Tribune’s Peter Liguori Making Good on Vow to Beef Up TV Assets

Witches brew a key move in post-bankruptcy playbook

That was quick. Tribune Co.’s new topper Peter Liguori is making good on his vow to beef up the company’s TV assets, particularly its WGN America cable channel.

WGN America last week gave a 13-episode straight-to-series order to “Salem,” a supernatural drama set amid the witch trials in Salem, Mass. The series hails from 20th Century Fox TV’s Fox 21 banner, and was originally developed for FX. It’s fortified by an in-demand showrunner in Brannon Braga (“24”).

Matt Cherniss, the former FX and Fox programming exec Liguori brought in as WGN America prexy and g.m., joined the company in March with a mandate to upgrade the channel. Most important, Liguori and Cherniss clearly have a budget to make it happen, as evidenced by the order for “Salem.”

All of this activity is a big change for Tribune, which spent four years slogging through bankruptcy court before emerging in January with a new CEO in Liguori and a showbiz-savvy board of directors that includes attorney Craig Jacobson and former Disney exec Peter Murphy.

As expected, the new-model Tribune is taking steps to sell off its newspaper holdings — generating headlines for the hubbub stirred up by the possible bid for the Los Angeles Times by the Koch Industries conglom run by conservative activist brothers Charles and David Koch.

But all of that is likely to wind up ultimately a minor distraction for Liguori, who is drawing on his strengths as a TV programmer and marketer to energize Tribune’s 23 major-market TV stations. WGN America has been seen as a sleeping giant that has solid distribution in cable and satellite homes, but not much to speak of in carriage fees or advertising revenue, relative to its cable peers.

Original programming can make all the difference, as cable nets from AMC to USA have demonstrated. And Tribune’s new masters understand that this strategy takes time, and money.

“Everyone has been supportive. They’re not asking ‘Why do you need this,’ but more, ‘What do you need,’ ” Cherniss said. “Everyone is supportive of the strategy and understanding that this is going to take some money.”

Cherniss has set up shop with a handful of development staffers in Century City, rather than Tribune’s home base in Chicago, in order to be in the heart of the creative community. He brought in former Fox programming exec Jon Wax to oversee scripted development, and is in the market for an unscripted exec.

Cherniss swooped in on “Salem” once he became aware that the project had been released by FX and handed back to Fox 21. The series, targeted to premiere in the first half of next year, will be a major departure for WGN America, which is stocked with off-network acquisitions, mostly sitcoms. That’s not a problem, in Cherniss’ view.

“We want it to bring in a broader audience that might not consider WGN their first destination,” Cherniss said. “In this environment, it is really important to have exclusive, original content. I want to have shows here you can’t find anywhere else.”

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