CLAS­SIC SHOWS FIND NEW LIFE

Old fa­vorites are a lu­cra­tive niche for me­dia com­pa­nies look­ing to fill air­time on their mul­ti­cast TV net­works

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Stephen Battaglio

When ca­ble TV was grow­ing in the 1980s and ’90s, many of its pro­grams were past hits from the line­ups of ABC, CBS and NBC.

“The Andy Grif­fith Show” was the top show on Turner Broad­cast­ing’s TBS. Vi­a­com made clas­sic TV a big busi­ness by pack­ag­ing se­ries from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s on Nick­elodeon’s Nick at Nite, which later spawned TV Land.

But many ca­ble net­works aban­doned clas­sic TV shows once the baby boomers who watched them moved out of the 18-to-49 age group that ad­ver­tis­ers covet most. That’s cre­ated an open­ing for mul­ti­cast TV net­works — the chan­nels that view­ers can watch over the air for free with a dig­i­tal an­tenna — to come to their res­cue.

Un­plug your ca­ble sys­tem and find MeTV, which stands for Mem­o­rable En­ter­tain­ment Tele­vi­sion. The net­work airs hits such as “M*A*S*H,” “Bo­nanza” and “Star Trek,” and av­er­ages about 521,000 view­ers in day­time — higher than all but nine na­tional ca­ble net­works. From 5 to 11 p.m., MeTV ranked 20th with 667,000 view-

‘It’s a his­tory buff’s dream. Ev­ery day will be like a time cap­sule.’

— NEAL SABIN , Weigel ex­ec­u­tive, shown in 2003

ers com­pared with those net­works.

Other me­dia com­pa­nies have also turned to clas­sic TV as a low-cost pro­gram­ming so­lu­tion for mul­ti­cast chan­nels, which now re­port­edly take in more than $250 mil­lion a year in ad rev­enue.

Mul­ti­cas­t­ing was born out of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s man­date in 2009 that all over-the-air tele­vi­sion sta­tions con­vert from ana­log to dig­i­tal sig­nals for high­def­i­ni­tion broad­cast­ing. They also were given the abil­ity to si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­liver pro­gram­ming on up to five ad­di­tional dig­i­tal chan­nels through re­ceivers or HDTV sets.

Once the dig­i­tal TV con­ver­sion dead­line was set, Nor­man Shapiro, chair­man of Weigel, a fam­ily-owned Mid­west­ern sta­tion group, stepped into the of­fice of his pro­gram­ming whiz Neal Sabin and said, “You have four more chan­nels — what do you want to do with them?”

Grow­ing up in the 1960s, Sabin trav­eled around Chicago neigh­bor­hoods with a movie pro­jec­tor to en­ter­tain kids at birth­day par­ties with a reel of car­toons. By the time he reached the eighth grade, busi­ness was so good he pulled in $100 a week­end. “It was a real ed­u­ca­tion,” he said.

One of the things he learned was to give peo­ple more of what they al­ready like. He had MeTV as a suc­cess­ful clas­sic pro­gram­ming block on Weigel-owned out­lets in Chicago and Mil­wau­kee. He se­cured more pro­gram­ming from the li­braries of NBC Uni­ver­sal, CBS and 20th Cen­tury Fox and rolled out MeTV as a na­tional ser­vice — or “dig­inet” — for mul­ti­cast chan­nels at the end of 2010.

It was not a slam-dunk idea; the owner of a sim­i­larly themed ser­vice, Retro TV, had pre­vi­ously gone into bank­ruptcy.

Tri­bune Me­dia fol­lowed in early 2011 with the launch of An­tenna TV on its mul­ti­cast sta­tions — in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les out­let KTLA. An­tenna TV de­pends largely on shows from the Sony Pic­tures Tele­vi­sion cat­a­log, in­clud­ing “Be­witched,” Three Stooges shorts and all of the 1970s hit sit­coms from pro­ducer Nor­man Lear such as “All in the Fam­ily,” “The Jef­fer­sons” and “Good Times.”

Tri­bune does not break out the fi­nan­cial re­sults for An­tenna TV, but Sean Comp­ton, pres­i­dent of strate­gic pro­gram­ming and ac­qui­si­tions for the com­pany, said the op­er­a­tion was prof­itable af­ter five months on the air.

In late 2012, NBCUniver­sal joined the fray with Cozi TV, which airs over its TV sta­tion group that in­cludes KNBC. TeleXito, which shows pre-2000 prime-time hits such as “The A-Team” dubbed in Span­ish, is car­ried along­side NBCU’s Tele­mu­ndo sta­tions.

CBS mul­ti­cast sta­tions re­cently signed on with a new net­work called Decades, which will for­mally launch May 26. Pro­grammed by Weigel, Decades will have a six-hour re­peat­ing block of pro­grams and movies from the 1950s through the 1980s tied to a date in his­tory that will be re­viewed in a nightly orig­i­nal doc­u­men­tary show, “Through the Decades.”

