The Tribune Co. is hoping World Wrestling Entertainment can do for its WGN America what Vince McMahon's cast of characters has done for so many other networks: pump up viewership.
Tribune and WWE have locked into a deal for a new first-run series, WWE Superstars, which is set for an April launch on the Tribune cable channel, airing on Thursdays at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. There will also be a Saturday midday run. Tribune and WWE have worked out a two-year deal for the program.
Ed Wilson, Tribune's chief revenue officer/broadcasting president, says the media giant was eager to enter the ring with WWE ever since the rights to Smackdown went to MyNetworkTV from its former home on The CW last February. It airs on Fridays on MNT. “It's one of those franchises that, when you have the opportunity to do something with it, you do it,” Wilson says.
Heroes, Heels and Divas
Tribune is paying a license fee for the program, which will be produced by WWE. Wilson would not offer specifics about the hour-long Superstars but says it will feature all the popular Superstars and Divas (female wrestlers), and McMahon's trademark storylines involving the WWE's various heroes and heels.
“It's what makes those guys the best at what they do,” Wilson says.
WWE has previously produced programming under the Superstars moniker, both in syndication and on USA Network. That show's format had often been a clip show of other programming.
Tribune, of course, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Dec. 8 as the company works to chip away at its massive debt load. Tribune Chairman/CEO Sam Zell cited a brutal “perfect storm” of economic conditions as the reason.
According to Wilson, negotiations with WWE were well down the road when Tribune announced Chapter 11, and Tribune executives made a point of reaching out to WWE to emphasize that Tribune was still keen to get Superstars on the air.
“They were one of the first calls we made [after filing for Chapter 11],” Wilson says.
Action for Stations?
Tribune owns 23 stations in addition to its WGN America cable channel. Wilson says the agreement does not involve the stations—which include 13 CW affiliates, seven Fox outlets, a pair of MyNetworkTVs and an ABC affiliate—but didn't rule out the possibility of expanded distribution down the road.
Besides drawing young viewers to MyNetworkTV for Smackdown, WWE programming currently bolsters cable networks like Sci Fi (ECW) and USA (Raw). “It's probably one of the most proven properties on cable TV,” Wilson says. “We take our hat off to WWE—we couldn't be more happy with [the deal].”