By Mike Mooneyham
June 5, 2005
Pro wrestling helped make a winner out of UPN when it debuted on the fledging network nearly six years ago.
A recent decision, however, has threatened the heretofore mutually advantageous relationship between the network and its top-rated show.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]UPN blindsided a number of WWE executives when it recently announced that the network was moving Smackdown from its Thursday night home to a much less desirable Friday night time slot. The change takes effect in September with the beginning of the new fall television season.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that UPN gave the Vince McMahon-owned company little advance warning. “They could have shown a little more respect than to drop this on them at the last minute,” said one insider.
Some sources say UPN naively views the change as a “win-win situation” for both the network and WWE. Few inside the business, however, believe that WWE will increase its audience on Friday night when the show competes with its own weekend Raw house events.
UPN, whose contract with WWE for the Smackdown show expires in the fall of 2006, knew it had a winner when it tested the waters with a two-hour wrestling special during the May 1999 ratings sweeps period. Its numbers soared 238 percent over the time period’s average among adults 18-34. The underdog network built its comeback around Smackdown’s debut in August of that year.
WWE, however, was a much hotter product then. In the midst of a hotly contested wrestling war with Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, WWE had not yet split its shows into the separate Raw and Smackdown brands that now exist. UPN’s Smackdown show on Thursday night also had the luxury of featuring such mainstream attractions as The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Mick Foley.
It’s a new Rock, though, that UPN is banking on for the fall season.
The network is looking to build a Thursday night comedy block anchored by Chris Rock’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” a comedy project on which Fox passed, according to UPN president Dawn Ostroff.
The coming-of-age series drew rave reviews in preliminary field tests, and the network is hoping that it will be one of the upcoming season’s biggest surprise hits and will take a chunk out of NBC’s share on Thursday nights. Executive producer Rock co-wrote the series pilot, based on his childhood, and serves as narrator.
“We think that they’re vulnerable,” Ostroff said of NBC. “We think that this is a great opportunity to have a breakout comedy in that time period because people are used to watching something in that time period that’s dynamic and funny.”
Ostroff also realizes the high stakes for WWE and concedes that the switch is a gamble. Although the popularity of the WWE brand has faltered over the past year, wrestling has been the engine that has run UPN since its inception and has continued to provide the network with its top-rated programming.
But UPN wants to take a crack at some of the higher-range ad revenue that shows such as Rock’s can attract, and that means moving Smackdown from a spot it has occupied for the past six years.
For now, though, WWE will have to settle for an 8-10 p.m. Friday berth, putting it against weaker broadcast programming but on a night which competes with an assortment of sporting events and is vulnerable to a litany of preemptions.
More significant is the fact that not many 18-to 34-year-olds – WWE’s core demographic group – are likely to stay home and watch wrestling on a Friday evening.
Smackdown isn’t the only WWE show in store for a big shake-up this fall. Raw, the company’s flagship program, will leave its current home, Spike TV, for USA, which launched the show back in 1993. Raw has been on Spike since September 2000.
WWE began looking for a new TV home when Viacom-owned Spike TV announced earlier this year that it would end its relationship with the franchise at the end of its current contract in September.
In addition to the weekly Raw show, USA will air a one-hour weekend program. NBC Universal’s Telemundo network will air Spanish-language versions of Raw, and also committed to airing two WWE specials on its NBC broadcast network.
WWE, however, is expected to lose about $13 million in net income, or $37 million in revenue, as a result of lost advertising under the new deal. Under the arrangement, USA will sell all advertising in the programming and retain all ad revenues, with WWE no longer retaining the rights to sell ads on Raw. Under the existing agreement with Spike TV, WWE sells the majority of the advertising in its cable programs. To reflect the expected drop in ad revenue, many Wall Street analysts have slashed their profit forecasts.
– The struggling but unpredictable Total Non-Stop Action group appears poised to add even more uncertainty to this year’s pro wrestling landscape.
Multichannel News reported last week that TNA, whose 52-week contract with Fox Sports Network recently expired, is in talks with Chicago superstation WGN and Spike TV.
Spike, a much more attractive option with nearly 30 million more homes, is considered a long shot. Most insiders expect TNA to air on WGN on Monday nights beginning June 20. The two-hour show is expected to start one hour before Raw and be live every other week. Taped shows will take place the day after the live event.
TNA, which paid Fox Sports Network for its weekly clearance and averaged a 0.2 in its Friday afternoon and late Saturday night timeslots, would be expected to average at least a 0.5 rating in the Monday night spot. TNA’s Slammiversary pay-per-view, which will mark the company’s third anniversary, is still scheduled for June 19 and will take place regardless of the TV situation.
Even less certain than its new TV home is the future ownership of the company. Bob and Dixie Carter of Panda Energy own 71 percent of the TNA, while Jeff and Jerry Jarrett claim the remaining 29 percent. With both sides at odds over the direction of the company, a third group recently made a bid to purchase TNA but pulled out last week.
According to a statement posted on his Web site, NWA-Ohio’s Dave Nelson announced that he had pulled his $10 million bid to purchase TNA after not hearing back from the company. The group reportedly consisted of three silent backers and former pro wrestling star Hacksaw Jim Duggan.
– Batista scored much-needed points with his throttling of Muhammad Hassan in the main event of Monday night’s Raw. WWE needs to continue to portray its heavyweight champion as an invincible monster much like WCW did with Bill Goldberg back in 1997-98 when he routed opponent after opponent.
The push of Hassan (Mark Magnus), along with his second Daivari (Shawn Daivari), is expected to cool down as neither are considered main-event material at this point, nor do they fully understand looker-room mechanics.
– Lance Storm, who retired from WWE last year to become head trainer at its Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental territory, will come out of retirement for a match on the ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view June 12.
Storm, who will be accompanied by ex-ECW valet Dawn Marie, will face former Thrill Seekers partner Chris Jericho. He had his first pro match against Jericho in 1990 in Canada in front of about 100 fans.
“Chris Jericho and I had our first match together, and I’ve always said it would be cool to have my last against him as well,” Storm posted on his Web site. “This will be my chance to bookend my career, wrestling a close friend, and one of my favorite opponents.”
– WWE will stage an interpromotional main event for its July 7 Raw taping in East Rutherford, N.J., featuring Batista and John Cena against Triple H and John Bradshaw Layfield.