Updated: Monday, August 4, 2014, 8 a.m. PT
In its bid to morph into a basic cable network that offers premium fare, à la AMC or FX, WGN America has launched two original series since April: Salem and Manhattan. Salem—inspired by the 17th century witch trials—was the stronger premiere, with an average of 1.5 million viewers. But Manhattan— a fictional retelling of the U.S. race to build the atom bomb during World War II—has received its fair share of critical buzz following the series’ July 27 premiere.
Both shows—Salem, produced by Twentieth Century Fox Television and Manhattan, produced by Lionsgate in conjunction with Skydance Productions—were sold to Hulu for concurrent runs. While Tribune-owned WGN America does not sell the shows, the net’s executives agreed when licensing the series to allow them to be sold in subscription video-ondemand (SVOD) deals.
“We are a network that is in a growth phase and looking to gain as much awareness as possible,” says Matt Cherniss, president and general manager of Tribune Studios and WGN America, explaining why the channel didn’t insist on retaining exclusivity for its originals, at least in their first seasons. “When you have a show as good as Manhattan, you want as many people as possible to see it. One of the ways we can get [viewers] is through an SVOD partner.”
Hulu Plus subscribers are able to see new episodes the day after they air on WGN America, while others can watch the five most recent episodes for free on Hulu’s basic service starting three days after their original airing.
Marketing is baked into the play: When a viewer watches the show either on Hulu or Hulu Plus, he first sees a screen with the words, “A WGN America Original.” During the episode, a WGN America bug rests in the lower left corner of the screen.
Cherniss says Lionsgate has worked closely with Tribune through the production and distribution process. “They’ve certainly filled us in as their partner and considered our needs,” he said. “ They knew that including our network signage was important to us.”
Tribune has also taken advantage of its large television station group to promote the show, airing the first episode on Tribune stations in all 33 of its markets over the series’ opening weekend. That move boosted viewership significantly, with nearly 1.4 million tuning in on WGN America on July 27, and another 400,000 watching via their local Tribuneowned affiliate over the weekend.
“That’s one of the advantages of having a station group with the scale of Tribune,” Cherniss says. “We didn’t want to lose the opportunity for that audience to sample the show, whatever the short-term impact that might have had on WGN America’s ratings.”
Beyond promoting its new series, WGN America also is using the opportunity to promote its new brand.
“I want this network to be a destination and home for high-quality programming that transports the audience to worlds they have never been to, that tells big, operatic stories in those worlds,” says Cherniss. “Whether those are period worlds or modern-day worlds, I want to see those places through a prism that we haven’t seen before.”
Going forward, Cherniss expects that WGN America, via Tribune Studios, will develop and produce its own shows. For now, he’s happy to work with partners, but down the road he’d be willing to “take all the risk if we found a show we wanted to wholly own and produce.”
CHANGES COMING TO LET’S ASK AMERICA, PATERNITY COURT
Two syndicated shows are getting tweaks heading into their new seasons.
Comedian Bill Bellamy is taking over hosting duties from Kevin Pereira on Scripps’ game show, Let’s Ask America, which is produced by Telepictures and ParaMedia.
This fall, Let’s Ask America will be distributed nationally by MGM Domestic Television Distribution, with the show’s third season premiering Sept. 8. Starting in January, it will air on GSN.
The series invites at-home viewers to play the game from the comfort of their living rooms, with Bellamy constantly polling the audience.
Meanwhile, MGM’s Paternity Court is changing its name to Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court, putting the show’s host in the title. The series is moving production from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where Family Feud, among other shows, is produced.