Three's Company

TV classics are being dusted off for the digital age, and you don't need cable or the Internet to watch them.

Hits from the '70s (Three's Company), '60s (The Monkees) and even the '50s (Burns and Allen) make up the core of Antenna TV, a nostalgia-based network launched in January on over-the-air digital channels in about half the country. Antenna TV joins the throwback party started by Me-TV (Memorable Entertainment), the free TV home of Perry Mason, the original Hawaii Five-0 and The Dick Van Dyke Show. (Some cable services carry the networks as well.)

The programming is an inexpensive way to serve the new "multicast" stations created in 2009 when broadcast outlets received additional bandwidths for HD broadcasts with the switch to digital signals. Antenna TV and Me-TV believe they can move into the classic-TV niche long occupied by Nick at Nite and TV Land.

While both cable channels package old favorites, they have also added shows from the post—baby boomer '90s and even original programming. "It's left a niche for us," says Neal Sabin, executive vice president for Weigel Broadcasting Co., which runs Me-TV. Older series — or what executives prefer to call "library product" — may not be as appealing to young viewers but still have a kitschy appeal.

"Antenna TV is a comfort network," says Sean Compton, president of programming for Tribune Broadcasting, which owns the service. "It strikes an emotional chord with viewers."

Fifteen percent of America's homes still get TV through an antenna, and in some cities that percentage is higher. Homes with cable and satellite may also have a second set in a bedroom or kitchen that isn't wired. "It's not just old people," says Sabin. "It's a wide spectrum of consumers who like family programming."

Compton recalls discovering The Honeymooners when he was in eighth grade, back in the 1980s, and believes there are other TV fans out there willing to sample older fare. Sabin agrees. "We're not afraid of black-and-white," he says. "I would love us to become the Turner Classic Movies of TV."

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