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Interview: MeTV's Neal Sabin

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 1, 2007 4:08PM

Media consolidation is a fact of life. Nearly every television station is now corporately owned, and truly autonomous programming is all but unheard of. Chicago's MeTV (Channel 23) is a happy exception. With an eclectic schedule of classic shows like "Sanford & Son," "The Honeymooners" and "The A-Team," WWME is locally owned and operated by Weigel Broadcasting, whose flagship station is "The U" (WCIU). Channel 26 WCIU signed on the air in 1964 as Chicago's first UHF station.

me-tv-23-chicago.gifOriginallly WWME Channel 23 consisted of ethnic programming. But Neal Sabin, Executive VP of WCIU-TV, had other ideas. "I put two and two together and decided that we'd make more with classic shows than we would with our specialty programming," says Sabin. "We did it just in daytime for awhile and then went full-time with it on January 1, 2005. The name MeTV stands for 'Memorable Entertainment Television,' and I kind of came up with that because you know we have The U. And I was thinking, Well what goes with U? The 'Me' came first. So then I had to think, well it's an oldies channel, so what does ME stand for? Memorable Entertainment. There might be something better, but that's what came to me first so that's what we did."

Chicagoist had the chance to talk with Sabin recently about the concept of MeTV, its website and the station's future. Our interview is after the jump.

Chicagoist: Do you think that the concept came more from the nostalgic appeal of these shows or was it more because of the cost of licensing this kind of programming?

Neal Sabin: Well those are really two different things. I think the station has two audience groups. One are the people who grew up with these shows. The nostalgia people. And also other generations who are kind of looking for a family-friendly television environment. Maybe to introduce your kids or grandkids to something the whole family can watch. It's contemporary to those people who never saw those shows, it's a new programing option, and then it's also got that nostalgia factor for the Boomers. We have some shows from the 80's that I don't even consider old, but they really are. (laughs) You know, stuff from the 1980's, that's a significant number of years. Twenty-five years for stuff like "Punky Brewster." That's kind of scary.

C: Is the website an attempt to bring in more young, tech-savvy viewers?

NS: Yeah. We've got some viral marketing, we have some creative young people trying to get the word out on MeTV. Because it's not easy to find. It's on Channel 223 on Comcast. It's over the air on Channel 26's digital channel, 26.2 is MeTV, and then it's over the air on channel 23. It's not a standardized number where it's on the same number everywhere. I'd say it's on 223 or 23 in most homes. So we have to get the word out to get people over to the station because it's relatively new. And also its advertising budget is somewhat limited because its audience is smaller, its revenue is smaller so we don't have a lot of money to spend on marketing it.

C: Do you have an idea how many people watch you over the air as opposed to on cable?

NS: I'm not sure about that. But I do know that there's a significant portion of the population, about 20%, that does not have cable or satellite television. We've researched and I've actually heard from some of them. There are a lot of people who don't watch a lot of television but who watch MeTV. And they're not the stereotypical old people, or poor people or other people; they just do not choose to have cable television. So because they have fewer choices and/or because they like the older shows they've chosen to spend a larger portion of their time watching MeTV.

C: What kind of staff does it take to run a low-powered station like WWME?

NS: Well the fact that it's low-powered really doesn't have anything to do with how many people it takes to run it. It's all relative. It's really the highest-powered low-power license in the country. Because it's coming from the top of the Sears Tower with 150,000 kilowatts, while WCIU is 5 million. While there's a big difference there, the biggest thing in television is height. And we've got a lot of height on it. (laughs) The number of people it takes to run it doesn't have anything to do with it. We're blessed with the ability to do MeTV because essentially all the people are in place with WCIU. So we have a couple of extra writer/producers doing the promos. But the master control is the same person, the traffic control. We have a third station in Chicago, Channel 48, which has all the ethnic programming on it that used to be on 23. So from Chicago and our master control we're running the U, MeTV, Channel 48 as well as three stations down in South Bend that we send signals to via fiber. So I can't tell you that it takes twelve people to run MeTV but there are a few people who are signed to specific MeTV functions. For everybody else it's just a portion of their day, like the website people.

C: So basically the stations are sharing staff?

NS: Yeah. And then we have some salespeople, some exclusive MeTV salespeople. Some people sell both. Actually, depending on what our promotions are, we will do some promotions on WCIU for MeTV and vice-versa. It's not a secret that they're owned, operated and programmed by the same people. As a matter of fact we may not be taking advantage of that enough.

C: Tell us a little bit more about the website and what you'd like to do with that.

NS: The website is less than a year old. I'd like it to have more user-generated content, to use the phrase that everybody uses. I want to create an online community of people who love classic TV. I think I want to do a blog myself, but I don't want to do it until I can commit the time to do it all the time so that it doesn't get stale. MeTV gets three or four times the emails that WCIU gets every day, I'd say. We've done some research, and that audience is incredibly loyal, both the TV and website audience. Most people have favorite TV shows. And wherever that show is — you know, if "Gray's Anatomy" was going to change from Channel 7 to Channel 5 — people would move to watch it. Because we watch TV shows, not stations. That doesn't seem to be as true for MeTV. We have a lot of people who seem to love the station and the format and they seem to stay there for multiple programs, and really seek out the station as a destination. It's programmed more like a cable network or like radio where it's consistent all day along. So getting back to the website. More user content, more promos. We don't have the rights to stream the shows on the site. So I don't think that's in the future.

