The overhaul of WGN America in anticipation of parent Tribune’s acquisition by Sinclair continues. Matt Cherniss, who oversaw WGNA’s transformation from a superstation to a cable network and home of high-end original drama series, will be stepping down at the end of the month. He has served as president and general manager of WGN America and Tribune Studios since March 2013.
Veteran Gavin Harvey, previously CEO of The Sportsman Channel and GM of Fuse Networks, has been tapped as interim president.
While Cherniss had been rumored for a slew of high-profile jobs in the past few weeks, including head of programming at AMC, Sony TV and PlayStation, he is expected to take some time before deciding on his next move.
“I’ve had the great honor of leading the transformation of WGN America from a superstation to a fully distributed cable network, and the great privilege of leading a talented and wonderful team,” said Cherniss. “I am tremendously proud of all of the strides we’ve made and what we were able to accomplish in a short period of time.” (You can read his farewell note to his colleagues below the story.)
Cherniss’ departure follows a sharp turn in WGNA’s programming strategy under Tribune interim CEO Peter Kern, who replaced Peter Liguori after he left the company in March. The strategy was accelerated after Sinclair Broadcast’s deal to acquire Tribune, with Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley noting that WGNA “is already going to be shifting its strategy away from high-cost originals into more cost-effective originals and reruns.”
Brought in by Liguori, Cherniss was tasked with launching WGNA as a player in the original scripted series space which he did with Salem, Manhattan, Outsiders and Underground. With him at the helm, the network’s advertisers more than doubled and distribution increased by nearly 10 million homes.
WGNA debuted its first original series Salem in 2014, premiering to record highs for the network, followed by Manhattan, which garnered WGNA’s first-ever Emmy Award, as well as Outsiders and the critically praised Underground, which consistently ranked among the top 20 cable dramas on television.
“We are grateful to Matt for his leadership, and creative vision in transforming WGN America,” Kern said. “He’s had a tremendous impact on the company, and we thank him for his significant contributions.”
With Liguori and Cherniss gone, next on the list is Cherniss’ top lieutenant, SVP Scripted Programming Jon Wax, who also is being mentioned for available programming jobs.
Harvey also has done stints at FX and E.
“I’ve been fortunate to work closely with Gavin over the years, and he is a terrific executive with an impressive track record of building brands and delivering programming that resonates with viewers, advertisers and distributers,” said Kern. “I have no doubt that he can steer WGN America to continued growth and profitability.”
Here is Cherniss’ note:
As Peter has just announced, I’ll be moving on from my role here at WGN America. I do so with great pride for what we have accomplished, but also with a heavy heart because I will miss working with you all very much. Nothing to this point in my career has been as thrilling to witness as what you’ve achieved as a team, in concert with a group of truly talented creators.
A change in strategy sometimes entails a change in leadership, and this is such a case.
Unlike most established networks where a president inherits a large team of employees, most of us leapt into the unknown together, and over the past four years, transformed WGN America from a superstation to a fully distributed cable network with a strong foundation that achieved record ratings for the network. That meant, together, we had to build a Marketing, Research, Publicity, Business Affairs, Programming, and Scheduling department from scratch. Fortunately, we had a great group already in place in sales and operations, and together, it was your entrepreneurial spirit that enabled us to succeed in spite of some serious headwinds in the business. It is those same talents that will allow you all to continue to prosper.
Of all the decisions I made while here, the thing I am most proud of are my decisions in building this team. You are a fantastic group of individuals, full of talent and integrity, for whom I wish only the best going forward, and for whom I will always be indebted to.
My hope for all of you is that you continue to flourish here and continue the ratings momentum, that you never stop taking risks in life and that you are rewarded for it, and that you all continue to support artists who are willing to take their own risks as they seek to entertain and tell powerful stories like Underground, Outsiders, Salem and Manhattan.
I’d especially like to thank my team of Jon, Rita, Robin, Alan, Dave, Brian, Sonia, and Lenny for their hard work and friendship all along the way.
For me, it’s time to move on to a new challenge, and hopefully that challenge includes an office of some sort with walls to hang my comic book art, since my wife has made it clear (rightly so) that I’ve exceeded my allotment for the house.
I’ll be here for the next few weeks helping in the transition and look forward to spending a bit more time with you all.