If the usual media mantra is along the lines of “Out with the old, in with the new,” a few emerging bastions are daring to embrace the past.
Meet — or re-meet — the Me-TV generation.
The Me-TV network (which stands for “Memorable Entertainment,” which sounds better than “Old Fart TV”) started life in 2005 as a low-power TV station in Chicago, owned by Weigel Broadcasting. It has spread across the U.S. — currently reaching just over 80% of homes — via digital subchannels and affiliation agreements, totaling 132 stations.
Me’s lineup feels like stumbling through a time warp, watching an independent station in the 1970s or ’80s. There are reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “MASH,” “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza,” as well as the original “Star Trek” and “Hawaii Five-0.” The shows even carry a reduced commercial load so episodes don’t have to be gutted the way they sometimes are for syndication, since “Dick Van Dyke” episodes ran more than 26 minutes per half-hour.
“We’re treating the programming with respect,” said Neal Sabin, Weigel’s president of content and networks, who cited baby boomers age 35-64 — adding a full decade to TV’s accepted ad currency — as a sales target.
“Everyone’s ignoring baby boomers, and there are advertisers who are smart and going after them,” Sabin noted. “It’s really that core baby boomer who loves this stuff.”
Me’s rollout has invaded Southern California — home to many of those who actually made these shows — thanks to an agreement with a TV station in far-away Bishop, which reaches the Los Angeles market; and as a subchannel (those digital add-ons with numbers like 56.3) on KDOC in Orange County. DirecTV began carrying the former in April, and Time Warner Cable will add the channel in October.
Everything about Me flies in the face of youth-worshipping demographic and media trends — almost like little blades of grass poking out of pavement.
Sabin insists the programming is “very comfortable to watch,” a sort of video balm for trying times. He says the company spent “tens of millions of dollars” in meticulously assembling its library (MGM is a partner), rejecting programs that might be old but aren’t genuine classics.
“We didn’t want to do it with tertiary product,” he said. “I think ‘classic’ is one of the most overused words in the dictionary.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, a majority of advertising is of the direct-response variety, which isn’t heavily ratings or demo-dependent but represents the bottom-feeders in the advertising pool. The sponsors don’t do much to dispel the retirement village perception, with a random sampling finding ads for life insurance, arthritis sufferers and a testosterone supplement to help guys feel, er, younger.
As Me grows, the network is seeking to be more nimble — assembling tributes, for example, when veteran stars die, as channels like Turner Classic Movies and TV Land do. And while it hardly has this niche to itself, with even TV Land chasing younger demos with original programming, there is a sense of swimming against the tides.
Among the financial challenges Me faces is higher residual payments for broadcast reruns compared to cable, which does seem a little ridiculous given how the channel is distributed. Certain acquisitions have been nixed, Sabin said, because of such concerns.
Me is currently negotiating for national ratings, and is cleverly citing the composition of its audience to court political advertising in the current election year — as well as anecdotal evidence of viewer appreciation and engagement, which extends to those associated with the shows.
“It’s always nice for somebody to support your product more than just putting it on the air,” said attorney Steve Gardner, whose 102-year-old father, Arthur, produced “The Rifleman” and “The Big Valley,” both Me staples.
Media bias toward youth being what it is, nobody’s likely to get rich off a channel I initially encountered in an old-fashioned barber shop, where the clientele leans toward the eligible-for-Social Security demo.
Yet based on its formula, Sabin said, “Our model is such that … we can have a successful business and serve an audience this way.”
That includes fans of these shows as well as their creators, who, happily, needn’t wait around for Emmy memorial segments to see someone appreciate their work.