T Dog’s Think Tank – WGN’s America: A concept you can’t ignore

Every move you make, I’ll be watching you… Creepy!

Hold the flag above your heads kids, because there is a network that will make you proud to waive the red, white, and blue this 4th of July. But it doesn’t have an American flag as part of its logo. And the programming (crummy as it is) hasn’t really changed. Yet.

Several weeks ago, Superstation WGN quietly went under a makeover becoming WGN America in the process. The national version of WGN-TV in Chicago also unveiled a new logo (to some, just as creepy as the Screen Gems “S from Hell” and Viacom’s “V of Doom” animated logos from the 1970’s) and a new slogan: “TV you can’t ignore”.

But will viewers ignore WGN?

For the last couple of years, viewers have. On any given moment, you could land on fare such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Moesha, and/or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – shows that run on at least eleven other channels. Most people who now watch the channel only tune in for WGN’s news and Chicago’s sports teams, instead of programming wonders like America’s Funniest Home Videos – you know, the versions without Bob Saget (a.k.a, the ones viewers don’t care for.)

But of course, it wasn’t always this way.

In 1978, two years after Ted Turner beamed WTBS to a satellite and a superstation was born, United Video followed and put WGN’s signal on satellite, giving America the Cubs, Ray Rayner, Bozo, and Phil Donahue.

WGN was a successful independent station in the 1980’s, and drew viewers nationally. But two words brought the growth of Superstation WGN to a screeching halt:

Syndicated exclusively, or for short, syndex.

The FCC rule returned after a decade-long hiatus in 1990, and wrecked havoc with superstations’ schedules. While WTBS kept its’ schedule blackout-free because it bought national rights to all of its programs, Superstations WGN and WWOR-TV in New York had to fill in holes by airing replacement programming on cable systems if the syndicated program had syndex restrictions (it’s real interesting the FCC wants to remove cross-ownership rules, but not the syndex one.)

For example, when WGN aired Cheers or Hunter locally in the Chicago market, WGN Superstation would air second-tier older fare, such as Ghost Story/Circle of Fear, two mostly forgotten anthology programs from the early 1970’s sewn up together to air in syndication.

In other words, WGN was forced to trade the adventures of Fred Dryer and Stephanie Kramer for Sebastian Cabot presiding over a lame collection of ghost stories. Cabot – late of Family Affair – was probably thinking, “Why am I hosting this crap?” Mr. French was swept out in the great cancellation purge at CBS in 1971 and this is where he ended up. Sad.

As years went on, WGN’s local and national identity would separate, as more and more programs on WGN became blacked out and the superstation wound up airing more and more second and third-tier fare. Today, both are barely identical to one another, as the only time both simulcast is during sports telecasts and the noon and 9 p.m. news.

Even some programs that air on WGN America (24, Reno 911!) do not air locally over WGN-TV, but on other stations in Chicago.

Others (Corner Gas) aren’t seen in the Chicago market at all, unless you’re a satellite subscriber (WGN America is only carried on satellite in the Chicago area.)

With slumping ratings, the new regime at Tribune under new owner Sam Zell are committing themselves to turning around the channel, by first changing the name from the awkward-sounding Superstation WGN to WGN America, and a new slogan – “TV you can’t ignore” – a play on a old Jacor slogan used for its radio stations – “Radio you can’t ignore”. You can tell this is the marketing magic of current Tribune COO Randy Michaels, an individual who worked under Zell at Jacor.

And now comes the programming revamp: On June 8, WGN America launched Out of Sight Retro Night, which features retro sitcoms every Sunday night. Doing the voice-overs is none other than American Top 40’s Casey Kasem, who did similar duties in the 1970’s at NBC.

While that’s nice, a long-term plan is what’s needed. Here’s what I would do (and no, not a schedule with all the Cubs games, or airing reruns of Bozo or Ray Rayner. Let’s be realistic here…)

– Bring WGN’s morning news back to the superstation. Get rid of the syndex segments, or whatever is holding it back.

– Introduce new original programming (which they are planning to do), and no, I don’t mean Funniest Pets & People. The programming could also air locally over WGN here, as cable and over-the-air viewers don’t have access to WGN America. There’s talk Tribune may lure Jay Leno to do a show for its broadcast stations and WGN America exactly for that purpose. Leno’s contract to host The Tonight Show expires next year.

– How about more classic movies, preferably in prime-time? Not a bad idea.

– Increase penetration. WGN America still isn’t carried in some areas of the Northeast.

– Stop airing programs you can find on other cable channels, such as Scrubs. Doesn’t Scrubs air on Comedy Central and in syndication? WGN isn’t exactly carving out a niche by airing programming other cable nets are running.

WGN America has the potential to compete with the two hundred or so cable channels in the universe. This channel has so much potential to become just more than an outlet for infomercials and Funniest Pets & People. If Tribune puts money and more visionaries behind this channel, viewers will be proud to wave the WGN flag.

And if not, well… there’s always ESPN 4 to consider…