Starting Tuesday, Comcast Cable systems here will begin carrying WGN America as part of their basic cable tier, including such first-run original programming as “Salem” and “Manhattan” and upcoming reality series “Wrestling with Death” and “Outlaw Country.”
Coinciding with the channel’s conversion from a superstation to a basic cable network, WGN America also will debut this week on cable systems in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Seattle.
“This transition represents another big step toward becoming a destination general entertainment network with robust original content and exclusive syndication,” Matt Cherniss, president and general manager of WGN America, told investors at a media conference in New York last week.
The conversion also means the end of all local newscasts, sports programming and Illinois Lottery drawings on WGN America. They’ll still be available to out-of-town viewers, however, through live, online streaming at wgntv.com. Local news from “Chicago’s Very Own” has been a staple of the superstation for more than 35 years. A company spokesman described it as “a business decision to focus on original programming as we move to becoming an entertainment cable network.”
Up until now, Cherniss said, WGN America had “almost no coverage in the third-largest market in the United States,” with only DirecTV and Dish Network customers able to watch in Chicago. After it’s no longer bound by the superstation restrictions, it can expand its distribution throughout the country and eventually transmit a second feed for West Coast time zones. “Once the entire conversion’s complete, we’ll launch a dual feed for the first time, thus expanding our primetime audience,” he said.
The architect of the plan to transform WGN America from a superstation to a basic cable network is Peter Liguori, CEO of Tribune Media, who previously turned FX into a cable powerhouse for News Corp. Last year Liguori hired Cherniss, a former production executive at Warner Bros., to rebrand and revitalize WGN America and run the newly formed Tribune Studios in Los Angeles. The two previously worked together at FX and Fox Broadcasting.
“WGNA was just kind of a nonexistent brand telecasting some Cub games and some Chicago news,” Liguori told the media conference in New York. “It was our thinking that there was zero doubt that we were going to go into affiliate renewals and lose WGNA. We were going to lose an asset that had 70 million homes. That is something you don’t fritter away. So we made the decision to invest in it.”
Additional programming scheduled to premiere on WGN America next year includes the exclusive syndicated series “Person of Interest” and “Elementary” and another original scripted drama series, “Outsiders” (formerly “Titans”).