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A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When WGN America revealed Feb. 3 that Manhattan would not air a third season, critics took to Twitter to bemoan the decision. But no one was as broken up as WGN president Matt Cherniss, for whom the John Benjamin Hickey vehicle about the race to build the atomic bomb was his second series order and a key building block as the one-time superstation transitioned into an 80 million-home cable network committed to original prestige dramas.
“It’s the least pleasant part of the job, especially for a show as good as Manhattan,” he tells THR of the network’s first axing. But Cherniss felt he had done all that he could to try to generate momentum and broaden the series’ audience. After season one pulled an average of 417,000 viewers per episode, he not only moved the show to a time of year (fall) with higher viewership and out of its competitive Sunday time slot, but also waited on WGN to secure coverage in Comcast markets including Chicago and Seattle that weren’t previously available for season one. He even adjusted the series’ marketing to try to hook potential new viewers to a season he suggests was even “more phenomenal” than the first. Unfortunately, the uptick that he was after never materialized: Manhattan shed 43 percent of its audience in season two.
“As we got to mid-season of season two, reality for me had started to set in that it was going to be very difficult to bring the show back for a third season,” Cherniss says, acknowledging at that point it simply didn’t “make economic sense” to move forward. He knows it would be easy to chalk up the paltry turnout to the stresses of “peak TV,” but he has watched as WGN’s other originals delivered considerably more viewers: Witch drama Salem drew 770,000 viewers in its second season, while new entry Outsiders shattered network records with 3.9 million watching its Jan. 26 premiere.
Looking ahead, he’s optimistic about March’s slavery-era addition Underground and will ramp up with more originals from there. The focus, he adds, will remain on telling American stories, a push that began with Salem and Manhattan. “Maybe it’s the history major in me, but there are so many issues, sub-cultures and moments in time that I’d like to explore,” Cherniss says, hopeful that his audience will continue to broaden and want to go along for that ride.
“When you’re starting a network and building a brand, you’re looking for reasons to pick up a show, not the opposite,” he adds. “But at some point, you have to see some momentum.”
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