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With 'Salem,' WGN America hopes to put a spell on TV viewers

BusinessTelevision IndustryTelevisionEntertainmentWGNSatellite and Cable ServicePeter Liguori

SHREVEPORT, La.— A woodsy stretch of Willow Lake Farm, just outside this city, has been painstakingly built to look like a 17th century New England village, filled with shops and houses with steep-pitched roofs and drab clapboard exteriors.

Milling about nearby are women in elaborate capes and cinched dresses, and men clad in peasant shirts and heavy coats.

It's all textbook quaint — until you see the towering gallows at the center of town.

This is the setting for "Salem," the new TV series from Tribune Co.'s WGN America set in the Massachusetts village that was the scene of notorious Colonial witch trials.

The show itself will be a trial of sorts for WGN America.

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With "Salem," the Chicago network — best known for showing Chicago Cubs baseball games and sitcom reruns — is entering the increasingly crowded field of original content. The hope is the new programs can lift WGN America from being largely a regional player to a top-tier national cable channel.

The new show will run Sundays, the most hotly contested night in television because of shows such as HBO's "Game of Thrones," CBS's "The Good Wife" and AMC's "Mad Men." "Salem" must also stand out from a host of other programs with the supernatural or witches at their narrative center.

All this is not lost on Peter Liguori, the chief executive of Tribune Co. (which also owns the Los Angeles Times). Liguori says "Salem," which premieres April 20 at 10 p.m., is simply the opening act in transforming the struggling media company into a profitable TV-centric enterprise.

"This is Step One," Liguori said. "We are by far and away no FX. We are no AMC. We are no HBO."

But Liguori, a veteran entertainment executive who oversaw programming at Fox and FX, said WGN America has potential because of the quality of its new programming and Tribune's media muscle. The company is one of the largest television station owners in the country, with nearly 40 stations, including WGN America, and it can reach more than 70 million homes through cable providers and satellite services such as DirecTV.

"It's got tremendous upside," he said. "It's prime real estate."

The company has more than witches waiting in the wings. Other original scripted series ordered by WGN America include "Manhattan," a period piece set in Los Alamos, N.M., that dramatizes the Manhattan Project scientists racing to build the first atomic bomb.

The network also will present another version of "The Ten Commandments." The 10-part miniseries boasts high-profile actors and filmmakers — including Michael Cera, Wes Craven, Lee Daniels, Jim Sheridan and Gus Van Sant — each directing an installment.

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Both "Salem" and "Manhattan" were ordered straight to series with 13 episodes each. Although increasingly common in the fierce competition for original programming, straight-to-order series carry risks because executives don't have a pilot to review. That's often where weaknesses in the plot or the characters are identified — and corrected — before the show goes on the air.

Media analysts say the move may be risky, but it is necessary for Tribune Co., which is poised to spin off its newspaper holdings later this year and is still recovering from a four-year stretch in bankruptcy reorganization it emerged from in 2012. Without original programming, a network cannot expect to grow financially, they say.

"They are now in a forward-looking mode, as opposed to maintaining status quo," said Bill Carroll, an analyst at Katz Television Group, which advises companies on TV advertising. "The risk is balanced by the potential reward. 'Salem' sets the foundation."

In another move to bolster revenue, the company also recently relaunched L.A.-based Tribune Studios to develop original programming for its own network and local stations owned by Tribune Broadcasting.

Cable television has become a huge business. Last month, WGN America joined the annual stampede to the cable "upfront market," where networks unveil their new programming lineups for advertisers in hopes of corralling big dollars.

It's too early to know how Tribune performed, but upfront sales for cable have steadily risen for years as networks scramble to beef up their stock of original programming. In 2013-14, ad-supported cable networks generated a record $10.2 billion in advertising commitments, surpassing the $9.15 billion in sales for the broadcast networks.

"Salem" is produced by 20th Century Fox's cable production arm Fox21 and Prospect Park, an independent producer. It enters an arena packed with genre storytellers, some astonishingly successful. AMC's tale of zombie apocalypse "The Walking Dead" routinely outperformed its scripted cousins on broadcast networks. HBO's fourth-season premiere of sword-and-dragon fantasy "Game of Thrones" drew so many viewers that its streaming service was overloaded and shut down.

"Salem," which was originally developed for FX, places a twist on the infamous Massachusetts trials. In a departure from the history books, the supernatural drama posits there was good reason for the hysteria: The witches were real and they were running the trials.

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"Knowing that the horror drama and supernatural drama is a genre that's thriving and the audience seems to have an appetite for is important because it can do some of the heavy lifting for us in terms of drawing audience to the network," said Matt Cherniss, president and general manager of WGN America and Tribune Studios.

Of course, the real test will be whether there remains an enthusiasm for witches on TV. "Salem" is among a spate of recent programs with prominent witches: FX's "American Horror Story: Coven," Lifetime's "The Witches of East End," HBO's "True Blood," NBC's "Grimm" and ABC's "Once Upon a Time."

But whatever the turnout, it's likely to boost the network's weak audience, analysts say. In roughly 65% of homes, WGN America last year attracted an average prime-time audience of 250,000 viewers with a median age of 49.

Tribune spent just over $2 million for each episode of "Salem." That figure conforms to industry standards for dramas in cable and broadcast, Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate said.

A lot was invested in re-creating a realistic early Colonial village. In all, the new world has more than 50 interior and exterior sets, the latter of which sit on 60 acres. Nearly all the show's costumes were created specifically for the series..

"We didn't cheap out in any way, shape or form on this. You can't these days with all that's out there. You'll drown," said executive producer Brannon Braga, who has also kept busy as a producer on Fox's "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey."

"Salem" also takes full advantage of the freedoms offered by cable. The opening episode showcases some nudity and a sex scene that would be at home in an HBO series.

It's hard to say whether "Salem" will be the program that puts the network on the map — like "Mad Men" did for AMC or "The Sopranos" did for HBO — but it's a show that will draw attention, said Sam Armando of Chicago media buying firm SMGx.

"A large part of it might just be getting people talking about the network," Armando said. That hasn't happened till now, he noted, adding: "This is the first call I've ever had about WGN."

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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