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Turning TV Classics Into Multiplatform Gold

Related: Staying Power

Weigel Broadcasting vice chairman Neal Sabin was already honing the programming skills that earned him B&C’s 2014 Multiplatform Broadcaster of the Year nod in the fifth grade, when he started his own business, showing cartoons at kids birthday parties.

“My parents would drive me around and I would show the films,” quickly learning what cartoons best held the audience’s attention, recalls Sabin. Soon, he was also asking his father to bring back issues of TV Guide from his travels around the country so he could program a make-believe TV station.

Years later that passion for TV helped Sabin talk his way into a job programming WPWR Chicago in 1983, even though he had no previous TV experience. His success there then followed him to Weigel’s WCIU Chicago in 1994. Armed with a mandate to build WCIU into a leading independent station, Sabin also developed some of the programming concepts that would lay the groundwork for the launch of successful diginets such as MeTV, which outranks many cable networks.

In the November national rankings, for example, MeTV was ranked sixth among viewers 2 and older during weekdays 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and was 27th in primetime, outperforming 79 cable networks measured by Nielsen.

Sabin gives much of the credit for Weigel’s success to both the staff and Norman H. Shapiro, president of Weigel, a private company owned by the Shapiro family.

Weigel was named Multiplatform Broadcasters of the Year by B&C in 2009 for being a pioneer in programming digital subchannels. Sabin credits Shapiro with being the first in the company to see the promise of the medium.

“He came into my office one day and said the digital transition was an enormous opportunity because it meant you could have three or four different program streams on a TV station,” recalls Sabin.

Shapiro also put up the money for hefty programming investments at a time when many had doubts about the prospects for diginets. “It was difficult at first to acquire the right classic TV shows, but we rolled the dice and we were right,” Sabin says.

In 2008, they went live with This TV, a partnership with MGM that ended in 2013 when Tribune took over Weigel’s stake. Even earlier, however, Weigel had launched MeTV on its low-power station WWME-CA in 2005. In December 2010 they took MeTV national, building it into a service that is now available in 91% of the country on 161 affiliates.

Since then, Weigel partnered with Fox Television Stations to launch Movies! in 2013 and recently launched the Heroes & Icons network. Weigel is also working with CBS Television Stations to debut the Decades network next year.

While others have struggled in the diginet space, Sabin says Weigel’s heavy focus on programming and high-quality promotional efforts have helped their offerings succeed. “We don’t have a diginet mindset,” he says. “We’re a TV network, and we strive to provide our affiliates with as good service as any major network.”