In 2006, WGN's circulation, ratings grew

WGN gets very little attention as it operates quietly in the shadow of its troubled Tribune Broadcasting parent, but the superstation is doing so well some industry experts refer to it as the prize in the box of Crackerjack.

Ed Atorino, media analyst for the Benchmark Co., uses the word “jewel” to describe the superstation’s value to Tribune, which is doing business under a for-sale sign.

Media buyer Howard Nass calls WGN “a hidden gem,” referring to its rocketing circulation (up by 20 million homes in the past five years) and its ratings growth in 2006.

Whether jewel or hidden gem, WGN is entombed in the bowels of Tribune Broadcasting, which, for the past eight months or so, has acted like the very model of a dysfunctional parent, riven by headline-making boardroom disputes, and hellbent on finding a buyer.

Almost oblivious to the crisis at the top, WGN, the last remaining superstation in the U.S., keeps chugging along with a mix of live sports, movies, sitcom reruns (“Sex and the City,” “Scrubs”), and original series that it shares with TV stations in firstrun syndication (“The Greg Behrendt Show,” “DaVinci’s Inquest”).

Nass, a partner in Nass-Hitzik Media, says, “Tribune has let the superstation run by itself,” mainly because WGN is not visible enough to require even modest maintenance.

The WGN superstation is a creature of the local Chicago station WGN-TV. The program schedules of the two can be widely divergent, particularly with CW network programs and pricey repeats.

WGN-TV’s bellwether series are supplied by the CW, whose lineup gets withheld from the WGN superstation for one big reason: The CW-affiliated TV stations would not take kindly to competing with the same programming on cable and satellite.

For similar competitive reasons, expensive off-network sitcoms like “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Friends” crop up all over the WGN-TV schedule but are nowhere in sight on the superstation.

But Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media Corp., which represents hundreds of TV stations, says the superstation disadvantage in A-list laffers is likely to change with future deals for sitcom reruns.

“Look at TBS,” Losak says, referring to the network that shed its superstation skin in the late ’90s to become an ad-supported cable channel. “It carries the hit comedy reruns and has a much bigger impact in the ratings in the stations’ markets than WGN.”

While 91.7 million homes get TBS, only about 70 million have access to WGN. TBS, whose logo highlights the words “Very funny,” lines its schedule with multiple runs of “Raymond,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” among others.

WGN has no plans to emulate TBS by shifting from superstation to ad-supported cable network, at least in part because it would have to renegotiate the contracts of every TV show and sports teams like the White Sox and Bulls. (Tribune owns the Cubs.) It took TBS years to make the transition.

Bill Shaw, president and general manager of the WGN superstation, has an if-it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it philosophy.

WGN is able to shrug off not being able to carry hits like “Raymond” and “Friends,” Losak says, because “sports plays such a big role for the superstation.”

For example, each year WGN schedules more than 100 games combined of the Cubs and White Sox, and more than a dozen Bulls contests. The Cubs, especially, have a big following outside the Chicago area.

For cable systems, even ones located thousands of miles from Chicago, where fans of the Cubs, White Sox and Bulls are in short supply, WGN can look like a bargain. These systems go out of their way to cater to their male viewers, ponying up a monthly average of $3.26 a subscriber for ESPN, according to Kagan Research, and an additional $1.92 a sub, on average, for their regional sports network.

WGN is picking up only chump change, by comparison, scraping up an average monthly rate that hovers at about 10¢ a sub. The systems fork over another 10¢ or so to the copyright-royalty tribunal, a payout unique to the superstation; no cable network is subject to it.

The reason WGN charges systems such a low license fee is that, as a superstation, it hogs all the commercial time. By contrast, ad-supported cable networks hand over two minutes an hour to cable operators. The revenues from these local spots can help to offset the license fees that an op has to shell out to an ESPN.

These days, WGN is pulling in more dollars from Madison Avenue, says Shaw, because it runs younger-skewing shows like “Sex and the City” and “Scrubs,” along with two off-Disney Channel comedies “Lizzie McGuire” and “Even Stevens,” plus “American Idol Rewind” and “24” repeats on the weekend. WGN’s primetime ratings climbed last year by 24% among adults 18-34, according to Nielsen.

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