Neal Sabin knows a hit television series when he sees it.
Not the one-hit wonders, or this season's sensation, but the shows that endure for viewing after viewing, year after year.
Now in his 20th year at Chicago-based Weigel Broadcasting, a small, family-owned television station group, Sabin has staked his career on the likes of "Gilligan's Island" and "Leave It to Beaver," by knowing exactly which shows play well in perpetuity and how to make them must-see TV decades after their original run.
As the programming mastermind behind Weigel's Me-TV, he has parlayed his acumen and sensibility into a burgeoning television network, linking previously obscure digital subchannels — the stations up in the 200s and 300s on the cable box — into a national powerhouse that regularly beats most cable networks in the ratings.
The formula for broadcasting success is simple, according to Sabin.
"There's some research. There's my history. There's my gut," Sabin said.
When the Federal Communications Commission mandated that all television stations switch from analog to digital signals by 2009, it created separate digital subchannels for each TV station, and a programming void.
Weigel Broadcasting — which owns WCIU-Ch. 26 in Chicago, along with stations in Milwaukee and South Bend, Ind. — gambled on a new platform and Sabin to create what has become the largest diginet in the U.S., leaving ABC, NBCU and other major players in its wake. Launched in 2010, Me-TV, a classic television network featuring everything from "The Brady Bunch" to the original "Star Trek" series, has some 160 broadcast affiliates reaching 91 percent of TV households.
Sabin spent a year and "tens of millions" of Weigel Broadcasting's money negotiating with distributors to build a massive programming library for Me-TV. He spent more than 50 years and countless hours in front of the TV set preparing for that mission.
Casual, balding and bespectacled with a close-cropped beard, Sabin seems at first glance a neater, trimmer and decidedly less neurotic George Costanza from "Seinfeld," a WCIU staple. But Sabin's unimposing demeanor belies a passionate, driven and determined man who has earned his stripes as a television programmer and the respect of his peers.
Underestimating Sabin has proved a mistake for his competition. It's also a driving force for him.
"There's nothing that motivates me more than someone saying you won't be able to do it," said Sabin, 57. "That's like gas on my fire."
A Skokie native and lifelong Chicagoan, Sabin grew up glued to the television, soaking in everything from local fixtures such as "Ray Rayner" and "Bozo's Circus" to first-run network shows. As a young child, Sabin began programming his own fantasy TV stations, using TV Guides his father, then a corporate attorney, would bring back from distant cities, to compare and contrast schedules.
"I was not an athletic kid. I was that proverbial picked-last-for-sports kind of thing, and I made a lot of my friends on the television set and at the movies," Sabin said.
Sabin became a TV programmer and a budding entrepreneur while in fifth grade. Using his dad's home movie projector and a collection of cartoon shorts, he spliced together hour-long reels and rented himself out as entertainment for kid's birthday parties. His parents would schlep him to gigs, mostly on the North Shore.
His business took off, bringing in more than $100 a weekend by the time he reached high school. His sales pitch revolved around a guaranteed hour of peace for harried parents.
"I never had to dress up as a clown. I don't know how to make balloon animals, but I kept everybody quiet," Sabin said.
After graduating from Niles North High School, Sabin left for Washington University in St. Louis. He spent much of his freshman year in the library perusing Broadcasting and Variety, entertainment trade magazines. Sabin transferred to Northwestern University the following year, where he immersed himself in the Radio, Television and Film program.
As a junior at Northwestern, he landed an internship at WLS-AM 890, where he pestered then program director John Gehron to let him do more than the usual drudge work, to no avail. During his senior year, Sabin landed a paying gig at WIND-AM 560, where he served as morning show producer for legendary air personality Clark Weber. Weber not only mentored Sabin, he provided Sabin with daily rides to the station as well.
Now retired and living in Evanston, Weber remembers his young charge's ambition and desire to learn — qualities that set him apart from many broadcast novices.
"He was destined to do big things, and I could see that in him, right out of school," said Weber, 83. "He hit the ground running and he was inquisitive and as eager to learn as any producer I ever had."
Weber also remembers one of those learning experiences leaving his young producer speechless.
