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Nexstar relaunches WGN America as NewsNation

After adding more than 8 million households to its national footprint, cable channel WGN America has been relaunched as NewsNation as parent company Nexstar Media Group seeks to offer a new rolling news channel focused on substance over political bickering.

As part of the relaunch, Nexstar is re-tooling NewsNation with a slate of new current affairs programming, including an anchored evening newscast called “NewsNation Prime,” the point-of-view program “Donlon Report” and the conversation show “Banfield.”

“Rebranding WGN America as NewsNation underscores the network’s clearly defined mission of delivering fact-based and unbiased news, while making it easier for viewers to find this new informative source for news,” Sean Compton, Nexstar’s networks division president, said in a statement last month. “At the same time, expanding our news programming to five hours Monday through Friday will extend the network’s reach and the depth of its news content across more weeknight time periods, delivering viewers more national news and regional stories from across the U.S., as well as coverage of the day’s most important issues.”

The relaunch marks a bittersweet end to a superstation that has been a mainstay on satellite television and metropolitan cable systems for decades, bringing the nation a little closer to Chicago news, sports and entertainment.

WGN America started in the late 1970s as a variant of the local WGN-TV (Channel 9) feed that was uplinked to satellite and distributed to cable systems across the country. It joined a growing line-up of other local stations that sought to achieve superstation status, including WTBS (Channel 17) in Atlanta, WSBK-TV (Channel 38) in Boston, WPIX-TV (Channel 11) in New York City and WOR-TV (Channel 9, now WWOR-TV) in New Jersey

WGN’s superstation signal gave national carriage to Chicago local news and sporting events, including Cubs and White Sox baseball games and telecasts of Chicago Bulls basketball games. It also offered cable viewers an opportunity to watch syndicated programs and movies that weren’t available on independent stations within their markets.

As the number of national cable-only channels grew, cable systems began to phase out their use of superstations. WGN and others reacted to this change by modifying their national signals with a curated blend of local news and sports programming.

In the 1990s, WGN briefly served as a national affiliate of the short-lived WB Network — a partnership between Warner Bros and then-WGN parent company Tribune Broadcasting — while the consortium worked to sign on more local broadcast affiliates in smaller markets.

By 2014, WGN’s local programming was reduced to nightly simulcasts of the Chicago channel’s prime-time newscast. Executives decided to drop the simulcasts, converting WGN Superstation into a basic cable channel called WGN America.

Tribune expected WGN America to compete against general entertainment channels like AMC, TNT and TBS and quickly secured the rights to a handful of original programs. But these shows failed to attract much of an audience, and WGN eventually modified its line-up with a straight block of re-runs coupled with late-night infomercials.

WGN America was acquired by Nexstar in September 2019, and plans were laid to offer a nightly newscast on WGN America that could harness the power of local newsrooms across Nexstar’s portfolio of over 100 broadcast channels across the country.

Despite launching to much fanfare, NewsNation quickly lost momentum in part due to Nexstar’s lack of distribution deals outside of cable and satellite for the channel. Over the last several months, the company has quickly remedied this problem, enticing streaming cable alternatives like YouTube TV, Fubo TV, Vidgo and Hulu with Live TV to carry WGN America as a condition for carrying Nexstar’s ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox affiliates.

By the end of February, Nexstar had reached agreements with enough streaming-only services to make WGN America — now NewsNation — available in more than 8.5 million households, the company said.

Though Nexstar is making the NewsNation brand more apparent through the re-brand, the channel hasn’t completely moved away from its entertainment roots: On Monday, the first program aired on the re-launched channel was “J.A.G.,” a military courtroom drama that previously ran on NBC and CBS in the mid-1990s.

It wasn’t clear if syndicated programming was part of Nexstar’s long-term strategy for NewsNation’s daypart hours or if that content would be phased out as syndication deals lapsed over time.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 10 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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