WGN America tries 'Salem' magic to expand audience

LOS ANGELES (AP) — WGN America is calling on witchcraft to help launch the cable channel in a new direction.

Starting this weekend, WGN America is adding its first original series to its schedule of Chicago sports and acquired programming such as broadcast network reruns. The groundbreaker is "Salem," set in the Massachusetts town during its 17th-century witch obsession and with an "epic romance" at its center, according to the channel. The drama, debuting at 10 p.m. EDT Sunday, features Janet Montgomery, Shane West, Seth Gabel and Ashley Madekwe in its cast.

It will be followed in July by "Manhattan," a drama about the scientists behind the New Mexico-based Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. The stars include John Benjamin Hickey of "The Good Wife," Olivia Williams and Daniel Stern.

"The Ten Commandments," a limited-run series with a different and prominent director for each episode, including Lee Daniels, Jim Sheridan and Gus Van Sant, will air in 2015, the channel said. The move toward original series — which have become a staple of cable channels that once relied on recycled shows and movies — is overdue for WGN America, said Matt Cherniss, president and general manager of Tribune Co.-owned WGN America and Tribune Studios.

"We're in 75 million homes, so people have an opportunity to watch us but aren't finding a reason to come to the channel," said Cherniss, formerly an executive at Fox and FX Networks. "In my experience, nothing does that better than provocative and high-quality drama."

The "hope and plan" is to have 52 weeks of original programming in the next two years, Cherniss said. That translates to four shows annually on a rotating basis, with each show airing for 13 weeks. WGN America isn't giving up its sportscast or off-network series, acquiring exclusive syndication rights for the broadcast dramas "Blue Bloods," ''Elementary" and "Person of Interest."


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