Network offers sports games for bargain prices

WGN, which the industry dubs the last of the superstations, is heading into a potential banner season in 2002-03 that will likely keep it spinning off revenues, an unsung hero of the Tribune Co.’s entertainment portfolio.

And now it will have a little extra “Grace” to grease the wheels — and the schedule.

Cable operators and satellite distributors love WGN because it offers 77 Chicago Cubs games, 29 Chicago White Sox games and 15 Chicago Bulls games every year — all exclusive to WGN — for bargain-basement prices compared with ESPN, the most expensive national network, and to MSG and other regional sports networks, which are always the priciest local services.

A regional sports network can chalk up as much as $2.4 million a year from a cable system with 100,000 subscribers, and ESPN will pocket up to $1.5 million a year.

By contrast, WGN may cost the same system as little as $60,000 a year, plus another $60,000 in copyright fees that are not applicable to a cable network like ESPN.

But professional baseball and basketball are only part of the enticement to cable operators.

In September, WGN will start double-running “Will & Grace” at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday — simultaneous with the sitcom’s debut in off-network syndication.

That’s the earliest the superstation has ever laid hands on a comedy with the Nielsen potential of a “Will & Grace,” encouraging WGN to raise its revenue estimates for next season.

WGN also has gone after the biggest-grossing theatrical film titles it can find in the syndication window since the superstation surrendered its claim on the WB Network’s primetime schedule in October 1999.

The WB’s TV-station affiliates in many markets throughout the country began to hate the fact that they were, in effect, competing against themselves because the local cable system was bringing in the signal of WGN — which was stacked with the same WB shows.

WGN found it easy to look on the bright side. Yes it was relinquishing WB’s nationally advertised programming, but WGN was also getting lots more time to sell to advertisers: The WB scarfs up most of the 30-second spots within its programs.

Double-dipping

The WB’s programming continued, of course, on the WGN TV station that’s restricted to the Chicago area. For the superstation, which gets into 56 million cable and satellite homes outside Chicago, Tribune had to cover the WB’s schedule with primetime movies.

“Losing the WB Network didn’t really become an issue for us because we could draw on a movie library of 700 titles,” says Bill Shaw, president and GM of the WGN superstation.

The superstation indeed ramped up its movie buying, but the mix is still weighted toward lesser titles. WGN’s primetime viewership fell off by 14% in 2001, averaging a 0.6 rating compared with the 0.7 of calendar 2000.

The demographic ratings are also down year to year in primetime, by 5% in adults 18 to 49 and by 8% in adults 25 to 54.

That pattern has held for 2002, season to date, although the declines are less pronounced than those of last year, and WGN points out that primetime encompasses both the movie and a one-hour nightly newscast laced with stories more of interest to Chicago than to viewers outside the Windy City.

While WGN is a good business, it could become a great business if it ended up following the lead of TBS, which back in 1997 morphed from being a superstation collecting zero dollars in fees from cable operators to a basic-cable network pocketing more than $200 million a year.

But Bob Levi, the TBS point person who engineered the conversion, says it took the network more than 10 years of intricate negotiations with the Hollywood movie companies and with Major League Baseball, among others, to make sure the transition could take place with no legal barriers.

WGN doesn’t rule out a possible TBS-like makeover, but Peter Walker, executive VP of Tribune Broadcasting, groans inwardly at the prospect of trying to untangle the Byzantine array of contracts governing series, movies and sports.

“It’s daunting,” he says. “Maybe too daunting.”

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