After WGN America boasted about having the best monthly audience delivery in the history of the network in March, thanks to its original series “Outsiders” and “Underground,” the cable channel owned by Tribune Media announced just a few days later that it had canceled its most watched series – “Outsiders” – after two seasons, which many found quite odd, especially fans of the program. Why would any network cancel its best-performing show? It certainly wasn’t due to poor critic ratings, because the series has a 78% Rotten Tomatoes rating, and a 63 out of 100 score on Metacritic, both suggesting generally favorable reviews by critics.
Per a statement by the network, it said it wanted to “free up the resources” to reach a set goal of “a more diverse programming strategy and to new structures.” Here’s the full press statement: “After three years of investing in marquee, brand-defining dramas, WGN America has successfully expanded its audience, its reach, and its presence in the minds of viewers. In our next phase, we intend to expand our original and unique content to continue growing our relevance and appeal to the widest possible audience. To achieve this, we will be reallocating our resources to a more diverse programming strategy and to new structures, enabling us to expand both the quantity and breadth of content aired by WGN America. This move is designed to deliver even more value to our advertising and distribution partners. To free up the resources to reach this goal, we will unfortunately not be renewing Outsiders. We are grateful to our production partners at Sony Pictures Television and the terrifically talented people who made the show possible.”
Speculating on what all that meant, and considering the fact that, of their 2 hit shows, they appeared to be keeping the one with a black starring cast, it seemed that the network decided that it wanted to offer more programming that would appeal to a diverse audience, something that maybe “Outsiders” wasn’t doing, even though it was their biggest draw. I was reminded of the switch that the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) made after its first year or so, when it went from being a network with broad appeal, to one that now targets almost entirely a black female audience, after one of its early series with a black cast (“Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s”), outshined all the others. Might WGN America ride “Underground’s” success, and build a new lineup around it (thanks in part to the show’s rabid fans, routinely helping it trend high on Twitter when it airs, and critical acclaim)?
That was the question I had 3 weeks ago.
And as of today, with just 1 episode left in the season, “Underground” has not yet been renewed by the network, despite all the acclaim and strong audience ratings. In response to that, Rita Cooper Lee, EVP Communications, WGN America and Tribune Studios, said in the same press statement referenced above: “We are pleased with the performance and broad critical success of ‘Underground,’ and are deliberating a series renewal.”
Not entirely assuring for fans of the series; especially after they just axed the network’s most-watched series in terms of eyeballs. You’d think that a renewal for “Underground” would be a no-brainer; but then again, fans of “Outsiders” probably thought the same thing.
And while WGN America specifically has yet to make an official announcement on “Underground’s” future, today’s news of the network’s parent company (Tribune Media) being purchased may help answer the renewal question.
On Monday morning, Sinclair Broadcast announced that it had agreed to buy Tribune Media in a deal valued at $3.9 billion.
The acquisition is subject to regulatory approval of course, but the Trump administration’s FCC has made it quite clear that it won’t interfere much in corporate consolidation, opting for a so-called free and open market, with limited government intervention. So the deal is expected to pass FCC scrutiny.
Sinclair beat out Nexstar, 21st Century Fox and Blackstone Group in acquiring Tribune Media.
In addition, Sinclair is known to be unabashedly conservative (on and off air) in its political leanings and dealings, with corporate ties to various Republican politicians – something it’s been criticized for over the years.
“It’s a scandal… Trump-favoring mega-chain gets rules changed — and expects others to be erased — so it can put its cookie-cutter newscasts in nearly 70 percent of local markets across the country,” said Craig Aaron, the head of Free Press, an anti-consolidation nonprofit, to CNBC after the news of the sale broke. “I feel terrible for the local journalists who will be forced to set aside their news judgment to air Trump administration talking points and reactionary commentaries from headquarters. This deal would have been DOA in any other admin, but the Trump FCC isn’t just approving it; they’re practically arranging it.”
And while all of the above specifically may not necessarily signal the end of “Underground,” maybe the below tweet will. It’s from Cynthia Littleton at Variety who attended a conference call with Sinclair Broadcasting CEO Chris Ripley, who said the following (thanks to reader “Nipsey” for alerting me to this tweet):
Original high-end scripted programming is essentially dead on WGN America going forward, Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley says.
— Cynthia Littleton (@Variety_Cynthia) May 8, 2017
In addition, as I later learned after gaining access to the conference call, Ripley also said WGN would shift its strategy from what he labeled “high cost originals” in favor of “more cost effective originals and reruns.” He praised the critical successes of WGN’s original scripted programming, but added that strong ratings don’t “justify the type of spending” that WGN has been doing on original scripted programming.
The only original scripted programming WGN America has left, that it hasn’t canceled, is “Underground” (“Salem” was canceled last fall; and “Outsiders” was canceled a few weeks ago). So, unless Sinclair, Tribune or WGN America specifically say that “Underground” has been renewed for another season, I think it’s somewhat safe to assume that it will not be. And if that happens, a question many will probably immediately ask is whether another network might pick it up – especially Netflix, given how much it’s committed to spending on original content.
With the purchase of Tribune, the new owners likely have other plans for the properties they just bought.
But let’s first wait for an official announcement on the fate of the series before we address the second question.
For the moment, based on all of the above, it doesn’t look promising.