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Lifestyle

April 20, 2014

Welcome to 'Salem' WGN hopes to cast a spell on viewers with original series about witch trials

A woodsy stretch of Willow Lake Farm, just outside Shreveport, La., has been painstakingly built to look like a 17th century Salem, Mass., filled with shops and houses with steep-pitched roofs and drab clapboard exteriors.

Milling about nearby are women in elaborate capes and cinched dresses, and men clad in peasant shirts and heavy coats.

It’s all textbook quaint — until you see the towering gallows at the center of town.

This is the setting for “Salem,” the new TV series from Tribune Co.’s WGN America set Salem, Mass., during the notorious Colonial witch trials.

The show itself, which premieres tonight at 10, will be a trial of sorts for WGN America.

With “Salem,” the Chicago network — best known for showing Chicago Cubs baseball games and sitcom reruns — is entering the increasingly crowded field of original content. The hope is the new programs can lift WGN America from being largely a regional player to a top-tier national cable channel.

The show runs Sundays, the most hotly contested night in television because of shows such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” CBS’s “The Good Wife” and AMC’s “Mad Men.” “Salem” must also stand out from a host of other programs with the supernatural or witches at their narrative center.

All this is not lost on Peter Liguori, the chief executive of Tribune Co. (which also owns the Los Angeles Times). Liguori says “Salem,” is simply the opening act in transforming the struggling media company into a profitable TV-centric enterprise.

“This is Step One,” Liguori said. “We are by far and away no FX. We are no AMC. We are no HBO.”

But Liguori, a veteran entertainment executive who oversaw programming at Fox and FX, said WGN America has potential because of the quality of its new programming and Tribune’s media muscle. The company is one of the largest television station owners in the country, with nearly 40 stations, including WGN America, and it can reach more than 70 million homes through cable providers and satellite services such as DirecTV.

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