How Did WGN America So Quickly Become a Formidable Player in the Scripted TV Game?

L-R: Manhattan, Underground, Outsiders. Photo: WGN

At a time when Netflix and Amazon rack up dozens of Emmy nominations, Twitter pays millions to land NFL rights, and YouTube makes its own shows, the idea of a decades-old cable channel such as WGN America jumping into the original scripted-series game isn’t particularly novel. What is a bit surprising is how quickly the Chicago-based network has found success. Since mid-March, two first-year WGN dramas — the John Legend-produced slavery-era thriller Underground and the Appalachian-set soap Outsiders — have been staples on Nielsen’s list of the top-20 scripted cable series, with both regularly outdrawing highly touted freshman fare, such as HBO’s expensive new period piece Vinyl; A&E’s The Omen spinoff Damien; and FX’s Zach Galifianakis comedy Baskets. Meanwhile, the supernatural-themed Salem has developed a devoted following and will be back for a third season in October. And while the Mad Men-esque Cold War drama Manhattan was canceled in February after two seasons, the show drew critical raves and helped the network burnish its reputation as a destination for quality fare.

WGN’s decision to evolve beyond its decades-old diet of Chicago sports and syndicated shows, such as NCIS reruns, is paying off. Largely boosted by Outsiders and Underground, WGN’s overall audience shot up 51 percent during the first three months of 2016 (versus the same quarter a year ago), with doubledigit improvements in key demographics as well. Also encouraging: January’s record-breaking premiere audience for Outsiders was surpassed just two months later by the debut of Underground, signaling that WGN — like AMC and FX before it— is starting to develop its own core of regular viewers willing to at least sample each of its new shows. And compared to its normal diet of syndicated reruns on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Outsiders and Underground are both improving WGN’s ratings among adult viewers under 50 by nearly 900 percent. Given how tough it is for any network these days to stand out in the age of Endless TV, WGN’s ability to establish itself as a legit player in the scripted game so quickly is pretty impressive.

Vulture recently rang up WGN America president and general manager Matt Cherniss — an alum of FX and Fox — to discuss his network’s programming evolution, whether there’s a common theme to the channel’s three hit shows, and what (if anything) he learned by the failure of Manhattan to connect with audiences. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

WGN survived and succeeded for years as a superstation, with syndicated reruns, and Chicago news and sports. Why did your owners feel the need to jump into the world of scripted original programming, particularly at a time when that marketplace has been getting so crowded? 
You have to have, in this day and age, something that is unique unto you. The days in which a network could exist in a world purely supported by syndicated programming, acquired series from other networks, and still distinguish itself has passed. Within that, there is more than one choice: You can distinguish yourself with sports, you can distinguish yourself with unscripted, you can distinguish yourself with scripted shows. I don’t think there’s one way to do it. [But] I do think scripted television, particularly as it relates to branding yourself and garnering attention, is one of the stronger and more provocative ways to do it without putting on hundreds of [reality] shows.

Is there a bigger business rationale behind bulking up on scripted, especially now? Established TV brands, from the broadcast networks to the big dinosaurs of cable such as USA and TNT, are struggling to hold on to their audiences. What made it seem like a good time for yet another player in the non-digital space? 
There are a couple answers to that. The first is, despite the way it was being programmed when we arrived, WGN America was still a really valuable piece of real estate. We were in just under 70 million homes. It’s not an easy thing to just wake up one morning and have a network in 70 million homes. When we looked at that asset, we said, “We want to grow the asset, but we also want to preserve it.” In this rapidly changing environment, there’s risk that this asset may not be here in five or ten years if we don’t invest in it. Given the valuable real estate it is, and given the other resources that Tribune Media has, this is something we think is worthwhile to invest in, despite the transition that businesses are going through.

The second part, as to whether it’s a good time or a bad time — one of the benefits of the transition that’s taken place is, ten or 12 years ago, there were very few places where the audience had an expectation [for] quality original programming. What’s happened over ten years or so is that the audience in many ways has become agnostic to the idea that there are only certain places that can do quality programming. Their experience with places like Netflix or Hulu, or any of the other traditional networks that have put on quality shows, and shows that have been meaningful to them is, they’re no longer saying, “I don’t watch that network” or “I’m only a viewer of this.” They seek out the shows that interest them.

