Weigel Maximizes DTV Pipe

Few broadcasters have done more with the flexibility afforded by the digital spectrum than Weigel Broadcasting. The Chicago-based, family-owned station group broadcasts multiple program streams on each of its three full-power stations, and also launched a national digital network, This TV, last year in a joint venture with MGM Worldwide Television Distribution.

This TV, which draws from MGM's 4,000-film library, has gained distribution deals with over 110 stations reaching more than 70% of the country. It has agreements with additional stations that should bring it to 80% coverage sometime next year.

For its efforts, Weigel has received B&C's first annual Multi-Platform Broadcaster of the Year award.

The group's flagship station, independent WCIU Chicago, pushes the boundaries of the DTV pipe by broadcasting five program streams. These include its primary WCIU feed in 720p high-definition, which includes a mix of syndicated and locally produced programming; standard-def Me-TV and Me-Too, both of which feature classic TV programs like The Andy Griffith Show and Laverne & Shirley; FBT (Foreign-language Broadcast Television); and This TV. The feeds are statistically multiplexed together using Harmonic encoders, with the HD streaming generally running between 8 and 12 megabits per second and the four SD networks juggling the rest of the available bits.

“People may have been skeptical that we [could] do that, but we've been able to maintain picture quality,” says Weigel President Norman Shapiro.

WDJT Milwaukee carries CBS HD programming in 1080i HD alongside digital subchannels carrying independent low-power station WMLW, This TV and Shorewest TV, a locally produced real-estate channel sponsored by Shorewest Realty. WBME Racine, Wis., carries both Me-TV and Telemundo Wisconsin, which offers Telemundo programming and local news. All of the Weigel multicast streams have secured local cable carriage.

Weigel began multicasting in 2005 with the launch of Me-TV, which, like its other programming, is the brainchild of Neal Sabin, executive VP at the company. Sabin, who joined WCIU 15 years ago after serving as program director for Chicago rival WPWR, was an early believer in secondary digital channels.

“Once Norman educated me on how much bandwidth we had, I thought that was a real opportunity for us as an independent,” Sabin says. He adds that it was tough for independent stations to compete in high-definition programming because syndicated HD programming has lagged behind network fare. On the other hand, filling an underserved demand for classic programming with standard-def digital nets was a natural fit for Weigel, which has been able to monetize the new channels by selling spots to local retailers.

Sabin's success in programming Me-TV prompted MGM Executive VP of Broadcast Strategy John Bryan to sit down with Sabin at the NATPE convention in January 2008. Weigel and MGM reached a deal by late July 2008 to start a new network, with Weigel handling programming and MGM handling sales—including national spots, which account for 50% of inventory.

After building a new uplink and playout facility at WCIU and specifying receivers and branding gear for affiliates, Weigel launched This TV on Nov. 1, 2008, on eight stations. The service, which gives affiliates the opportunity to customize it with local programming, has grown steadily since then, according to Bryan, and is actually rated in about 20 markets.

“I saw what Neal was able to do with older programs in Chicago, and they were competitive,” Bryan says. “The biggest hurdle was revenue, and can you make any money off this? Neal's proved you can.”