Over the last few months, thanks to this heated (and now mercifully over) presidential race, I have found myself increasingly seeking the comfort of nostalgia in my TV viewing. But rather than the usual sources like Nick at Nite or TV Land, I've been turning to the likes of MeTV (aka Memorable Entertainment Television) for reruns of "I Love Lucy," "Petticoat Junction," "Batman" and "The Twilight Zone;" to Antenna TV for episodes of "Hazel," "Father Knows Best" and "One Day at a Time;" and to Cosi TV, which hosts classics like "The Munsters" and "Little House on the Prairie."
Known as "diginets," these digital sub-channels (which also include Bounce TV, getTV, Buzzr and Decades, among others) were created to fill new space on the digital spectrum that became available when the TV industry converted from analog to digital transmission in 2009. Offered by stations in individual markets, the diginets can be found all over the dial. If you're a chronic channel flipper, odds are good you've watched a few moments of them without knowing it.
Because the channels were essentially extras at the time, their owners in this case (Tribune Media, NBC Universal, Weigel Broadcasting, etc.) filled them with repeat telecasts of classic television series and movies.
Initially, Baby Boomers were the target audience, and direct-response advertising was the primary source of any revenue. And in the absence of any ratings from Nielsen or Rentak, the advertising also served as the primary source of measurement.
"Direct response advertising was the best way initially to measure individual success," explained Tom Troy, Senior Vice President, Distribution, Networks, US, Sony Pictures Television (which owns getTV). "If you are losing advertisers, it is not working, which can tell you how you are doing."
But with time came proof via the local ratings that many of these diginets were out-rating some of their higher profile competitors, thanks largely to the classic TV content—which apparently some Americans (like me) can't get enough of. What average guy in his 50s, after all, would not want to revisit "Mannix?"
The combination of the low-overhead and the often decent ratings has resulted in a lot of attention paid to these little networks of late. "The investment in the programming is not a great expense—there is certainly plenty of it—and the outlets could sell it, and still profit, at a very low CPM when you are up against normal networks," said Robert Russo, President and CEO of RNR Media Consulting. "In many cases the audience deliveries for these nostalgia diginets are actually outdelivering many of these networks that have been around forever. Even on the local end there seems to be interest."
"There is definitely an audience for these evergreen series, especially with the Baby Boomer generation now in their 50s and 60s who find comfort in the shows of their past," added Billie Gold, VP Director of Programming Research at Amplifi US. "Advertisers who want to engage with the Baby Boomer audience may buy it to increase their potential reach at a very low price."
Now, some of these diginets, like MeTV, Bounce TV and Cosi TV, are being rated nationally, which gives them the credibility of Nielsen's national measurement service. One result is bigger-name sponsorships, like Geico on MeTV and Toyota and McDonald's on Bounce TV.
Sure enough, that has now led to the once-unimaginable: original content on a diginet. Bounce TV is now featuring original series, calling to mind the rapid rise of individual cable networks in the 1980s and 1990s (like E! and FX, for example) that used a potpourri of classic fare as a launching pad to legitimacy.
Bounce TV, at present, is home to original sitcoms "Mann & Wife," "In the Cut" and "Family Time;" and drama "Saints & Sinners," which opened last March with 1.3 million viewers. Bounce TV, in fact, bested competing BET among the African American audience in seven of the eight Sunday nights the first season of "Saints & Sinners" aired last spring. And "Ed Gordon," its first original magazine series, launched this past September.
Another diginet, Decades, the corporate cousin of MeTV, features original signature program "Through the Decades," hosted by Bill Kurtis, which taps into the resources of CBS News and "Entertainment Tonight" to offer items of note themed to each particular day.
"I imagine more of the diginets will start being nationally rated," said RNR Media Consulting's Rob Russo. "More will jump onto the growing original content bandwagon, and the end result could be interest from more national advertisers. While the rapid rise in these diginets could ultimately cannibalize one another, what may have seemed like nothing more than an initial way to fill the airwaves is morphing into a legitimate niche platform."