Matt Cherniss Exits as WGN America President

THR Matt Cherniss Exec Suite Main - H 2014
Aaron Fallon

THR Matt Cherniss Exec Suite Main - H 2014

There's a change at the top of WGN America.

Matt Cherniss has exited his post as the cable network's president and GM. Cherniss, who announced his decision to step down in a memo to staff, will remain on board until month's end to help with the transition. Tribune Media president and CEO Peter Kern has appointed industry veteran Gavin Harvey to serve as interim president of WGN America. 

The executive's departure comes after Sinclair Broadcast Group acquired parent company Tribune Media, including WGN America as well as its TV studio Tribune Studios, on May 8. As part of the deal, Sinclair president and CEO Chris Ripley told reporters that WGN America would shift from "high-cost originals" to more "cost-effective originals and reruns." Think ION rather than AMC.

The rumblings of a change grew louder in April, when the network unexpectedly and abruptly canceled Outsiders, its highest-rated original program, about a family of outsiders living off the grid in the hills of Appalachia. At the time, Kern, who replaced Cherniss' boss and mentor Peter Liguori earlier this year, attempted to explain the eyebrow-raising decision in a lengthy statement about the channel's move into a broader, cheaper and less critically lauded phase of existence.

"After three years of investing in marquee, brand-defining dramas, WGN America has successfully expanded its audience, its reach and its presence in the minds of viewers. In our next phase, we intend to expand our original and unique content to continue growing our relevance and appeal to the widest possible audience," he said. "To achieve this, we will be reallocating our resources to a more diverse programming strategy and to new structures, enabling us to expand both the quantity and breadth of content aired by WGN America. This move is designed to deliver even more value to our advertising and distribution partners. To free up the resources to reach this goal, we will unfortunately not be renewing Outsiders."

To those paying close attention, it was clear Kern was readying the company for a sale to a station group, for which a portfolio devoted to high-end, Emmy-seeking content wouldn't be of appeal. Although insiders say Cherniss made a strong case for Outsiders to continue, the mission that he had devoted himself to since early 2013 was no longer shared by those above him. (Producers Sony Pictures Television tried unsuccessfully to shop the drama elsewhere.) A month later, the ax fell on critical favorite Underground, meaning WGN America was completely out of the premium scripted originals business.

Cherniss will no doubt land elsewhere, given his breadth of experience and jobs on both the cable (AMC) and studio (Sony Pictures Television) side currently open. In addition to running a cable network in WGN, he has also overseen a corresponding studio and worked at broadcast (Fox), basic cable (FX) and a film studio (Warner Bros. Pictures). His time at WGN America was largely spent trying to put the former superstation on the map, which required making bigger, straight-to-series bets on shows including Salem and critical favorite Manhattan. During his tenure at WGN America, Cherniss expanded its distribution by nearly 10 million homes.

“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,” Cherniss said Monday in a statement announcing his decision to step down. “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.”   

Added Kern: “We are grateful to Matt for his leadership, and creative vision in transforming WGN America. He’s had a tremendous impact on the company, and we thank him for his significant contributions.”  

Harvey, meanwhile, is a longtime cable exec having spent time at E! and FX, in addition to leading Versus, Fuse and Sportsman's Channel through growth periods. 

“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 distributors,” Kern said. “I have no doubt that he can steer WGN America to continued growth and profitability.”      

Here is Cherniss' memo to staff:
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.