Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional information since being published on Saturday. – T.H.
It’s the end of an era as the last “superstation” rides off into the sunset.
By the end of this month, WGN America – which once carried WGN-TV programming across the country, is converting into a basic cable network in most areas from a “superstation”, which WGN has been for 36 years. As a result, the Tribune Media-owned channel is dropping the reminder of its Chicago programming from the channel, including WGN’s 4-5 a.m. and noon newscasts. WGN already stopped carrying the Chicago counterpart’s 9 p.m. newscast a few months ago.
By being a cable network, WGN America can collect retransmission fees from cable and satellite operators, rather than having them pay royalties to rights holders and copyright owners through a compulsory license.
WGN America no longer carries White Sox baseball and Bulls basketball. WGN-TV/WGN America’s deal to carry the Cubs expired in 2014 and Friday, the team signed a five-year deal with ABC-owned WLS-TV to carry 25 games. WGN is still in contention for a 45-game package but if they snare it, the games would air only in the Chicago area.
In addition, Illinois Lottery drawings have also been dropped from the channel. The drawings remains on WGN-TV.
These moves is being made as WGN America is making a push to snare more viewers and advertisers, including a huge push into original programming. Hour-long dramas Salem and Manhattan have drawn viewers and even critical acclaim; both are renewed for second seasons.
WGN America is now adding reality programming into the mix, with Outlaw Country and Wrestling With Death debuting in January. WGN America is also adding off-network hours Elementary and Person Of Interest, on an exclusive basis, and weekday airings of Blue Bloods.
WGN was the last remaining “superstation” left, a relic from an earlier era in cable TV which also saw New York’s WOR-TV (now WWOR) and Atlanta’s WTBS beam their signals via satellite, bringing us Joe Franklin, Atlanta Braves baseball, Morton Downey Jr., Richard Bey, New York Islanders hockey, and Andy Griffith reruns round the world (for better or worse.)
WGN beamed its signal via satellite in 1978, exposing Bozo, the Cubs, and its local news to cable and satellite viewers across the country and around the world. The Bulls’ Michael Jordan also received national exposure via WGN, during the team’s championship run. WGN’s superstation status also was a big factor in the success of the Jerry Lewis’ MDA Telethons, which carried the Labor Day event from 1979 to 2012, with the last two years abbreviated editions and without Jerry Lewis.
But dents started showing in the superstations’ armor. The FCC instituted “Syndicated Exclusivity” rules, (or Syndex for short) in 1990, forcing WGN and WWOR to find replacement programming for fare it would have to black out on cable systems if local stations bought the “exclusive” rights to in their market (TBS wasn’t effected, as it bought “national rights” to all its programs.) While WWOR threw in the towel in 1996, WGN fought with Major League Baseball and the NBA over carrying their teams on WGN’s Superstation feed, with the NBA even taking Tribune Broadcasting to court. As a result, WGN was forced to reduce the number of Bulls games it carried on its superstation.
On October 1, 2007, Turner Broadcasting split its national feed from its Atlanta one, converting TBS to a basic cable channel. The Atlanta feed is now known as WPCH-TV (or Peachtree TV) and is now being run by Meredith Corp. in a local marketing agreement, while TBS remained intact for national viewers.
With the change, WGN America will now be able to split its single feed into two – one for Eastern/Central time zone viewers and one for Pacific.
Even though Atlanta cable viewers started receiving the cable version of TBS the day the split occurred, there are no such plans at this time for Chicago cable viewers to receive WGN America, which is not available on any system, though they can be seen on satellite providers Dish and DirecTV.
UPDATE 2014-12-15: Robert Feder is reporting that Comcast, Chicago’s largest cable operator, has agreed to carry WGN America in the area effective Tuesday. According to a search on WGN America’s website, the network is being carried on channel 499, though this may change. So far, no other deals with any other Chicago MSO (RCN, WOW, AT&T U-Verse) has been announced.