LOS ANGELES – “Outsiders” and “Underground” aren’t brilliant names for TV series, but they aptly describe the status of their network, WGN America, which is trying to upgrade itself from the home of Cubs baseball to a major leaguer in the increasingly competitive world of cable.
It certainly has the talent, both in front and behind the camera, to pull it off.
“Underground,” one of the few TV series to acknowledge America’s ugly history with slavery, is being shepherded by Grammy favorite John Legend, who helped arrange a special screening of the first episode at the White House. “Outsiders” — think “Sons of Anarchy” in the recesses of the Appalachians — stars former “St. Elsewhere” resident David Morse and has a stellar roster of executive producers, including Paul Giamatti and Dudley Riggs alum Peter Tolan, whose credits include “Rescue Me” and “The Larry Sanders Show.”
“I’ve been in the development process with lots of different networks, including HBO and CBS, and it never went well,” said “Outsiders” creator Peter Mattei. “Here was a network that said, ‘We’re going to take a big chance and buy a whole season, not just a pilot. We’re all in.’ That felt right to me. Coming from an indie film and experimental theater world, I felt more comfortable working with a small group of people without a big corporate culture.”
But all the A-listers in Studio City can’t draw viewers to the network if they don’t know it exists.
“Think of a billboard,” said WGN America president Matt Cherniss, sitting on the patio of a Pasadena hotel, not far from the rest of his development team, which consists of only three other people. “First you have to find the billboard. Then you have to notice the logo in the corner. With us, people might say, ‘What is that? Do I have it on my cable system?’ We have to be compelling enough so that when you get home, you seek us out.”
Cable and satellite subscribers who do go hunting will most likely find their prey (for Comcast users in Minneapolis, it’s channel 22). Since switching from a “superstation” — an insider’s label for stations that mostly churn out reruns and local sports coverage — to a more traditional cable channel, WGN America has become available in more than 80 million homes, which amounts to over 62 percent of households with at least one TV set.
But none of the three scripted dramas that the revamped operation has launched qualifies as a game changer.
“Salem,” the latest spin on the legendary witch hunts, is currently in production for its third season, despite averaging only 1.1 million viewers last season, a significant drop from its inaugural year. After premiering with good numbers in January, “Outsiders” drew only about 700,000 people for the first run of last week’s episode.
“Manhattan,” the critically acclaimed effort about building the first nuclear bomb, was canceled in February.
“It’s a different environment now with video on demand, the amount of competition and the quality across the board. It’s not going to be easy,” said Turner Entertainment chief content officer Kevin Reilly, who is in the process of making over TBS and TNT to better reflect the growing digital audience. “It’s going to be a hairy couple of years.”
In comparison, Reilly’s years as the president of FX look like Camelot.
Yes, there were skeptics 16 years ago who thought the bold basic cable station could never compete with edgier, R-rated fare on HBO and Showtime, but Reilly proved the doubters wrong with the success of “The Shield,” the corrupt-cop series that earned star Michael Chiklis a 2002 Emmy, the first for a lead actor in a drama series on a non-pay cable network.
But until “Rescue Me” came along two years later, Reilly didn’t have much else.
“When we put ‘The Shield’ on, I was saying we were HBO for basic cable. I prayed to God no one noticed we were playing ‘Cops’ all day long,” he said. “If not for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, we would have had no advertisements on the network. Now you have to have constant execution. It’s going to have to be a win here, a win there. Some will be bigger than others, but they all have to stitch together.”
Wanted: the next ‘Walking Dead’
WGN’s Cherniss, who worked for Reilly at both FX and Fox, has taken a few pages from his former boss’ playbook. Instead of investing big in one show, he’s hedged his bets by putting equal weight behind numerous projects, with plans to premiere four new dramas each year (Cherniss is holding off on original sitcoms, which traditionally take more time to attract a significant audience).
“A ‘Walking Dead’ can define you, but while you’re waiting for that, you have to continue to populate your network with real quality programming because you don’t know where your next hit is going to come from,” he said. “You can control quality, but you can’t chase something that you think is going to be the next big thing. You don’t know what the next big thing will be. Nobody does.”
Becoming part of WGN America may not be the most promising path to success, but for creative folks who would rather work a drive-through window than read another network note, it’s their version of Disneyland.
“The problems start when a network has a big success,” Tolan said. “When I was at FX, ‘The Shield’ hadn’t fully become what it was going to become, so they could only push us so far. They were more willing to say, ’I don’t know.’ The dangerous part comes when people say, ‘I know.’ ”
Morse knows what it’s like to be part of slow-boiling projects. “St. Elsewhere” was one of the lowest-rated shows on TV, and was renewed for a second season only because NBC didn’t have anything else. HBO’s “Treme,” in which Morse played a sympathetic New Orleans police lieutenant, is only now being appreciated for its subtle performances and eclectic soundtrack, more than two years after it went off the air.
Morse cites 1980’s “Inside Moves” and 1997’s “Contact” as movies he’s done that also didn’t get their due when they were first released.
“Now people tell me those are some of their favorite movies,” said Morse, who gets to explore his dark side in “Outsiders.” “If people stop me years from now about this show, that will mean something.”
If you build it, they will come
Another Hollywood veteran willing to trade in immediate success for long-range respect is Spike Jonze, the four-time Oscar nominee (“Being John Malkovich”) who took a hiatus from filmmaking to curate Viceland, an artist-driven network that debuted last month.
None of its shows, including Ellen Page’s “Gaycation,” automatically became part of the pop culture zeitgeist, but that’s just fine with a director who has always seemed to be allergic to blockbusters.
“A TV channel is still a fun medium to explore and play with. It’s this living thing that you can turn on and it comes into your house like water,” Jonze said. “I just have faith that if we put the content out there, we’ll connect. It’ll find a friend.”
Of course, no one at WGN America would whine too loudly if “Underground” became an overnight success.
The cable network is owned by Tribune Media, which emerged from bankruptcy just three years ago and is relying on its highest-profile property to help it turn the corner. The company recently took a $385 million write-down on the value of its assets, the vast majority of which is represented by WGN America. The news, despite coming on the heels of the moderate success of “Outsiders,” is leading some investors to believe that executives will either put the brakes on development or put the network on the market.
It’s not the safest investment in the world. Seven of the top 10 cable networks saw a ratings decline in 2015, with about a 25 percent drop in viewership for heavyweights A&E, MTV and Nick at Nite. Al Jazeera America, the cable news outlet with deep pockets, is shutting down after just three years on the air.
But the upside is still enormous, which means if WGN America does go up for sale, the line of potential buyers will be long.
Either way, Cherniss knows he’s on the clock.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” he said. “To use an analogy, we’re changing the wheel while going 70 miles per hour. There’s a lot to do to get this network on par with the other general entertainment networks. And once you get there, there’s no time to sit back and say, ‘Great! Now we’re a cable network!’ ”