WGNA’s Mojo Working

If Sean Compton’s programming strategy for WGN America pays off this fall, the industry’s sole remaining superstation could take its place alongside other general entertainment cable titans such as TBS or USA Network.

At least that’s the plan Compton put in place 18 months ago when he took over TV programming for Tribune. Since then Tribune, even as it tries to emerge from bankruptcy, has opened its pocketbook to freshen up a tired programming lineup that was known for Chicago sports, but not much else.

With the exception of WWE Superstars on Thursdays, WGNA completely revamped its prime-time schedule for fall, adding four offnet comedies to pull in a younger-skewing viewer: How I Met Your Mother, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage. For weekends, WGNA will run Monk and The Unit. Two other programs are coming on board in 2011: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and 30 Rock.
Advertisers seem to have noticed this programming shift and upfront sales have been brisk.

“Comedy and drama complemented with sports made sense for a lot of clients,” said Shari Cohen, executive director, investments for Mindshare, who called WGNA’s new schedule “impressive.”

About 70 percent of inventory was sold against the new schedule. “We’ll be up 75 percent in dollars, and we’re still writing business,” said Julio Marenghi, evp of sales and distribution, who joined Tribune in June. “Half of our sales are coming from new advertisers,” he added.

Compton, who was promoted in May from svp of programming to president, practically had to start from scratch to build up what the company considers its greatest upside asset. “The company hadn’t put a lot of energy behind WGNA, and they were fairly cheap with it. It’s a great distribution vehicle that was under-utilized,” Compton said.

In second quarter, prime-time ratings (7-11p, Mon.-Su.) were up 8 percent in adults 18-49 and 25-54 versus a year ago. Among all ad-supported nets, WGNA ranked No. 40 with 357,000 total viewers, up from No. 41 a year ago.

“They are on the right path, raising their visibility, but they have to find an identity beyond a general entertainment network,” said Francois Lee, vp, video investment and activation director for MediaVest.

Compton harbors no illusions about the effort required to get WGNA to the point where it’s top of mind with both viewers and advertisers. If Tribune follows the typical cable model, it will need to add in original programming. “We have to establish a solid prime first. We’ll take baby steps into original. It’s expensive and tough,” Compton admitted.

“WGNA has a lot of competition, and it would have been a lot easier five or 10 years ago,” said Brad Adgate, svp, director of research for Horizon Media. “Right now, there’s nothing really distinctive about the network, so putting on original programming is what they have to do, and that gets harder and harder.”

At the same time the network builds its programming, WGNA is also working to increase its distribution, currently at 73 million subscribers. It recently added 250,000 subscribers in southern New England through a deal with Cox Communications.

But it needs at least another 25 million before it’s on par with a TBS or USA.