For at least two decades now, and certainly for the past decade-plus, Tribune Broadcasting has been an anachronism: the last relic of an age of truly local, independent broadcasters, from a time when broadcasting was so dominant that broadcast stations’ fear of cable had to do with the prospect of importing other stations from outlying markets, a time when independent broadcasting was so strong that Tribune, the owner of the dominant independent stations in its markets, didn’t affiliate them with the fledgling Fox network, leaving Fox to leave Tribune’s VHF stations behind in favor of UHF stations in markets like Chicago and Denver in a time when that still mattered. Even as its stations have affiliated with the WB and later the CW, Tribune has steadfastly avoided being identified with those networks and, especially with the CW (which, unlike the WB, it doesn’t hold an ownership stake in), has downplayed its affiliation as much as possible. In the very biggest markets, the biggest general-entertainment stations outside the Big Four networks tend to be owned by CBS, Fox… or Tribune, the one company of the group not to be a massive conglomerate, even as it has increasingly become a more standard owner of affiliates of the Big Four networks in smaller markets, especially ABC and Fox.
A big reason Tribune has managed to maintain this strange, hybrid status has been its flagship station in Chicago, WGN, and its own status as the last relic of the early days of cable, when imported “superstations” were the main distinguishing feature from standard broadcast. While Ted Turner was exporting WTBS throughout the South, Tribune was doing the same with WGN throughout the Midwest, showcasing Cubs games in much the same way TBS did Braves games. Broadcast stations were able to get “syndication exclusivity” rules passed that required any syndicated programming on imported broadcast stations that also aired on a local station to be wiped from the feed, requiring the likes of TBS and WGN to set up separate feeds to export to outlying markets, but because such rules didn’t apply to cable networks that didn’t originate as local stations it left the superstations at a substantial competitive disadvantage and helped hasten their demise.
In the case of WGN, the advent of the WB further sealed its fate; WGN was able to carry the WB on its national feed in its early years, helping that network gain traction throughout the country in areas that didn’t have a WB affiliate, but as that problem slowly waned WGN eventually dropped the WB from its national feed, meaning the national feed increasingly became very different from the local Chicago one – which ironically may have helped it keep going longer. Tribune’s relatively smaller status also may have helped; TBS divorced its national feed from its local Atlanta station once and for all once it won a national baseball contract. Eventually, the WGN national feed was renamed “WGN America” with a different logo, and the only things it had in common with the Chicago feed were the 9 PM CT news and local Chicago sports.
Now, however, Tribune has signaled its intention to turn WGN America into a more traditional cable network and is wiping the last vestiges of WGN America’s superstation status from its lineup. WGN America dropped local Chicago news earlier this year, and now Tribune CEO Peter Ligouri has told Crain’s Chicago Business that WGN America intends to drop Cubs games and other Chicago sports at the end of 2014. (The article is behind a paywall, but if you want to read a possibly-illegally-copy-pasted version that reads like it was sent through a machine translator and back again, click here.)
The continued presence of Cubs games on WGN America was yet another vestige of a bygone age. In the early days of cable, there was no MLB Extra Innings, no more than one game a week on TV nationally, and MLB had a lot fewer teams than it does now. The Braves and Cubs were able to build large regional fanbases through the exporting of WTBS and WGN. With games with national interest on TV every day of the week on ESPN, FS1, and MLB Network, Cubs games on WGN America are less special, and the continued presence on broadcast those games require means missing out on the dual revenue stream from a regional sports network.
Despite all that, this is a bit of a head-scratcher to me. Tribune seems to be trying to catch the general cable network market on a downswing, right as it reaches a tipping point and starts to decline as online services like Netflix step on its turf. The value of linear television going forward is sports, so WGN America seems to be going in the exact wrong direction; I’d be very surprised if Cubs games, even with the team sucking in recent years, would be less popular than whatever original programming WGN America tried to put on its air (how much money it makes for WGN given production costs is another matter). This is especially the case since, owing to the SyndEx rules, WGNA has rather limited distribution compared to other networks of similar vintage, and may have to renegotiate its contracts from scratch if it divorces itself from WGN in Chicago completely. I would mention that the national carriage WGNA gives the Cubs is the one big value WGN would bring to an impending renegotiation of its contract, except that this move may itself be an admission that WGN is likely to lose the contract.
Tribune is in the process of spinning off its newspapers into a separate company, leaving its broadcast stations and WGN America as the heart of the company, along with digital investments. But those stations are themselves prone to potentially suffer the same fate the newspaper industry did as the Internet stepped onto its turf, and without affiliation with a Big Four network or (with the only exceptions being WGN and WPIX in New York) a sports presence, Tribune’s legacy stations seem particularly exposed. Tribune has been run by private equity firms since its emergence from bankruptcy in 2012, and besides turning WGN America into a conventional cable network, those firms have shown every sign of running Tribune as a traditional owner of broadcast affiliates (purchasing the Local TV group, another group of stations run by private equity firms, last year), yet no company is in better position to affect the future course of the broadcast industry. I hope the people in charge of Tribune have, or at least can acquire, a mindset of the television industry of the future, not the past.