When superstations were created in the late 1970s, a trio of then-independent broadcasters let outside entities use cable operators and satellite transmission to build a national viewing constituency. Atlanta-based WTBS-TV was first out of the gate and, under Ted Turner, became the leader of this pack. WOR-TV was the New York City-based entrant, distributed by Eastern Microwave.
In the middle: WGN-TV out of Chicago, beloved to its local audience at the time for hour-long news airing weeknights at 9 pm Central time, Chicago Cubs baseball and Bulls basketball throughout the year and Bozo The Clown on Sundays year-round. The Tribune-owned indie, thanks to Tulsa-based transmitter United Video, ultimately became the second-largest U.S. superstation in household reach.
The Fall of the Superstation
Superstations went the way of Edsels by the turn of the millennium, thanks to the dissolution of their national distributors and programming alterations by the stations themselves. WTBS turned into a network highlighted by original and acquired comedy series, while WOR got married to News Corp. and affiliated with its My Network TV venture (more on that below). Five years ago, WGN’s nationwide version was redubbed WGN America. Bozo The Clown’s no more, but the rest of the lineup — primetime news, Cubs/Bulls games and plenty of off-net series — has stayed intact.
Since the name change, WGN America has hinted at higher ambitions of being a major cable/satellite channel, with original programs leading their way. When the hints looked like they would manifest into something big, something big got in the way, whether it was unstable management, limited resources or, more recently, Tribune’s bankruptcy.
A New Hope
With Tribune’s emergence from bankruptcy at the end of last year, looks like it’s now prep time for a clear highway to realize WGN America’s full potential. New Tribune CEO Peter Ligouri, formerly in key roles at Discovery Communications, Fox and FX, removed the breaks and hit the gas pedal earlier this week by naming former Warner Bros. executive and Fox/FX colleague Matt Chesniss WGN America’s President/General Manager and chief of a new Tribune Studios unit charged with supplying fare for both the network and Tribune’s 20-plus stations across the country.
In early interviews, Chesniss suggests he will hit any ground running to attract top series producers along with promising newbies for WGN America content. Don’t be surprised if the network has its first original scripted series in view before the end of the year, and far much more in that arena throughout 2014.
After playing middle fiddle as a superstation for years, WGN America finally has the resources coming in to be as important a network player as anyone out there. The corporate will at the top is there now for sure. Let’s see if the programming fortune follows.
It’s hard to fathom how 172 stations nationwide continue to fill up two hours of primetime each weeknight with My Network TV. The ratings are sub-micro and the reruns you find there are available elsewhere (and do better elsewhere at that). My Network TV comes over as the biggest waste of primetime space on broadcast TV, and it’s long overdue for their affiliates to rebel, put this venture out of its misery and make better use of these hours.
Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!