As a newcomer, one of the advantages you have [now] is, you don’t have to break down a barrier to people [thinking] that there are only a couple of places capable of producing quality programming. People still have their go-to places. But more than ever, people associate themselves with the programming they like, more than the network that they watch. Even though it’s really competitive, and there’s a lot of noise out there, you can break through.

When you started out developing shows back in 2013, 2014, was there a brand already in mind? Were you charged with developing a certain kind of show?
I don’t know that we had a specific, definable brand in mind. We were importing an aesthetic, a belief in quality scripted programming. When you’re a general entertainment network, your brand develops more over time as you gain a better understanding of your audience, as you gain traction with certain shows that can lead you to a sense of how you can define yourself specifically, apart from all the other networks that are on the air. You can aspire to a certain level of quality, you can decide whether to focus on drama or comedy, but the level of success that certain shows meet helps guide your brand and the direction you can take the network.

So you weren’t aiming at any particular niche of the audience, the way Freeform, for example, goes after millennial women?
We were confident in our ability to build a general entertainment network that had fairly equal appeal as far as male and female, targeted at the 25–54 demographic. That was where we felt WGN America was closest to at the time that we arrived. It had sports, it had syndicated comedies and dramas, and was in the vein of a general entertainment network. So rather than strip it completely down to the studs, it felt like the wiser decision was to build and curate a general entertainment brand that didn’t become hyperfocused on one demographic.

Beyond trying to make shows you thought would be good, were there other elements you looked for in your early development, particularly with what would be your first show, Salem?
I needed a show that not only was going to be good and well-executed, but would stand apart from everything else on television from the sheer look of it. When I see a billboard for a show on one of the more established networks, I see the image, I see the logo in the corner, and I’m like, “Okay, I know where that is.” For us, I need someone to see the image, for it to make an impact on them, then they’re going to see WGN America, and some people are going to go, “What is that? Is that a streaming service? Is that a cable network? What channel is it?” You need a show that stands apart from everything else on television, or [viewers] won’t bother to take any of those steps. If the show looks or feels like something on someone else’s network, you’ll find it on that network. You probably won’t spend the extra time and effort to seek it out. That was really important to us when we were looking at those initial shows.

How have your first shows met that test?
When you look at Salem, which was a show we felt was a provocative concept, well-executed, had elements of genre within it, but also a world that we hadn’t seen on television before. Those things made the show really interesting and appealing to me as a show to launch the network with. And not only entertain the audience, but make a statement that this is a new network with a new identity that was being formed. Our second show, Manhattan, had a really interesting world that hadn’t been explored on television before, executed at a very high level [with] great auspices. We followed that up with Outsiders, which is a modern-day show but really asks some fundamental questions about this idea of the price of modernity. What would it be like to live life by our own rules, and on a more rugged level, which I think a lot of people wonder about in their own day when they’re stuck in traffic going to work. And, certainly, Underground, which looks at the first integrated civil-rights movement in the U.S., but has a lot of relevance to our world today.

And now that you’ve got four shows under your belt, do you think you’ve got a better handle on the WGN America brand?
I can step back now and say, this is a network that looks to tell American stories — not just in how they’re set, but as they relate to us as Americans today. I’d be lying if I said that was the mindset of the brand we had when we walked through the door, but the shows helped define it for us.

Manhattan, specifically in season two, got some amazing reviews. A lot of networks are renewing shows now even though the numbers aren’t great. What went into your decision to not move forward with a third season when there seemed to be some brand equity there? Was it the fact that you see show such as Outsiders and now Underground come on and immediately do so much better?
Both those shows came on after the decision to not go forward with Manhattan, so that didn’t play into the decision. It really was a decision based on the commercial viability of the show. It was a fantastic show. It was incredibly well-reviewed. It had a place for us in the defining of our brand, and that’s something we’ll always be appreciative of, as well. Sam [Shaw] and Tommy [Schlamme] did a wonderful show, and it was a painful decision to not move forward. But you do have to acknowledge the audience of a show, or the lack thereof. Despite best efforts of all involved, we were just unable to generate a meaningful audience for that show and had to make a decision about where our resources were going to go in the future.

