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Weigel, MGM Hope 'This' Thing's a Hit

Weather Plus demise opens door for digital channel 10/24/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Viewers in Chicago, Milwaukee and several other markets will have some fresh entertainment options this weekend, as the digital channel This TV launches Nov. 1.

Two and a half years in the making, This TV is a joint venture between MGM and Weigel Broadcasting that taps MGM's 4,000-plus film library to program a 24/7, ad-supported digital network.

This TV bosses say the venture offers credibility, in the form of an established broadcaster, and viability, in terms of MGM's storied history in the film industry. “One of the principals owns the product,” says Weigel Broadcasting Executive VP Neal Sabin. “That's a real differentiator.”

While some might wonder about the wisdom of launching a channel amidst a chilly economic climate, others believe the timing might just be ideal. Recessionary times tend to boost television viewing, and many may be reconsidering what they're shelling out each month for premium cable as they tighten their budgets.

The prospect of a free movie at home, albeit a less current one, is also more appealing to some than paying for cinema tickets. “People are choosing free entertainment over pay entertainment,” says Frank N. Magid Senior VP Bill Hague. “They're not going out to restaurants as much; a lot of them are staying home, watching television. This is a pretty compelling idea.”

This TV launches on Weigel's WCIU Chicago and WDJT Milwaukee, among others, this Saturday, though some of MGM's 115-odd horror films may pop up a day early in a Halloween soft launch. The principals say they've got agreements in more than 30 markets, but were not prepared to divulge station partners at presstime.

Sabin and MGM Executive VP of Broadcast Strategy John Bryan say the film offerings will run the Hollywood gamut, from Depression-era classics to Beach Blanket Bingo and Elvis Presley films to more contemporary hits. WCIU, for one, will kick off the channel with the Spike Lee classic She's Gotta Have It at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sharon Stone in The Calendar Girl Murders at 10.

“We're casting a very wide net with our movies,” Sabin says, in an effort to make an esoteric connection with fans of all genres.

The offerings will be complemented by a small batch of vintage TV programs, such as Mr. Ed and the original Outer Limits. Station partners will have the option to “time shift” the schedule, the This execs say, to slot in local programming like news.

This TV launches as the multicast landscape expands in advance of the analog shutoff in February. The demise of Weather Plus on the digital tiers of 80-plus NBC affiliates opens up doors for other digital networks. Options include the bilingual music channel LATV; entertainment channel .2 (pronounced “dot two”), which launches in December; and RTN, which counts 95 affiliates and is adding more original programming to its vintage shows.

RTN Executive VP Mark Dvornik says there's room at the table for more players. “These networks offer local broadcasters an opportunity to drive more money to the bottom line,” he says. “And the viewer benefits from finding these gold nuggets out there.”

Weigel has had success with quirky niche channels airing aging programming, such as its independent “The U,” “Me-TV” and “Me-Too” channels in Chicago. MGM, for its part, announced a pact with Comcast to launch the on-demand channel Impact, which offers action films from the MGM trove for Comcast subscribers. That debuted in August.

Cookie Jar Entertainment will handle This's children's programming. Jim Marketti, head of the production agency Marketti Creative Group, was brought on as This creative director in September. Marketing campaigns will play on the “This” name, such as “This is the place for movies” and “This is the channel.”

Bryan describes This as the rare ad-supported broadcast movie network. Magid's Hague agrees there's an underserved niche there. “Local stations don't really do movies anymore,” he says.

Bryan and Sabin believe they've got a turnkey solution for broadcasters trying to figure out how to program—and make money on—their digital real estate. “If you do it right,” Bryan says, “you're building a new TV station in the marketplace.”

E-mail comments to michael.malone@reedbusiness.com

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