Three’s Company In Multicast Space

Three's Company may hold a key primetime spot in Antenna TV’s fall lineup, but three may be a crowd when it comes to subchannels specializing in vintage programming. As Tribune’s Antenna TV and Weigel Broadcasting/MGM’s Me-TV head into fall with a new batch of station partners, they are taking the fight to incumbent RTV, which debuted six years ago, in the battle for baby boomers’ hearts, minds and eyeballs.

WJAR Providence is one of several Media General stations switching from RTV to Me-TV on Sept. 26, and Kim Reis, digital media and marketing director, thinks it may improve on some early .2 success with the retro hits. “You don’t have to spend a lot of time telling people what these shows are, and people can watch them with their families,” Reis says. “This type of programming definitely pulls ratings.”

It may seem unlikely that there’s such hot demand for the likes of Leave It to Beaver, M*A*S*H and Good Times, especially with TV Land well established in the space. But the operators at the newer diginets say the TV Land game plan has become more about creating hits—witness Hot in Cleveland and Happily Divorced, a pair of original comedies with household names—and more modern sitcoms, including EverybodyLoves Raymond, than the shows of yore.

“We thought there was a place for the shows I grew up with,” says Sean Compton, Tribune president of programming and one of the drivers at Antenna. “And we were right.”

Antenna and Me-TV, short for Memorable Entertainment Television, are scrambling to close affiliate deals. Since launching Jan. 1 with a ThreeStooges marathon, Antenna has racked up a sizeable bunch on the backs of the Tribune group, including WPIX New York and WGN Chicago, and Local TV, which shares an efficiencies arrangement with Tribune. (All Local TV stations but one air Antenna, which claims a 53% U.S. clearance rate.)

Me-TV, which went national last December and cites 60% U.S. clearance, recently inked deals with stations belonging to Allbritton, Raycom and Newport. Media General added seven affiliates for the fall, bringing its total to 11. Me-TV also serves as the primary channel in a handful of markets, including at KVOS Seattle and KRTN Albuquerque.

Me-TV parents Weigel and MGM are also behind the thriving multicast channel This TV, which airs primarily movies, with half-hour shows filling in the schedule gaps.

RTV will have to fight hard to retain its affiliates. Short for Retro Television, RTV was a harbinger in the vintage hits space, piling up affiliate deals at a rapid clip in 2007 and 2008, but it seems to have lost some buzz. In summer 2008, Equity Media Holdings sold RTV (then RTN) to Luken Communications for $18.5 million. Calls to RTV were not returned.

The principals at Me-TV and Antenna are quick to note the differences between each other’s offerings. Antenna, with shows from Sony, DL Taffner and NBCUniversal, specializes in half-hour sitcoms. Me-TV, with programs from the libraries of CBS Television Distribution, Fox and NBCUniversal, along with some independents, airs mostly hour-long dramas. Both have a barter arrangement with stations. Both stress that they don’t air paid programming in the overnights, and would prefer their affiliates didn’t either. “We encourage localism and discourage paid,” says Neal Sabin, executive VP at Weigel. “We’ve turned down affiliates who want to turn us into Swiss cheese.”

Sabin and Compton are competitors, but friendly ones who call their channels complementary. Both went shopping in the NBCUniversal library recently to bolster their fall lineups, but stayed in contact to avoid grabbing the same programs.

Most multicast networks are happy to work with their partners to customize content and give the channel a local feel. Compton says Wilkes Barre–Scranton (Pa.) power WNEP runs an Antenna-local news hybrid on its .2. WJAR will pre-empt The Bob Newhart Show on Me-TV to air a 9 p.m. news on its .2; it aired Oprah and a 10 p.m. news during its RTV days.

No digital channels are posting eye-popping ratings, but the early returns at the classics channels can be encouraging. Compton says KIAH Houston does a 0.4 or 0.5 household rating for some of its more popular shows. Weigel’s Me-TV affiliate in Milwaukee posted household ratings between 1.6 and 2.1 for Gunsmoke and The Streets of San Francisco one day last week; Sabin says Me-TV gets some 350 emails a day from viewers.

WJAR’s Reis says the better shows on RTV did between a 0.5 and a 1.5; she anticipates better results with Me-TV’s younger skew. “In general, this type of programming is sticky,” Reis says. “There’s definitely a [cult] following for these types of programs.”

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Michael Malone

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.