'Underground' Canceled at WGN America as Channel Exits Premium Scripted Business

BET and OWN are said to have passed on the pricey drama produced by Sony Pictures Television.
Courtesy of Steve Dietl/WGN

WGN America has officially passed on a third season of Underground.

In the wake of parent company Tribune Media's $3.9 billion planned acquisition by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the cable network's future as a destination for high-end scripted originals is over. And that includes the pricey and critically lauded slave drama produced by Sony Pictures Television. Season two of the series, from executive producer John Legend, wrapped May 10.

"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," Tribune Media president and CEO Peter Kern said Tuesday in a statement.

He continued: "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."

Kern, who replaced Peter Liguori atop Tribune Media earlier this year, foreshadowed the move away from high-end scripted when he canceled WGN America's top-rated drama Outsiders in April. At the time, Kern claimed the surprising move was meant to reallocate resources "to a more diverse programming strategy" that would be more cost-effective and reach a broader audience.

The exec described the new strategy as a way "to increase our relevance within the rapidly changing television landscape" in his statement Tuesday. "This move is designed to deliver additional value for our advertising and distribution partners and offer viewers more original content across our air."

Sources say producer Sony TV saw the writing on the wall and began making calls about a new home for Underground after Outsiders was axed. The acclaimed series, which carries a $5 million per episode price tag, already has an SVOD deal with Hulu, which was a complicating factor in finding a new home. BET and OWN are both said to have passed, citing the high cost that comes with making the show. (Efforts to find a new home for Outsiders, also from Sony TV, were unsuccessful.)

With the cancellation, WGN America is out of the premium scripted originals business. Its lone pilot, DC Comics take Scalped, is currently being shopped by producer Warner Bros. Television. Going forward, WGN America is said to be focused on content with reduced license fees — in the $2 million per episode range — and/or programming that already has a U.S. network but may be looking for a second window.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Jessica De Gouw, Alano Miller, Amirah Vann, Marc Blucas and Christopher Meloni starred on Underground. Creators Green and Pokaski executive produced with Anthony Hemingway, Akiva Goldsman, Tory Tunnell, Joby Harold, Legend, Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorius and Mark Taylor.

"WGN America has been bought and is going a different direction strategically. We will find a new home for Underground!," Legend wrote Tuesday on social media shortly after the news broke. "Content wins. We're not reliant on a particular network to make great content. We're so proud of our show and the audience that supported!"