An on-air segment about breast implants prompted a female listener to stop by the station to disprove the contention that post-surgical breasts felt fake. They went out to talk with the visitor, who made her point by placing Sabin's hands firmly on her breasts.
"He was mortified. I was hysterical, and he and I still laugh about that," Weber said.
When Sabin graduated from Northwestern in 1978 he went full time at WIND, which was phasing out its music format for news and talk. He was named interim music director during the format's swan song, earning respectable ratings, and stayed on as production director for the new format.
In 1980, Sabin pitched the owners of WPRZ-AM 1330, an Evanston daytime-only station, to convert from a religious format to a general interest music and news station, with him as general manager. They bought the idea and he left WIND. It didn't last a year.
Sabin worked with Chicago radio traffic reporting pioneer Gary Lee for about a year before rejoining WIND in late 1981, this time as head of talk programming at the station. Two years later, as a 26-year-old, he became a television programmer.
"People sometimes ask me, how did you get into television, and I say I had my tonsils out," Sabin said.
Recuperating from surgery at his parents' home, a heavily sedated Sabin sucked on Popsicles and aimlessly flipped through the television channels until he stumbled upon an old movie playing on a relatively new station, Channel 60. It was WPWR-TV, an Aurora UHF station owned by budding media mogul Fred Eychaner. Within a few years, WPWR shifted to its current home on Channel 50, where it became an independent television success story.
Sabin helped write that story as program director, a position he landed through persistence, persuasion and programming knowledge. Working on a shoestring budget, he helped secure shows and build Channel 50 into a formidable competitor and ratings success during an 11-year run with the station.
"Neal is a successful programmer because he loves television and has since he was a kid," said Al DeVaney, the former general manager of WPWR, who retired in 2002 after Eychaner's Newsweb Corp. sold the station to Fox for a lofty $425 million. "In fact, he knows and loves virtually every TV show that was ever made. That can also be a weakness on occasion but overall he is very good at what he does."
Bill Hague, senior vice president for television consulting firm Frank N. Magid, sold programs to Sabin at WPWR in his previous role running the Chicago distribution office of Warner Bros., and remembered him as a savvy negotiator with an encyclopedic knowledge of television.
"He knew my library better than I knew my library," Hague said. "He knew what we had, when its expiration was, when it was coming off cable."
WCIU-Ch. 26 was launched in 1964 by John Weigel, the father of sportscaster Tim Weigel, before many TV sets even had UHF receivers. The station came to be known for its spotty signal (it originally broadcast from the vertically-challenged Board of Trade building) and eclectic programming with such fare as Mexican bullfights and local professional wrestling.
Howard Shapiro was an early minority investor in the station, and used it to advertise his chain of C.E.T. appliance stores. In 1966, he took over the station but kept the Weigel name, and WCIU has remained in his family's hands ever since. Shapiro died in 2012, and his son, Norman, now runs the business.
Under Shapiro, the station featured shows such as "A Black's View of the News" and "Soul Train," which host Don Cornelius started in 1970 as a local afternoon show on WCIU. Another fixture was "The Stock Market Observer," a daily seven-hour live broadcast which ran for more than three decades.
Spanish broadcasting was also a large part of WCIU's programming, and in 1989, the station became an affiliate of Univision, turning its evening schedule over to the Miami-based network. In 1994, Univision bought Joliet independent station WGBO-Ch. 66 for $35 million, converting it to Spanish and dropping Spanish programming from WCIU.
In 1994, Sabin's reputation opened the door for him to make a pitch to the Shapiros to convert WCIU to a general market station, with him at the helm.
The Shapiros already had Sabin on their short list to do the same.
"I was giving some thought to calling him before he called us," recalled Norman Shapiro.
Sabin was hired as general manager of WCIU in summer 1994 and rebranded it as "The U," a name he coined and the start of a pronoun-themed broadcasting portfolio. One of his first programming moves was to hire Rich Koz, aka Svengoolie, whose tongue-in-cheek horror movie host role was resurrected and eventually rolled out nationally under Sabin's watch. Koz hosted WCIU's New Year's Eve 1995 relaunch live on air, paired inexplicably with controversial talk show host Morton Downey Jr.
