Cable channel to rerun 'Entourage,' '30 Rock'

Tribune Co. has big plans in store for its sleepy cable superstation WGN America.

During the past year, Tribune has quietly been committing significant dollars to off-network acquisitions for the channel, something WGN has rarely done in its 30-plus years on the air. The channel has long enjoyed wide distribution in cable and satellite TV — it now reaches 72 million homes — but previous Tribune Co. regimes have never done much with it on the programming side.

But that will change as of next fall. WGN America intends to rebrand itself as a haven for contempo comedy skeins with a primetime block of reruns that will include “How I Met Your Mother,” “Entourage,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” In fall 2011, “30 Rock” will join the lineup, with more shows to come.

The hope is to capitalize on its distribution by turning WGN America into a much more targeted and carefully branded cable channel than it ever has been before. WGN launched in 1978 in the era of “superstations,” when a number of large-market broadcast TV stations made themselves available via satellite to cable operators desperate for any programming to fill their channel lineups.

For years, WGN has mostly been known for carrying Chicago Cubs games (Tribune Co. owns the team, though not for much longer) and the newscasts of its local counterpart, WGN-TV Chicago. But the channel was among the first assets that Lee Abrams, Tribune’s senior veep and chief innovations officer, zeroed in on for its untapped potential after he joined the company last year.

“The upside here is enormous. It would be silly not to invest as much as we can,” Abrams told Daily Variety.

Abrams and Sean Compton, senior veep of programming and entertainment for Tribune Broadcasting, settled on a comedy focus for primetime after studying the competitive landscape and scoping out the available program acquisitions. With TBS focusing increasingly on original programming and Nick at Nite hewing to family-oriented fare, the execs saw a clear opening for WGN to focus on contempo sitcom fare with a little more edge.

“We came at it thinking that we have to be aggressive and make a statement that this is going to be a cable network that is going to attract eyeballs,” Compton said. “We looked at a couple of different opportunities — even sports — but when we looked around we saw that we could have real strength in buying sitcoms.”

The hope is that the investment in programming will pay off in increased advertising coin.

WGN certainly has plenty of room for improvement in its ratings. In the third quarter of this year, the channel ranked 40th in total viewers among basic cablers with an average primetime aud of 356,000; of those viewers, less than half (121,000) were in the adults 18-49 demo.

Industry insiders note that WGN has been effective in getting in on big off-network sales, like the deals recently orchestrated for “How I Met Your Mother” or “30 Rock,” because the bigger cable players don’t see the channel as a strong competitor in the general entertainment realm.

Lifetime didn’t balk when Twentieth TV brought WGN into the picture to share rerun rights on “Mother,” and Comedy Central actually recruited WGN to help snag the “30 Rock” rights from the rival tandem of TBS and E! (Cablers generally don’t mind sharing rights on off-net shows, as long as it’s not with a direct competitor, because it brings the pricetag down for both parties.)

The fate of the WGN America makeover will hinge on the aud response to its programming, but the channel is already making significant changes to its on-air look and feel. The gradual revamp started this spring with the change of its name from the dated-sounding Superstation WGN to WGN America.

More recently, the company struck a two-year deal with WWE for a Thursday night “WWE Superstars” grappler showcase, and it snapped up secondary rights to “Scrubs” and “South Park” reruns that just bowed on the cabler last month.

Taking a page from the classic cable branding playbook, WGN is investing in production of comedic interstitials and vignettes depicting slices of contempo American life to capitalize on the channel’s strength in Midwestern markets. Among those interstitials is a series dubbed “Sky Dives,” which features Abrams piloting his own plane to various locales for lunch at notable or unusual eateries around the Midwest.

To fill its primetime slots until the sitcom cavalry arrives next year, Compton is focused on programming stunts and themed nights, like its “Outta Sight Retro Night” showcase of ’70s sitcoms and the ’80s movie showcase “Way Back Wednesday with Winslow,” hosted by Michael Winslow of “Police Academy” fame. And showcasing Cubs and Chicago White Sox games remains a key part of its Americana branding push.

If the makeover clicks, Tribune will likely seek over the long term to transition WGN America from the superstation model, wherein the channel gets a premium spot on the cable/satellite dial but no carriage fees, to a traditional model, where subscriber fees are a big boon to a channel’s bottom line. In the near term, Tribune is focused on bumping up its distribution base to 80 million-plus homes, which will also help the channel command higher advertising rates.

Tribune Co., of course, is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, so there’s no certainty that the current Tribune management team will remain in place for the long term. But no matter what happens with the bankruptcy, a new and improved WGN America would be an attractive asset for the company should it face a divestiture process.

Abrams has a wealth of past experience in programming. He was part of the launch of Turner Broadcasting’s TNT in 1988, and he also oversaw dozens of music and entertainment channels in his previous gig as chief programming officer for XM Satellite Radio.

“We’re really in complete reinvention mode,” Abrams said. “The biggest change we’ve made has been in the (management) culture of the channel. It was time for someone to say, ‘Let’s admit that things are not very good, and let’s fix it aggressively.’ It’s better for us to make some mistakes than to not try at all.”

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