WGN America Chief on Ditching Pilots and Spending Big to Launch a Network

Aaron Fallon
Matt Cherniss

Matt Cherniss, who also serves as president and GM of Tribune Studios, also opens up about the network's marketing challenges and its unscripted plans

This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Matt Cherniss is selling more than simply a slate of TV shows. Since he took his current job as president and GM of WGN America and newly formed Tribune Studios in spring 2013, he also has had to sell a channel that, until now, had no distinguishable brand and is available in only 72 million homes.

In Cherniss' bid to redefine WGN as a destination for provocative dramas that lure viewers — along with higher ad rates and affiliate fees — he has been aggressive about ordering a growing suite of straight-to-series originals. His goal: four a year, each with a premise as buzzy as his first foray, Salem (witches!), and follow-up Manhattan (an atomic bomb!). The former garnered a weekly audience of 1.7 million; the latter pulled in a paltry 1.1 million. And on Nov. 7, Cherniss, 42, announced that he'll be adding his first batch of reality series in early 2015: Wrestling With Death, centered on a family of morticians by day and professional wrestlers by night, and Outlaw Country, about two sets of brothers, one in law enforcement and the other whom they suspect has caused the town's surge in crime.

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The opportunity for reinvention — WGN is transitioning from a "superstation," or an independent broadcast station that aired sitcom reruns and Chicago baseball games, to a full-fledged cable network — was appealing enough to lure the L.A.-reared UCLA grad back from the film business. He had spent two years as a senior vp production at Warner Bros. after a career in TV at Fox and FX. Similarly appealing: The WGN gig reunited Cherniss with his former boss, now Tribune Media CEO Peter Liguori, who shed the company's news­paper properties earlier this year to focus on the more profitable broadcasting business.

With a Marvel comic series that he co-wrote with Legendary TV's Peter Johnson lining the walls of his Century City office, Cherniss, a married father of two young sons, talked about WGN's marketing challenge, the perks of bypassing pilots and why he has needed to open the Tribune wallet as wide as he has.

How do you define success?

Ratings are important, but they're not the most important thing. It's, "Are we satisfied with the quality of the show?" Having people associate us as a home for high-quality content is something that doesn't happen overnight, particularly when you're taking a network that has no real identity when it comes to original programming. I looked at Salem as a chance to bring in an audience. And Manhattan, while still aspiring to the same levels of quality, was going to appeal to a different audience, and that was OK for me because it was a second chance to launch this network. I imagine for the first number of shows that we put on, they may be our second, third and fourth show, but for a lot of the audience, it'll be their first time. If you can remain consistent in your quality and bring a wide breadth of the audience to it, you'll slowly broaden the audience for your network.

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So Manhattan, which you recently picked up, is deemed a success by those metrics?

Yes, creatively it's an amazing success. I'd put it up against any other show out there, and there's a lot of great TV out there. I wish more people were watching it at this moment, but I'm confident that through our own channel and through SVOD [more will come to it].

A signed script from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia live show.

What distinguishes WGN in a crowded landscape?

For one, we go direct to series, which gives the creator the knowledge that when we move forward, it won't be in stops and starts. They're going to get a chance to tell that story.

Thus far, you've done period shows.

The first two were. We've ordered Outsiders, which will be our next show, and it's not period. It takes place in Appalachia. I'm agnostic when it comes to time period. We want a passionate audience for our shows, and then we hope to broaden those audiences out. So I'm less concerned with what brings a mass audience as much as I am with what helps to brand the network.

Hiding behind Cherniss' sports-card collection is a card featuring Eastbound & Down's Kenny Powers.

What's the biggest misconception about what you're doing?

There's a lot of confusion over what it means to be a superstation versus a cable network, and there's a complicated answer. We're in the process of transitioning to a basic cable network, and it'll enable us to have a dual feed across the country, which will allow us to get into certain markets. We're not in Chicago because Chicago has a local WGN, so they cannot carry WGN America. As that changes, our ability to reach audiences will change.

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How much has that hindered you in luring projects?

I don't think it has. I think creators who work here understand that they're building something, and that's exciting to them. It takes a certain kind of creator to want to be a part of that process, and your show takes on even more significance because you're part of birthing a network the way The Shield or Mad Men did [for FX and AMC, respectively].

You're also paying top dollar for these projects …

Yeah, but I don't think that you can be in this competitive marketplace and not be. You need to do it responsibly, but there are many, many buyers out there for your content. And in my experience, the most important thing to a creator is, "Am I going to have resources to bring this vision to life?"

During Cherniss' two-year stint at Warner Bros., he oversaw 300: Rise of an Empire

How will you define your unscripted brand?

We're going to experiment a little with that to see what feels right to us. It's tricky to have both an unscripted and a scripted brand. There are some networks that do it really well, but I don't think that you can tie the two together in a simplistic way. But I look for the same things in an unscripted show that I look for in a scripted show in terms of character and world.

Is there room for scripted comedy, too?

Definitely. But comedy is so specific that it's even tougher to aggregate a large audience for a cable network. I want to get to the place where we're confident in our drama brand and can take some real shots on scripted comedy where we don't have to be as focused on how it launches and how it sustains and we can just let that show live and breathe for a while.

Read more TV Ratings: 'Salem,' WGN America's First Original, Brings 2.3 Million to First Night

What's the biggest challenge for you in this role?

It's getting to the place where viewers start to think of us proactively as a home for content, and that just doesn't happen overnight. The original programming helps that, but so does premium acquired content. In September, when Person of Interest and Elementary come on our air, we'll be introduced to a large portion of the audience that isn't watching us right now, and that will help. Your brand is so directly tied to your original programming, but you have 22 hours a day where that isn't on. When you have [acquired shows], you may take them for granted, but when you don't have them, there's nothing that you look for more.

Powerless, a six-issue series that Cherniss co-wrote, took every character in the Marvel Universe and imagined them without their powers

You licensed Salem from Fox 21. How important will owning your shows be moving forward?

It's essential. As we talk about how you monetize these shows, we have to live in an ecosystem where we can benefit regardless of how people watch. And if we license a show, it just doesn't allow us to do that; we are completely reliant upon advertiser dollars to support that show.

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What's been your shrewdest move?

A year and a half ago, we didn't even have offices in Los Angeles. Now we have a full office with at least 30 people. We built a marketing and publicity department and business affairs.

The murder weapon from Damages, which he worked on at FX

With hindsight, what would you do differently?

We put the shows on very quickly, and I think it's challenging to change the wheel, so to speak, going 50 miles an hour, and that's what we're having to do.

You spent two years in film. What did you learn?

People like to joke about how long it takes to get a movie made, and it's certainly true, but the thing that was heartening to me was to realize that the reason many of the films that get made get made was because of the passion of the executives who are unwilling to give up on that idea — even if it takes a decade. What I admired most about the feature execs is that they just would not give up. It's a great lesson for television because TV has such a process of renewal — there's always something new around the corner. But a good idea is a good idea.

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