Other changes came in fits and starts. The station soon moved into a new, 64,000-square-foot studio in a former printing plant at 26 N. Halsted St., a few blocks from Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Studios in the West Loop. But it took Sabin several years of pleading to persuade ownership to remove "The Stock Market Observer" from the daily schedule.
"I hacked away at it and begged Howard and Norman to let me take it off the air," Sabin said.
The early lineup for "The U" featured classic TV fare such as "The Munsters," "Gilligan's Island," "Hogan's Heroes" and "Leave It to Beaver." Sabin also partnered with WBBM-FM 96.3 (B96) to create a short-lived daily teen dance program called "U Dance." Later in 1995, the station picked up the Kids WB cartoon blocks, after then WB affiliate WGN-Ch. 9 declined to carry the programming.
While Sabin admits he was "too ambitious at first," the station steadily gained traction.
"We started doing numbers and the station started carving out a niche of being a local, kind of fun with a little bit of an attitude station," Sabin said.
"The U" has since shifted to a more current lineup, with sitcoms such as "Seinfeld" and "The King of Queens," and daytime offerings including "Jerry Springer," court shows and the station's locally produced talker, "You & Me This Morning," which recently expanded to a third hour. Meanwhile, most classic shows migrated in 2005 to WWME-Ch. 23, a low-powered Chicago station owned by Weigel that became the blueprint for the Me-TV Network.
The FCC's mandated digital conversion has increased Sabin's value geometrically.
Overflow programming has found a home on WCIU's digital subchannels, creating The U Too and Me Too. Beyond Chicago, in 2008 Weigel partnered with MGM Television to launch This TV, a movie diginet now reaching 85 percent of the country. Tribune Broadcasting replaced Weigel as MGM's partner last year.
Weigel partnered with Fox last year to launch Movies!, going head-to-head with This TV. Meanwhile the success of Me-TV has spawned imitators such as Cozi, a classic TV diginet started by NBCUniversal last year. Other major diginet players include Tribune Broadcasting's Antenna TV and Atlanta-based Bounce TV, which features African-American-focused programming.
Measured against cable networks, Me-TV ranks sixth during the daytime and 28th during prime time, besting networks such as Tribune Co.'s WGN America, according to Nielsen, and drawing praise for Sabin, even from competitors.
"I'm a fan," said Larry Wert, Tribune Co.'s president of broadcast media. "I think he has been a strategic and creative programmer. I think he has looked at his assets and been innovative on how he could grow them, and he has done a remarkable job."
While Me-TV beats many cable networks in the ratings, it doesn't match them on the revenue front. Me-TV splits 12 minutes of commercial time each hour with affiliates — far less inventory than most cable networks have. And unlike cable networks, Me-TV doesn't get subscription fees from cable and satellite providers. Sabin and Weigel have nonetheless proved diginets to be a viable business.
Weigel Broadcasting has grown from 100 to 360 employees during Sabin's tenure. While he would not disclose operating revenues or profits, Sabin said the Shapiros have spent "hundreds of millions of dollars" at his direction.
"What kind of drives me is that I cannot let them down, because they trusted me with so much," said Sabin, who was elevated to vice chairman of the company.
While the Shapiros are counting on Sabin, he continues to put his faith in the likes of Gilligan, whose ratings remain strong 50 years after being stranded on that island.
"It's lovable, mindless classic television," Sabin said. "Gilligan is an enduring character that people love, and the fact that it makes absolutely no sense at all, I guess is what people like."
Sabin on ...
The success of Me-TV: "One of the reasons I think Me-TV is doing so phenomenally well is, it is the antidote to reality television."
His reputation as a tough negotiator: "Everyone tells me I'm a grinder, and I think I give in way too easily."
An untold family secret: His sister once sponsored "TV Turnoff Week" in Wilmette.
His home life: He's an avid gardener at his house in the Southport corridor of the Lakeview neighborhood, which he shares with Jeff Jacek, his partner of 15 years.
On his vacation itinerary: Hiking and exploring the great outdoors in the Palm Springs, Calif., area. The fact that it is home to a Me-TV affiliate, he says, is irrelevant. "I just love getting lost in the mountains and sending pictures back," Sabin said. "It's total not-TV."
His least favorite Me-TV staple: "Hogan's Heroes." "I have trouble getting through a whole episode," Sabin said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun