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Will ‘Underground’ Become Casualty Of Sinclair’s Tribune Takeover? Hopes For Acclaimed Drama Fade As Decision Looms

Deadline logo Deadline 5/26/2017 Nellie Andreeva
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Time is running out for WGN America’s only remaining original scripted series,Underground. While the praised drama has not been canceled, its future on the upstart cable network looks bleak. Official decision is expected next week.

I hear at the time of WGNA’s cancellation of fellow sophomore drama Outsiders in April, Sony Pictures TV, which produces both series, exposed Underground to other networks in hope of finding a new home as the writing was already on the wall at Tribune-owned WGNA whose parent was preparing itself for a sale. BET, OWN and Hulu, who has Underground streaming rights, had been mentioned as obvious possibilities at the time and were all approached. I hear BET came close to a deal for the drama, about a key event in African American history, before the Viacom cable network pulled out. At around the same time, BET took in two hip-hop/cheerleading-themed scripted series from sibling VH1, The Breaks and Hit the Floor, which were relocated as part of the program migrations at the realigned Viacom cable group.

I hear most avenues outside of WGN America have now been exhausted though the studio is still having conversations and is planning one final push in the coming week or so, with OWN reportedly still in the mix. However, I hear the show’s big price tag could be an issue in finding a new network home. Meanwhile, barring a last-minute change of heart, WGNA appears unlikely to renew Underground, especially in light of Sinclair Broadcast CEO Chris Ripley’s comments following  his company’s $3.9 billion deal to buy Tribune Media earlier this month.

WGNA “is already going to be shifting its strategy away from high-cost originals into more cost-effective originals and reruns” now that Peter Kern is interim CEO of Tribune — replacing Peter Liguori, who left the company in March — Ripley said.

“We think that is the right path for WGNA,” he added.  The ratings don’t “justify the type of spending that they do on the original programming side. We believe quite firmly that that channel could be run much more profitably just racking a fraction of what they spend on programming and return that to station profitability.”

While 21st Century Fox, which also reportedly bid for Tribune, is a content company that is in the premium original programming business and owns cable networks, Sinclair is a station owner, as is Tribune.

“WGNA and its scripted series are becoming collateral damage in the merger of two local station businesses who are focusing on what’s right financially in the short term,” one industry observer said. “There is a lot of value to be monetized with premium original programming longterm.”

The sharp turn in programming strategy has put the future of both Underground and WGN America General Manager Matt Cherniss in limbo. Brought in by Liguori, Cherniss comes from scripted background and was tasked with launching WGNA as a player in the original scripted series space which he did with Salem, Manhattan, Outsiders and Underground. 

“We are pleased with the performance and broad critical success of Underground, and are deliberating a series renewal,” Rita Cooper Lee, EVP, Communications, WGN America and Tribune Studios, said at the time of the Outsiders cancellation.

Tribune already had lowered its investment in Underground and Outsiders, which were co-productions between Sony TV and Tribune Studios in Season 1. Tribune pulled out as a co-producer for the second seasons of both shows. Outsiders was canceled shortly after WGN America touted March as its most watched primetime month in history on the strength of the Outsiders-Underground combo. Underground‘s linear ratings tapered off after a strong start alongside Outsiders but have been stable. And the series, which explores the famed underground railroad network that helped smuggle slaves from the South to freedom, scored a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating for its second season.

Underground, executive produced by John Legend, Akiva Goldsman and Anthony Hemingway, has been a strong ambassador for WGN America. The series, starring Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge and Christopher Meloni, had a screening at the White House last year and was selected as the inaugural public program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture with a screening at the new Oprah Winfrey Theater.

Tribune executives’ final decision on Underground will come after the series’ second-season finale had aired earlier this month. Outsiders‘ cancellation came 10 days before that series’ Season 2 finale, giving fans two episodes to bid the show goodbye. Underground viewers won’t have that opportunity if the show is not renewed.

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