A little less than half of the Chicago Cubs’ TV broadcast rights are contractually obligated to WGN-TV for the 2014 season, and then they are opened up to the world (well, the non-cable-plus-CSN world, at least) for bidding.
While the Cubs and WGN have indicated a general willingness to preserve their relationship – and it remains conceivable, at least through 2019, when the full slate of Cubs games is available – I have long wondered whether WGN’s plans to expand its superstation, WGN America, would interfere with its interest in carrying Cubs games nationally. Consider that, while Cubs games do very well in Chicago, and there are certainly a smattering of Cubs fans across the country, WGN may believe that non-Cubs programming could do much better outside of Chicago (especially in primetime) than Cubs games. In other words, depending on WGN’s future strategy, a separation between the Cubs and WGN-TV may be driven by WGN as much as by the Cubs.
And Chicago media man Robert Feder reports what may be a tea leaf pointing in that very direction: WGN America has dropped the local WGN news from its evening rotation. Feder further points to a recent Chicago Tribune (owner of WGN) statement about their WGN America strategy, and their move into more original primetime content.
“We’re transitioning from a network with regional roots to one with a true national identity, driven by provocative, brand-defining programming of the highest quality,” said Matt Cherniss, President and General Manager, WGN America and Tribune Studios. “With this relaunch and our expanded portfolio of original content, we expect to significantly strengthen our position as a destination for viewers.”
While not a perfect parallel – I imagine Cubs games have a stronger national draw than local news – you can see why this suggests changes at WGN. The more they work to clear their primetime schedule for original programming, the less space they’re going to have for less-attractive (at a national level) Cubs games. Perhaps a small package of games could stay on WGN during the day? Beyond that, if WGN America is set on expanding itself, I don’t see how the Cubs will fit into that plan in the long-term.
Six years ago, TBS ended its long-time relationship with the Atlanta Braves under very similar circumstances: more and more Braves games were being shifted off of TBS in favor of a regional sports network (where they were more valuable), while TBS, itself, began its own national branding campaign with more original programming.
At the Convention, while discussing the future of Cubs’ TV broadcasts and WGN, Todd Ricketts made sure to mention that WGN’s strategy is changing, further implying that this entire thing is a two-way street.
I was a WGN/Cubs kid, myself. I became a Cubs fan almost exclusively because of the ability to watch Cubs games on WGN from my home in Ohio. I recognize the value in that kind of setup.
But the world is changing. Broadcasting rights are changing, and the Cubs need to cash in as aggressively as possible. The way people consume television is changing, and WGN America has to grow originally if it wants to survive.