Did you learn anything from that experience in terms of what works or not for WGN?
No. I don’t take a lot of lessons from it. I think it was quality television that deserved a much bigger audience than it received. Unfortunately, sometimes shows don’t connect.

Do you see any connection between Outsiders and Underground in terms of why both are working on WGN? They seem, on the surface at least, to be very different shows. 
On the face of them, they appear to be very different. When you get underneath them, and you really look at the stories being told, these are stories about characters that are struggling with the world they live in and the world that they want to live in. They’re telling epic narratives as they go on these journeys. So while the subject matter may be very different, there’s a commonality to the experience of watching the shows. If you look anecdotally online, a lot of people say, “I’m watching Underground and Outsiders.” It’s a great combo on Tuesday and Wednesday.

One thing I get asked a lot about on Twitter is why your shows are not easily accessible via Hulu, VOD, or your own streaming service. Is that going to change? 
Shortly you’ll see Outsiders and Underground — there should be some other places that [they] start to show up. Salem has been on Netflix. Manhattan was on Hulu. I don’t have any news on Underground and Outsiders and when or what platforms they’ll go to, but that’s certainly within the plan and structure. Sony, our [studio] partner, is responsible for making those deals and determinations, and they’re in the process of doing so on those shows. And very shortly — within weeks — our website is going to have the ability to stream the latest episodes of each of the shows. We were able to put both the first three episodes of Outsiders and the first three episodes of Underground on Crackle, with Sony as partner, and that’s been really helpful. We’ve been driving as many viewers as we can, who haven’t seen the linear episodes, to Crackle.

How many shows would you like to have as part of your schedule?
We’ve always said that our goal is to have 52 weeks of original programming. That’s what I feel is a healthy amount and would put us in good stead.

Does that mean one show every quarter?
Yeah. That’s how I break it down. Right now we have two shows on within the same quarter. I don’t know if I would say there can never be a week where we don’t have an original series, but in general, that’s what we’d like to build to.

So you’d like to have four or five scripted shows?
Four is a great number.

Assuming Underground is renewed, you’ll have three weekly series. What is on your development slate to fill that fourth slot?
We picked up two pilots. One is Scalped, which is based on the DC Vertigo comic book written by Jason Aaron. It’s set in the modern-day world of an Indian reservation. There’s a crime element to the story. There’s a big family drama at the center of it. I just think it’s a really great world. I don’t know that anyone’s ever put a series on the air with a predominantly Native American cast, so the show could distinguish itself from everything else on television. And [we’ve ordered] Roadside Picnic, which is based on a novel written back in the ‘70s, maybe the early ‘80s. It’s our first step toward a sci-fi element, but it’s a very grounded science-fiction world that looks more at the impact on human beings of an extraterrestrial event than on the actual extraterrestrials themselves.

You also announced a limited series with the Weinstein Company based on the Ten Commandments. Is it still going forward?
That’s still in development right now. It may move forward at a later date, but right now we’re still working on it. It’s been a difficult show to tie in the individual episodes with directors and writers.

It’s not uncommon for younger cable networks to rebrand themselves as part of their evolution. Is that something on the horizon for WGN, especially since it’s so associated with your roots as a local TV station?
I suppose it’s an option. I’m always open to the idea of a rebrand. When we started one of the biggest things for us was to transition the network from a superstation to a basic cable network. [It] took the better part of two years to get done. It’s not an easy thing to do. You have to renegotiate with almost every single [cable operator], and that took a long time. But the truth is, we’ve spent so much time and effort finally getting people to be aware of WGN America as a home for our programming that to then change the name and then have to recommunicate to all those people what our name is? I think your shows brand and define you much more than your call letters. FX is Fox without the “o”, right? But that’s not what defines it. The shows that are on it define it. I don’t know how many people can tell you what AMC stands for, but they can tell you The Walking Dead is on that network. I really believe the shows are your primary asset for branding, and being associated with those shows is ultimately what is going to make that association for the viewer.

What’s Going on at WGN America?