CHICAGO – WGN America, the erstwhile home to Bozo and Andy Griffith, is set to reinvent itself as a cable news network with the Tuesday launch of “News Nation,” a prime-time newscast that pledges to deliver unbiased reporting.
The mission is to take a bite out of CNN, MSNBC and Fox.
Delayed but not derailed by the pandemic, WGN America has assembled a 150-person newsroom and has been making dry runs for several weeks of its nightly three-hour newscasts from extensively remodeled Chicago studios.
Going live amid a health crisis, civil unrest and a polarizing presidential election means the pressure is on “News Nation” to hit the ground running.
“We’ve got to deliver,” said Sean Compton, 46, executive vice president of WGN America. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re not alienating any of our audience, that everyone feels they’re getting fair, accurate reporting of the news.”
Nexstar Media Group bought WGN America last year as part of its $4.1 billion acquisition of Chicago-based Tribune Media – the former broadcast parent of Tribune Publishing – which created the nation’s largest local TV station group. In January, Nexstar announced plans to turn the former superstation into a prime-time cable news network.
Then the pandemic hit, adding a layer of difficulty to the ambitious project and pushing back the launch from July to September.
“It slowed us down a little bit from a technical standpoint – we were worried whether we would get all our equipment in,” said Compton, a longtime Tribune Media executive named to head WGN America under Nexstar.
The nearly 60-year-old broadcast facility on West Bradley Place in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood remains home to WGN, but much of the operation is focused on WGN America. The former “Bozo’s Circus” studio is now a “News Nation” training room. An upstairs storage room, earmarked 20 years ago as a potential home for WGN Radio, has become a high-tech newsroom.
The sleek $3.5 million “News Nation” studio was built in the space formerly occupied by the WGN-TV news set, which was relocated in the building. It features giant movable video screens, a three-person anchor desk and an image of the Chicago skyline as a backdrop – a constant reminder that this cable news network emanates from the heartland, Compton said.
In addition to Chicago-based anchors, producers, editors and researchers, “News Nation” will leverage the resources of Nexstar’s 110 TV newsrooms and 5,400 journalists across the country to provide live national coverage.
“We have boots on the ground everywhere,” Compton said. “This makes sense because we’re in Sioux Falls, and we’re in Los Angeles and Chicago. CNN doesn’t have people in Fort Wayne.”
The network will be heavy on weather, with two meteorologists on staff and hundreds of local meteorologists on call, but plans no regular sports reports.
WGN America started as a TV superstation in 1978 by uploading WGN local programming to satellite and beaming “The Andy Griffith Show,” Cubs baseball and Chicago news to distant cable providers. It converted to a full-fledged cable network about five years ago, dropping local programming and adding original first-run shows.
More recently it has returned to its rerun roots, but that changes Tuesday night when WGN America shifts to a prime-time news network, putting it in direct competition with another cable pioneer.
The debut of “News Nation” comes 40 years after the Cable News Network went live from Atlanta with a husband-and-wife anchor team, introducing the concept of a 24/7 TV news channel “to provide information to people when it wasn’t available before,” founder Ted Turner said at its 1980 launch.
Derided initially, CNN gained traction as cable’s penetration grew, making its mark with round-the-clock coverage of the Gulf War in the early ’90s. Then came MSNBC and Fox in 1996, which infused their programming with personality-driven opinion shows, eclipsing CNN’s ratings during the new millennium.
When former NBC president and CEO Jeff Zucker took the helm of CNN in 2013, he added more personalities and the now ubiquitous pundit panels to the lineup, boosting the network’s ratings but leaving what WGN America hopes will be an opening for straight cable news.
“We’re kind of going back to what Ted Turner saw in 1980 as an opportunity,” Compton said.
“News Nation” is led by Jennifer Lyons, who was promoted from news director at WGN-Ch. 9 to vice president of news for WGN America.
Job One for Lyons was to recruit the news talent while the country was locked down at the onset of the pandemic. Some 1,100 people applied and the vetting for the small screen was mostly done over a computer screen.
“The daunting part was finding the talent,” Lyons said. “You’re starting from scratch and you’re doing it all over Zoom.”
The highest-profile hires are co-anchors Joe Donlon and Marni Hughes.
Donlon moved down the hallway from co-anchoring the local WGN newscasts, while Hughes was most recently an anchor in Seattle.
Lyons has spent the past month coordinating the new talent, the new equipment and feeds from “seven or eight” local Nexstar TV stations each night during rehearsals, where “News Nation” runs through its full 7 to 10 p.m. newscast.
Donlon said the extra rehearsal time will prove invaluable when “News Nation” goes live to 75 million homes.
“We needed it,” Donlon said. “There will be a lot of eyeballs on us and we need to be clean, we need to be solid and we need to live up to the mission.”
Hughes, left her role as a Seattle TV news anchor last fall to move to Indianapolis – without a job – to return to her Midwestern roots.
She picked up stakes again in May, moving to Chicago after she landed the co-anchor gig.
A Michigan native, her first TV job was in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Like Donlon, “News Nation” is her first network news platform. She believes their local news backgrounds will dovetail well with WGN America’s grassroots approach to national news.
“It feels a little bit more like a local news team that you can get to know, and that you’ll tune in to watch and have some fun and get informed,” Hughes said.
On a recent day, the “News Nation” newsroom crackled with activity. Writers and producers worked the phones and their computers, assigned to one of six regional zones that feed into the national newscast.
An empty seat between every other workstation keeps 6 feet of social distancing, with a faux computer screen in the middle for better live newsroom shots, Compton said.
Adding 150 TV production jobs to a city that has lost everyone from Bozo to Oprah over the years is “a big deal for Chicago media,” Compton said. On a national level, he hopes “News Nation” will be an even bigger deal to cable TV news viewers looking to turn down the heat on partisan politics.
“I think we’ll draw a lot of viewers from the other cable news networks,” Compton said. “Because people think they go there to get news now, and they’re really getting political talk programming. We’re just trying to report the facts.”
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