C: That mashup on the site of "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Bewitched" is really funny.

NS: I haven't seen that yet, I better go look. (laughs) They did one of "Star Trek" and "Lost in Space" that was great. And those were all done as promos for the shows.

C: With all these HDTVs that are out there now, it's more clear than ever that some of these shows are being broadcast from masters that were created in the late 80's or something and so they don't really have that high quality. Do you have any plans to upgrade to remasters?

NS: It depends on what the shows are. This morning I was watching "Perry Mason" on our HD feed, and it was crystal clear, just as good as it was on any network. Some of the shows that were shot on videotape, like "All in the Family," need to be remastered. Can you think of any specific shows you were watching?

C: "Good Times" was one, and "The Jeffersons."

NS: Yeah. Those were all shot on video. We are asking the distributors to do that. It's a long process. We literally have 30,000-40,000 episodes of shows in our library. So it's taking a while to do that. And we don't want to have to do that more than once. I want to get as much of that stuff in HD as I can. The ones that were shot on film will eventually be in HD. "Cheers," I Love Lucy," things like that.

C: You said you get a lot of emails from the website; do you get a lot of requests for shows that you don't have? What are some of the most-requested ones?

NS: Well usually what happens is whenever we make a schedule change we get a bunch of emails like, "I hate you for taking my show off," and then, "I love you for putting this on." I'm trying to think if there's one show in particular we get a lot of requests for. "The Bionic Woman" is one. And the issue with that is that the underlying rights to the character are all tied up with family members, and there's a big fight going on, and so that show in not on the air anywhere. We own about 75 shows that we rotate in and out. So if it's not on MeTV now chances are that it will be. The biggest issue for us with shows from the 1980's particularly are the residual costs, and that's a whole other story. To pay the writers, directors and actors for some of that stuff that never went into syndication is terribly expensive because you have to pay for the whole country, not just for Chicago. And that makes it impossible for us to afford to do that. Cable has a much lower residual rate, based on when cable was first starting it was a poor cousin to broadcasting. So they got things much cheaper. So there are some shows that can appear on cable that we can't get. Mostly shows from the 80's that you don't see on our station.

C: It's great that you guys show "The Twilight Zone," but our personal request would be "Night Gallery."

NS: We just got it. That'll be on soon.

C: Oh wow. That's fantastic.

NS: That's coming. So is the "Alfred Hitchcock" half-hour, the original "Outer Limits," and "Tales from the Darkside." Those are all coming.

C: Do you adjust your schedule once a year, or is it just every now and then?

NS: We try to change something each quarter. We do "Spring Into ME," "Summer of ME," "Fall into ME," and "Chill with ME." If you see something stay in a time period for a long time after one of those quarterly changes it's probably because the ratings are really good, and we don't take things off when the ratings are really good. (laughs) We've left everything alone in prime time because it's doing very well. In fact that prime time is beating my network television. So we haven't touched it. We haven't touched "Good Times" at 10 o'clock. I'm thinking of doing something radical for spring or summer, and that is to take some of the shows that you usually see in daytime or early and putting them in late night. Just to mix it all up. Like "Bewitched." Stuff that you'd never think of running late night, like at 10:30 or 11 o'clock. Just to see what happens. We can afford to do those kinds of things with MeTV.

C: What plans do you have for the future of MeTV? When will shows from the 90's be old enough to start playing on MeTV?

NS: I'll probably be retired by then. (laughs) I think my plans are to expand the MeTV brand and to do more things with it. Maybe some commerce in that website too, that's another thing I'd like to do. And I'd like to add some local programming to MeTV on some level, maybe some things that start out in the website. Things that are complementary to other shows. I think my biggest challenge right now is upgrading and expanding the advertising base. Because so many advertisers seem to buy based just on ratings; on quantity rather than quality. We haven't gotten some of the advertisers that I think we deserve. Because while our numbers might be small I think we have a lot of people like you, who are younger and tend to be tech-savvy and are watching the station. And frankly sometimes we have advertisers, either buyers or clients, some of which just don't get it yet. Our big battle is convincing some of these people who use cable or the internet that MeTV has got a very loyal and valuable audience that would buy their products because they appreciate how we're handling the station, how we're scheduling it. We try not to cut the shows, we run the full network versions on things we can get ahold of. Things like that.

C: What is the most recent show you have?

NS: It's probably "Roseanne." That's probably the newest. And "Mad About You." Those are the newest ones.

C: And the oldest would be "The Jack Benny Show?"

NS: That sounds about right, yes. The way to make it always seem fresh is to change it out a lot, and bring things back. It's a way to keep it unique. On the other hand, if you watch TV Land or Nick at Nite I think they change stuff too much over there. We want to be cautious not to really do that either. It's a balance.