The host is Bill Kur­tis, the vet­eran TV news­man whose au­thor­i­ta­tive pipes are now known for the nar­ra­tion in “An­chor­man: The Leg­end of Ron Bur­gundy.”

“It’s a his­tory buff’s dream,” Sabin said. “Ev­ery day will be like a time cap­sule.”

An­tenna TV, MeTV and the oth­ers are happy to cater to the 50-plus age group that still wants what Comp­ton calls “com­fort TV.”

Nearly all of their ad­ver­tis­ing is di­rect re­sponse, which moves prod­ucts through the toll-free num­bers shown on the screen. Such ad­ver­tis­ers base their com­mer­cial buys on what will make the phones ring and not Nielsen rat­ings.

The big­gest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the clas­sic TV move­ment are the stu­dios that now have new buy­ers for thou­sands of hours of pro­gram­ming in their li­braries that ap­peared to have limited value.

Warner Bros. would not deal with the new en­trants when it was of­fered ad rev­enue shares in re­turn for the rights to its shows. But now that some are pay­ing li­cense fees of $25,000 per episode and up for shows, the vaults have opened up.

“You may laugh at ‘Char­lie’s An­gels,’ ‘Gil­li­gan’s Is­land,’ ‘The Odd Cou­ple’ or ‘Lit­tle House on the Prairie,’ but guess what? There is a huge au­di­ence that is will­ing to watch them,” said Ken Werner, pres­i­dent of Warner Bros. Do­mes­tic Tele­vi­sion Dis­tri­bu­tion. “Way back when tele­vi­sion was de­signed for the en­tire fam­ily with one TV, every­body in the busi­ness was fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing shows that had broad ap­peal to ev­ery­one, and that con­tin­ues to have ef­fi­ca­cies.”

More clas­sic se­ries be­came avail­able since the guilds rep­re­sent­ing writ­ers, ac­tors and di­rec­tors ne­go­ti­ated a resid­ual rate that made them more eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble for air­ing on the dig­inets. The new pact en­abled Cozi to add “Mur­der She Wrote,” “Miami Vice,” “Quan­tum Leap” and other 1980s hits to its lineup.

“You’re go­ing to see more shows you haven’t seen in years,” said Mered­ith McGinn, se­nior vice pres­i­dent for Cozi TV.

The clas­sic TV ser­vices have to make a fi­nan­cial sac­ri­fice to pre­serve the old­school view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence they prom­ise by keep­ing the shows close to their orig­i­nal run­ning times. Both MeTV and An­tenna TV carry only 12 min­utes of com­mer­cial time per hour — with about half go­ing to lo­cal af­fil­i­ates. The ma­jor net­works run about 18 min­utes per hour, and many ca­ble net­works cur­rently run as much as 21 min­utes.

“It’s a good busi­ness, but it’s a small niche busi­ness that has its lim­its,” Sabin said. “There are no sub­scriber fees from ca­ble, and the com­mer­cial in­ven­tory is re­ally limited.”

With­out big pro­mo­tional bud­gets, they de­pend largely on pro­gram­ming stunts, such as themed episode marathons, to get view­ers to no­tice them.

Comp­ton said he per­son­ally ob­sesses over which hol­i­day episodes of An­tenna TV’s se­ries to run, as the net­work tends to get sampling on Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas, when fam­i­lies watch to­gether.

Hav­ing an au­di­ence of high-pro­file TV en­thu­si­asts helps too. On April 5, MeTV is turn­ing over its prime time to “Break­ing Bad” cre­ator Vince Gil­li­gan, a ma­jor MeTV fan.

On a spe­cial night called “Vince Gil­li­gan’s Is­land of MeTV,” he will in­tro­duce his fa­vorite episodes of “The Twi­light Zone” and other se­ries with the help of “Bet­ter Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk.

Comp­ton said the emo­tional bond that clas­sic TV view­ers have with their old fa­vorites can be pow­er­ful.

“You wouldn’t be­lieve how many e-mails we get ev­ery time we rest or move a show’s time pe­riod,” Comp­ton said. “When you get 350 mes­sages be­cause you’ve moved ‘Hazel’ from 7 a.m. to some­where overnight — that’s a high-class prob­lem.”

Mu­seum of TV & Ra­dio

PRO­GRAM­MERS are cater­ing to baby boomers with clas­sics such as Rod Ser­ling’s “The Twi­light Zone.”

Margo Cohn Chicago Tri­bune

Lawrence K. Ho Los An­ge­les Times

MUL­TI­CAST NET­WORK MeTV, which stands for Mem­o­rable En­ter­tain­ment Tele­vi­sion, airs clas­sic hits such as “M*A*S*H,” “Bo­nanza” and “Star Trek,” above.

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