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.