Emerging Cable Network WGN America Looks to Cast Its Spell Over SXSW Film

Longtime superstation builds on momentum of Salem

On March 13, WGN America and its original series Salem will turn the official SXSW Film opening party into a "witches' playground," complete with fortune tellers, aerial dancers and other elements of the supernatural. 

While the festivities are appropriate for the date—Friday the 13th—it'll also serve as a way for WGN America to reiterate that it's now "a cable destination for high-quality programming,"

"We decided to go to SXSW because we wanted to reach the passionate creative community that is there looking for shows to embrace," said Brian Dollenmayer, evp of marketing and promotions for WGN America and Tribune Studios. "They have done so great with movies and music, and now they're really expanding with their television coverage."

WGN America has been transforming since 2013 from its current designation as a superstation—a large local broadcaster that is also transmitted through satellite providers—to a cable network, similar to how Atlanta's TBS made the switch in 2007. In December, WGN America entered cable television systems for the first time in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington D.C., and continues to expand nationally. Currently, it says it reaches 73 million households and has signed 61 new advertisers, including Citibank, Sprint and Verizon, since it began switching its status. (It also still broadcasts an additional feed in its home market of Chicago, WGN-TV, which features different local programming.)

It hopes Salem, which was its first scripted series, will help draw in viewers. The show was viewed by 3.4 million viewers during its premiere last April, with its 10 p.m. airing attracting an audience nearly 10 times larger than the network's average for that time period. One-third of that audience was brand new to WGN America. Salem will return for a second season on April 5, and WGN America's other scripted series, Manhattan, and the upcoming series Outsiders are also gaining traction. In addition, WGN America has the unscripted series Wrestling with Death and Outlaw Country and the syndication rights for Person of Interest, Elementary and Blue Bloods.  

In addition to the SXSW party activation in Austin, Salem will also have a panel on March 14 featuring the stars of the show. WGN America has been pushing the show heavily on TV and digital, buying ads on shows like AMC's The Walking Dead and FX's American Horror Story and creating additional digital content like the behind-the-scenes featurette below. It also advertised in theaters before 50 Shades of Grey.

"We're redefining the WGN America brand and transforming it to be a cable destination for high- quality programming," Dollenmayer explained. "It's one thing to put up an ad on cable. This is our billboard announcement that we've arrived and we're in the big leagues."