WGN America cancels "Underground"

And just like that, WGN America is officially done with making high-end scripted television

By Melanie McFarland

Published May 30, 2017 7:53PM (EDT)

Aldis Hodge in "Underground"   (WGN)
Aldis Hodge in "Underground" (WGN)

On Tuesday WGN America officially announced that it would not renew “Underground” for a third season, definitively turning out the lights in the cable channel’s high-end scripted originals department.

Though fans of the acclaimed series have a right to be heartbroken, those who have been keeping up with current events may not be particularly shocked. The cancellation of “Underground” comes weeks after Sinclair Broadcast Group’s purchase of Tribune Media for a cool $3.9 billion. Tribune Media owns WGN America and co-produced the first season of “Underground” along with Sony Pictures Television.

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Amid rumors circulating that Sinclair could be planning to launch a conservative-leaning news network to compete with Fox News Channel, Sinclair Broadcast Group CEO Chris Ripley announced that his company’s focus for WGN America will be to bring it into a position of profitability, meaning that the channel is likely to stick with lower-cost original programming (likely in the form of unscripted shows) and repeats for the time being. Evidently, investing in expensive scripted originals does not jibe with that framework.

“Despite 'Underground' being a terrific and important series, it no longer fits with our new direction and we have reached the difficult decision not to renew it for a third season,” Peter Kern, the president and CEO of Tribune Media Company, said in a press release. “We are tremendously proud of this landmark series that captured the zeitgeist and made an impact on television in a way never before seen on the medium.”

Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, and starring Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Christopher Meloni, “Underground” follows a group of men and women who escaped a Macon, Georgia, plantation, where they had been enslaved, in the hope of finding freedom in the North. For its second season the writers introduced Harriet Tubman (played by Aisha Hinds), whose story provided the basis for a critically-lauded episode titled “Minty.”

Executive produced in part by John Legend (who appeared in the second season as Frederick Douglass), the series also incorporates a modern pop soundtrack, using singles from hip-hop and soul artists as well as compositions from the show’s composer Raphael Saadiq.

WGN America has canceled other well-received scripted shows recently, including “Outsiders,” dropped in April. Both "Outsiders" and "Underground" were top performers for WGN; shortly before cancelling "Outsiders," the network announced that it and “Underground” gave WGN its best monthly prime-time ratings in history in total audience, averaging 446,000 viewers in "live + 3" ratings,  a measurement of how many people watched the show live and in the three days following via DVR or encore telecasts.

"Underground" also enjoyed a high profile on social media and made history as WGN America’s highest-rated original series in its first season. It also was selected to be part of the inaugural public program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and was screened at its theater.

Hope for a third season may not be entirely lost. With Sony as its producer, "Underground" could land on another distribution service such as Hulu. According to an industry report, OWN may be considering picking up the series.  Its relatively steep price tag, however, may prove to be an obstacle to the drama finding a new home.

Before the arrival of “Underground” and “Outsiders,” WGN America made its initial foray into scripted programming with the genre-themed period piece "Salem." It also launched “Manhattan,” a drama about the project to build the atomic bomb, which earned the channel a prime-time Emmy award for outstanding main title design in 2015.

Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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