WGN America is officially out of the high-end original scripted series business. As expected, the cable network today cancelled acclaimed drama Underground after two seasons. It follows the recent cancellation of fellow drama Outsiders as WGN America is changing its programming course, while its parent Tribune is preparing for its acquisition by Sinclair.
“As WGN America evolves and broadens the scope and scale of its portfolio of series, we recently announced that resources will be reallocated to a new strategy to increase our relevance within the rapidly changing television landscape. This move is designed to deliver additional value for our advertising and distribution partners and offer viewers more original content across our air,” Tribune Media President and CEO Peter Kern said. “Despite Underground being a terrific and important series, it no longer fits with our new direction and we have reached the difficult decision not to renew it for a third season. We are tremendously proud of this landmark series that captured the zeitgeist and made an impact on television in a way never before seen on the medium. We thank the incomparable creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski and the great John Legend, along with the talented creative team and cast who brought the unsung American heroes of the Underground Railroad to life. We are grateful to the loyal fans of Underground and our partners at Sony Pictures Television. It is our hope that this remarkable show finds another home and continues its stories of courage, determination and freedom.”
At the time of WGNA’s cancellation of fellow sophomore drama Outsiders in April, Sony Pictures TV, which produces both series, exposed Underground to other networks in hope of finding a new home as the writing was already on the wall at WGNA as Tribune was preparing itself for a sale. BET, OWN and Hulu, who has Underground streaming rights, had been mentioned as obvious possibilities at the time and were all approached. I hear BET came close to a deal for the drama, about a key event in African American history, before the Viacom cable network pulled out.
While most avenues outside of WGN America had been exhausted, Sony TV was planning one final push this week, with OWN reportedly still in the mix, and Hulu still interested in being involved. However, I hear the show’s big price tag could be an issue in finding a new network home.
The cancellation of Underground follows Sinclair Broadcast CEO Chris Ripley’s comments when his company’s $3.9 billion deal to buy Tribune Media was announced earlier this month.
WGNA “is already going to be shifting its strategy away from high-cost originals into more cost-effective originals and reruns” now that Peter Kern is interim CEO of Tribune — replacing Peter Liguori, who left the company in March — Ripley said at the time.
“We think that is the right path for WGNA,” he added. The ratings don’t “justify the type of spending that they do on the original programming side. We believe quite firmly that that channel could be run much more profitably just racking a fraction of what they spend on programming and return that to station profitability.”
WGNA is not necessarily getting out of the original scripted business though it clearly won’t be doing high-end dramas like Underground anymore.
While 21st Century Fox, which also reportedly bid for Tribune, is a content company that is in the premium original programming business and owns cable networks, Sinclair is a station owner, as is Tribune.
“WGNA and its scripted series are becoming collateral damage in the merger of two local station businesses who are focusing on what’s right financially in the short term,” one industry observer said. “There is a lot of value to be monetized with premium original programming longterm.”
It is worth noting that WGN America General Manager Matt Cherniss did not issue a statement on the Underground cancellation. Brought in by Liguori, Cherniss comes from scripted background and was tasked with launching WGNA as a player in the original scripted series space. He did that with Salem, Manhattan, Outsiders and Underground, of which he has been a big advocate.
Tribune already had lowered its investment in Underground and Outsiders, which were co-productions between Sony TV and Tribune Studios in Season 1. Tribune pulled out as a co-producer for the second seasons of both shows. Outsiders was canceled shortly after WGN America touted March as its most watched primetime month in history on the strength of the Outsiders-Underground combo. Underground‘s linear ratings tapered off after a strong start alongside Outsiders but have been stable. And the series, which explores the famed underground railroad network that helped smuggle slaves from the South to freedom, scored a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating for its second season.
Underground, executive produced by John Legend, Akiva Goldsman and Anthony Hemingway, has been a strong ambassador for WGN America. The series, starring Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge and Christopher Meloni, had a screening at the White House last year and was selected as the inaugural public program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture with a screening at the new Oprah Winfrey Theater.
The series received four NAACP Image Awards, including outstanding drama series, outstanding actress in a drama series for Smollett-Bell, supporting actress for Amirah Vann and directing for Anthony Hemingway.
The cancellation of Underground comes a couple of weeks after the series’ second-season finale aired earlier this month. Outsiders‘ cancellation came 10 days before that series’ Season 2 finale, giving fans two episodes to bid the show goodbye. Underground viewers won’t have that opportunity if the show does not find a home elsewhere.