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More Stations Get Retrofitted

Is the Fonz still cool with viewers nearly a quarter-century since Happy Days last aired? Apparently so, as numerous stations have signed up Retro Television Network (RTN) for their digital channels. With multicast channels The Tube tanking last month and Motor Trend TV spinning its wheels prior to launch, station groups have shown a sudden interest in bringing their “Aayyyy” game by offering reruns of vintage hits like Happy Days, Get Smart and Mission: Impossible, packaged in locally customized formats.

“It's primetime all the time,” says RTN Executive Vice President Mark Dvornik, “and we can highly customize it to an individual market.”

Last spring, RTN parent Equity Broadcasting Corp., which owns a variety of stations across the country, worked out a deal with CBS Television Distribution to run programs from CBS' vast library. But what separates RTN from the “all classics, all the time” format of cable channel TV Land is that the feed can be tweaked to reflect the local market.

That might include sports, with KQUP Pullman (Wash.) airing 70 Seattle SuperSonics games a year on RTN; or local news from either the station or RTN itself. The network can draw on Equity's Little Rock-based anchor crew to provide news segments. “Everybody's embracing the local,” says Dvornik, the former EVP and general sales manager at Paramount Television Group, who joined RTN earlier this year. “We want [stations] to be as local as they can be.”

Dvornik also points out that unlike TV Land, RTN does not air multiple episodes of one series throughout the day. The network also sets itself apart with “retromercials”–decades-old spots that are familiar to viewers of a certain age, such as the famed heart-tugging PSA featuring the Indian on horseback, a fat tear welling up as he sees litter strewn across the terrain.

Stations are increasingly seeking to monetize their digital channels, and RTN has closed a rash of deals of late. In recent weeks, the network announced partnerships with station groups including Barrington, Young, Cox, Allbritton and Scripps, to air the vintage programs on the digital doppelgangers of stations such as KRON San Francisco, WXYZ Detroit and WSET Lynchburg. Stations agree to a 50-50 commercial split with RTN, and pay a monthly service fee.

At presstime, there were 24 RTN affiliates up and running nationwide, with as many as 10 more set to launch in the near term. Sources say Media General and Raycom are each considering RTN for system-wide placement as well (The Tube launched on Raycom stations in 2005). A few big broadcasting players are also rumored to have inquired about buying into the network.

There are a growing number of multicast options for stations, such as WeatherPlus and AccuWeather; the LATV network for Hispanic viewers; and the .2 Network, offering popular films and series, which debuts in February.

Tommy Schenck, who launched RTN on Capitol's WRAZ Raleigh in August, says the local Hispanic community, while substantial, wasn't quite large enough to merit a digital channel. But there were enough family-oriented viewers for RTN. While he doesn't have ratings information yet, he says anecdotal evidence shows RTN connecting with viewers. “We've had a lot of comments, and they've all been favorable,” says the WRAZ VP/general manager. “I get a lot of 'I can watch that with my kids!'”

The same goes for KQUP, which General Manager Rod Hall says started airing RTN almost two years ago. Year-over-year ratings went up 60% from the channel's previous life as a UPN outlet to its reincarnation as the home of musty cop dramas like Hawaii 5-0 and Hunter. “There are a lot of baby boomers like me out there,” says Hall.

While a station may not get rich running reruns of Sanford and Son, some consultants say there remains a healthy market for the old shows, which often find new fans when kids tune in with their parents. Bill Hague, Senior V.P. of media research firm Frank N. Magid Associates, says RTN represents a unique foil to all-day weather and traffic. “I don't know if it'll bring in the tonnage better than 24/7 news, but it's an interesting counter-programming play,” he says.

Dvornik believes the quality of the CBS trove transcends time. “These shows feature the best directors, best writers and best actors that Hollywood had to offer,” he says. “The crime dramas, in particular, are prequels to the hit procedural shows we love today.”

And with RTN's various series long since retired, talk of current shows suspending production due to the writers' strike only makes the classic fare more attractive. “We're strike-proof,” says Dvornik. “None of this affects the business we're doing.”

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.