Tonight, WGN America launches the second season of its drama Outsiders, which taps into the struggles of small town America. Along with hit Underground Railroad thriller Underground, Outsiders was a breakout, helping fledgling WGN America to post double-digit year-over-year ratings growth in 2016, up +16% in total viewers from 2015, and grow its reach to 83 million homes.
In an interview with Deadline, WGN America General Manager Matt Cherniss talks about the network’s growing pains; its first foray into original series with Salem and Manhattan, which ran for 3 and 2 seasons, respectively; its success with Underground and Outsiders; the mixed results for off-network acquisitions; the status of current pilots Roadside Picnic and Scalped; owning the America part of the network’s name; as well as growing WGNA, which is yet to become profitable, while parent company Tribune is exploring a sale.
DEADLINE: How has it been trying to build up a new original scripted series player in the era of Peak TV?
CHERNISS: When I started, I knew that I wanted our brand to be centered around high quality dramas, and I knew that our dramas had to stand out in some way; if they looked like something that was on somewhere else nobody would ever find WGN America. There are 445 or so original scripted series on television. When you hear a number like that, part of your instinct is ‘oh, we better catch up to get in the game’. But part of me is, if you are happy with the shows you have, if you don’t think a show really has the potential to break out, than don’t do it, there are 445 shows. I find myself, and the network finds itself in that place right now — let’s balance our desire to grow and get more shows on the air but with the knowledge that there are 400 some shows, but let’s also make sure we really feel that we are taking a bold step with that next show we put on.
DEADLINE: Why did you start with Salem and Manhattan?
CHERNISS: It may be the history major in me, but I’ve always been curious about someone telling a story about a time and place I have a very simplistic understanding of. I’ve always felt that when you find a single word like Salem and Manhattan, that is a great place to start because there is curiosity, there is some level of awareness but not where people feel they’ve seen it a hundred times. Both were spec scripts, we didn’t have a huge group of development. Both were, I felt, high quality and both aspired to have a bit of a genre in them. I really believe that if you are doing something about a point and moment in time, or a subculture, if you can imbue it with a sense of genre that would invite a whole another group of people. Maybe I don’t care about the place Salem but I like supernatural. Maybe I’m not all that interested in the Manhattan Project but I love a good spy story. The merging of those made them feel like shows I felt had an opportunity for success and an opportunity to bring an eyeball to the network. At the end of the day, Manhattan wasn’t able to generate a large enough audience, and I think that Salem ran its course and told its story.
DEADLINE: What About Outsiders and Underground?
CHERNISS: We developed Outsiders, Underground came to us at a very early stage, and each had that genre element to it, the sort of Prison Break genre element, the family epic drama element. When I looked at all four shows, I felt these shows all had something to say about America, whether they took place 400 years ago or present day like Outsiders, they were really speaking to us and had something to say today. It occurred to me that If we could make America in WGN America mean something, not just be part of a name but something that we can own that, that would be a good way to define ourselves.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about that spotlight on America. In the new political environment post-elections, there has been an effort on the part of some networks to better reflect parts of America than may not be well represented on TV. Is that something you will be focusing on?
CHERNISS: I want to keep the flexibility. I want to think about what we’ve done in the past and the present. Could you do a sci-fi show that speaks to that in a direction away that takes place in the future? I don’t want to leave to a very specific historic time but I do think it’s important to keep that in mind as we look at the programming. You look at a show like Scalped, and that’s an obvious fit. If that turns out great that would fit. Roadside Picnic does not have such a direct point, but if you look at what the show is about, I think it becomes more prevalent.
DEADLINE: What is the status of the two drama pilots you have, Roadside Picnic, based on the Strugatsky brothers’ classic, and Scalped, based on the DC comic. Roadside Picnic has been completed, right?
CHERNISS: We haven’t made a decision on that yet, it’s forthcoming. (Director) Alan Taylor and the cast did a really good job we’re still in the process of figuring it out. Scalped will feature a predominantly Native American cast, this is the first scripted series that I know of to do that, to explore those notions in a modern day sensibility. We’re in the process of finding a director for that.
DEADLINE: Could you conceivably pick up both to series?
CHERNISS: I think we could. No one’s ever said to me, you don’t have the money to do that but I do feel like I have to fight for the shows that I want to make, I have to have the courage of my conviction that this show will make a meaningful contribution to this network.
DEADLINE: WGNA made several high-profile off-network acquisitions of Person of Interest, Elementary and Blue Bloods. There were write-downs associated with the first two shows. Will the network’s portfolio continue to feature a mix of original and off-network series?
CHERNISS: Syndication is still something you can make work but you have to be very vigilant about the cost you spend on these shows because let’s be honest, people are watching television differently now, and there is still an audience for syndicated shows. There is still way to program them successfully, and Blue Bloods is an example of a show that has been very successful for us in syndication, but I think that if you overspend with the sense that you must have something, you can find yourself in a situation where the shows aren’t profitable for you, and I think that’s happened over the past three years, and it’s something that the business is going to reckon with.
DEADLINE: What about unscripted? Any plans to add that to the original programming mix?
CHERNISS: Still no on unscripted. We’re going to stick with dramas, it could be a comedic drama but hourlong — and really trying to establish ourselves as clearly as we can. The goal is to have four shows airing over the year’s 52 weeks. Now we are in a place where Underground and Outsiders are healthy and doing the highest ratings out of any of the scripted shows.
DEADLINE: You are operating in an environment where parent company Tribune Media is exploring a sale? Do you have enough certainty to plan ahead?
CHERNISS: I came here with (Tribune CEO) Peter (Liguori), Peter is a believer in the strategy and a supporter, and I think that whatever they call them, the strategic alternatives that are taking place, they have not impacted our business. I have been able to make the shows that we believe in, I have been able to buy things when I felt like were important to us. Public companies are always for sale, I suppose, but I feel that as long as Peter’s there, there is a strong base to continue the strategy.