Comic book illustrations break up the white walls in Matt Cherniss’ Century City, Calif., office. And they are not just any illustrations; they’re original drawings from a series of Marvel comics Cherniss—now president and GM of WGN America and Tribune Studios—cowrote from 2004-09 as a side project with his friend Peter Johnson. Together, the pair penned stories about superheroes and dramatic action tales where fantasy met reality.
Cherniss still loves exploring different worlds. While his latest challenge is not his first big canvas, it is his first timne leading the charge as a division president. Before joining Tribune in 2013, Cherniss worked at Warner Bros., Fox and FX in programming and development, where he had a hand in shows including Fox’s Glee and FX’s Damages as well as Warner’s upcoming film 300: Rise of an Empire. Last April, Tribune Co. president and CEO Peter Liguori tapped Cherniss to relaunch Tribune Studios and rebrand WGN America. It’s a good thing Cherniss is familiar with the kinds of challenges that typically greet comic book heroes.
“I’ve seen Matt grow from being a kind of cub creative executive to being a very effective president of an important division of a company trying to transform itself,” says Liguori, who worked with Cherniss at both Fox and FX.
“It was an opportunity to take a network that had yet to sort of codify its brand, particularly with original programming, and to help create that brand,” says Cherniss.
WGNA recently nabbed cable syndication rights to CBS Television Studios’ Elementary and Blue Bloods as well as Warner Bros.’ Person of Interest. The net also has three original scripted series in development. Cherniss also runs the company’s production unit, Tribune Studios, which has stakes in syndicated talkers Serch, Arsenio, The Test and Bill Cunningham along with Celebrity Name Game, starring Craig Ferguson.
“I like that when you turn to WGN America, you are taken somewhere,” Cherniss says. “I feel like that’s something that I find in the shows I like best.”
The first place the network will take viewers is to the famed witch trials with the period drama Salem. Viewers will then travel to Los Alamos, N.M., to explore the lives of families who lived in the desert as their spouses or parents worked on the Manhattan Project. Ten Commandments is by far the most ambitious of WGNA’s three scripted series, featuring episodes on each commandment directed by a different filmmaker.
“I think that they’re provocative programming,” Cherniss says of the series. “But provocative for the sake of entertaining the audience, not just to do things that no one has done before.”
Cherniss, who began his career in research at Fox Broadcasting, hasn’t completely abandoned those research roots.
“He still brings a great appreciation of analysis, empiricism and logic, and marries that with creative instincts and innovation and thirst for, and comfort in, playing outside the box,” says Liguori.
Cherniss has quite a big box to play in at Tribune, which is perhaps why the exec says that as far as programming and acquisitions are concerned, he tries to keep an open mind. “We have incredibly valuable real estate in both WGN America and our local stations,” Cherniss says. “And…we want to have an ownership component in the programming that goes on our air.”
For Cherniss, it’s only the beginning: He ultimately wants WGNA to air 52 hours of original programming weekly.
When the exec isn’t splitting most of his work time relatively equally between Tribune Studios and WGNA, you can find him at home with his wife, Christy, and two boys. Somehow, there’s also time left over for being what Liguori calls “a geek’s geek.”
“The one other special aspect of Matt is he’s a geek, and he’s not a closeted geek,” says Liguori with a chuckle. “The second thing is, he won’t admit it, but he’s a [New York] Jets fan. And the suffering is good for him.”