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How Matt Cherniss is Building Provocative New Worlds for WGN America

Matt Cherniss is turning to the past to define WGN America’s brand identity for the future.

The cabler’s president and general manager has moved quickly in his quest to redefine the Tribune Broadcasting flagship as an outlet for provocative original series. He’s greenlighted two straight-to-series productions, both period pieces, since he was hired in April by Tribune CEO Peter Liguori, his former boss at FX and Fox. “Salem,” about the witch trials of the 1600s, debuts in the spring, and “Manhattan,” a soap set in New Mexico’s Los Alamos lab — the one that developed the atomic bomb in the 1940s — is slated to bow in the summer.

Both are weighty, ambitious projects with one shared goal: Establish WGN America as the next FX or AMC, with original shows that can attract a loyal fanbase, generate strong word-of-mouth and ratings for a channel now known for airing reruns of sitcoms and syndicated talkshows, as well as live Chicago Cubs and White Sox baseball games.

“I don’t think WGN America has a brand right now,” Cherniss says.

Cherniss has a long resume as a TV development exec. But he came to the WGN America post after spending the past two years as a production executive on the Warner Bros. lot ­— experience that gave him perspective on how to shape big ideas.

For its inaugural lineup of original dramas, Cherniss and Liguori are looking for what they consider provocative adult programs that “take you to worlds you’ve never been to before and tell big operatic stories,” Cherniss says. “If they share that, we’ll be successful.”

But it won’t be easy. WGN America is going after an audience at a time when viewers are inundated with cable networks offering original programming. The Chicago-based network has actually lost subscribers this year, and seen advertising revenue drop.

Turning around WGN’s fortunes is central to Liguori’s efforts to revitalize Tribune Co. as a television-centered company, once the spinoff of its newspaper division is complete.

“There’s more content than ever out there, and more demand for people’s eyeballs,” Cherniss notes, “but the audience is more willing to find entertainment wherever it may come from. Compelling content is your best security against changing platforms.”

Despite the intensity of the competition, Cherniss feels a drama series was the right place to start to rebrand the network. “(Drama) is one of the more vital and lively parts of the business right now,” he says.

One thing WGN America will not do is chase a narrow 18-49 demographic with its shows. There will be some reality fare in the mix as well, developed by recently appointed unscripted exec Tom Huffman. But Cherniss is realistic about the available audience for what is essentially a startup effort.

“This is not a network that is looking to cater to a younger audience in terms of its demographic skew,” he says.”After spending the past two years as a production executive at Warner Bros. working on movies like the upcoming “300” sequel and comedy “Mail Order Groom” with Steve Carell and Tina Fey, Cherniss wasn’t looking to make a move back to TV. He’d spent years in that area of the business before, developing shows like “Nip/Tuck,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Glee” and “Rescue Me” with Liguori when he was a programming executive at FX and Fox.

“I left for what was a great opportunity to work for the best movie studio in town and learn what it was like to make a feature film,” Cherniss says. “But the chance to craft a network from the beginning was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

With the straight-to-series model, he’s treating the 13-episode orders in many ways like extended features, he says. The biggest lesson he was reminded of while working for a film studio was the importance of passion, he says. “What I admired on the feature side was (that) people never gave up on their ideas. It could take them a decade, but if they believed in it, they stuck with it through fruition.”

Cherniss had long wanted to find a project that explores a world of secrets set within Los Alamos’ labs, and the impact that keeping them has not only on the scientists working there, but also on their children and families. “Manhattan,” a co-production with Skydance Television (the first series from that shingle) and Lionsgate Television, realizes that goal.

Meanwhile, “Salem,” starring Janet Montgomery (“Human Target”) and Shane West (“Nikita”), and produced by Brannon Braga (“24”) already has started production in Shreveport, La,, with the infamous town rebuilt in detail on the banks of the Red River there, complete with gallows, graveyard, public square, a church, tavern and other dwellings lit by candles for authenticity’s sake.

It’s a significant investment that had to be made, in part, because WGN America is taking the approach of ordering shows direct to series rather than the usual pilot. That kind of commitment was needed because building a town for a pilot alone would have proved too expensive, despite shooting in tax-friendly Louisiana. And recreating 17th-century Salem was necessary because “nowhere looks like Salem, not even Salem,” Cherniss maintains. Los Alamos also will be re-created.

“These shows entail building worlds,” Cherniss says. “That’s hard to do with a pilot.”

The first two shows are just the beginning, the exec adds. “We want to be aggressive in our rollout, and get to 52 weeks of original programming as quickly as possible, but we want to be careful and make sure we’re passionate about each piece of material,” he says.

“Salem” is a co-production with 20th Century Fox TV’s cable arm Fox 21, while “Manhattan” will be produced through Tribune Studios, the parent company’s official re-entry into the TV production business since Tribune Entertainment was shuttered in 2007.

So far, rebuilding WGN America has been done brick by brick, day by day, Cherniss says.

“We haven’t achieved anything yet,” he stresses. “We’ve made some good investments in content and their creators, but the audience will be the ultimate judge.

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