably be a set of A-Team tapes in my grave.”

* * *

Now let us turn our attention back to That, as in the nascent station on the drawing board, whose content he continues to plot. Already the copyright has been secured by the Shapiros and merely awaits the Sabin stamp. After all, he muses, “That is a classic!” Of course, such proclamations are endless for all of his stations—exactly his aim. “‘Stay here for This!’” he declares giddily. “‘This is a great channel!’ ‘Have you seen This?’” Better still, he adds, “Every time my competitors use the words ‘you’ and ‘me,’ I’m sure it isn’t fun.” Even within his own empire the names can cause trouble. “Do you like the idea conceptually?” Weigel Broadcasting’s director of marketing and promotions, Molly Kelly, asks him during a departmental meeting a few weeks ago.

“Yeah,” he responds.

“Me, too,” she agrees.

“Not Me-Too!” he scolds with faux outrage. “We’re talking about WCIU now!”

A familiar resignation fills her voice. “It gets so confusing here sometimes.”

 

Photograph: Lisa Predko; Television provided by www.predicta.com; Stylist: Lisa Perry; Grooming: Karen Brody

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