Pro wrestling losing hold on teen demos

NEW YORK — The Rock has gone to the movies, Stone Cold Steve Austin is on ice and huge numbers of teenage boys have turned away from World Wrestling Entertainment’s signature primetime shows “Raw Is War” and “Smackdown.”

The Nielsen numbers have body-slammed Vince McMahon, chairman of WWE, and his CEO wife, Linda. For the first 5½ months of the year, “Smackdown,” has lost 35% of its 12- to 17-year-old males compared with the same period in 2001. Show, UPN’s two-hour bellwether Thursday at 8, has also seen its household ratings fall by 10%.

For “Raw Is War,” which airs on TNN Mondays from 8 to 10, the desertion rate in males 12-17 is 19% year to year. The decline in households is 6%.

“With the Rock making like Arnold Schwarzenegger on the bigscreen, the WWE doesn’t have the big-draw, marquee wrestler to keep the kids enthralled,” says Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media, which represents TV-station clients in their programming decisions.

While the Rock’s career is soaring (Universal’s “Scorpion King” has grossed more than $90 million in U.S. theaters), Steve Austin, another star wrestler, walked out after a disagreement with the WWE and then got into hot water with the San Antonio cops for allegedly beating up his manager wife, Debra.

Another problem for the WWE is that the attention span of teenage boys keeps getting shorter and shorter. “You’ve got extreme sports like the X Games drawing young men, reality shows like ‘American Idol’ and ‘Dog Eat Dog’ cropping up all over the place and a whole array of videogames,” says David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group.

Meanwhile, cable is doing its part to lure viewers and its share of audience went up by 11% in primetime during the second quarter, topping out at a record 49 share.

By contrast, the seven broadcast networks dropped to a 45 share this quarter from a 49 share last year.

What’s igniting the trend is a string of high-visibility Nielsen winners on cable networks coupled with a shortage of hits on the broadcast networks.

Cable’s powerhouse performance kicked off in April, when 11 of the top-15 cable networks harvested double-digit rating gains from the same period in 2001. MTV came up with “The Osbournes,” its best-rated series ever, and FX premiered its best ever, “The Shield.” “SpongeBob SquarePants” became a mega-hit on Nickelodeon, and TLC’s “Trading Spaces” found itself very much ready for primetime.

The broadcast networks edged back in May with lots of original episodes of series and special programs during the sweeps.

June boom

But cable returned with a vengeance in June. Among the highlights: eye-popping numbers for “Dead Zone,” which kicked off with the highest rating in USA’s history, and near-record viewership for the second-season debut of TNT’s successful “Witchblade” series.

Although the broadcast networks scheduled a few original series in June, reruns still dominated their primetime lineups.

The best-performing individual cable network continued to be Lifetime, which won the second quarter in primetime with a 2.1 rating in cable homes, 11% higher than that of the same period a year ago.

Lifetime is on a dazzling Nielsen roll, winning its sixth straight quarterly victory, the longest winning streak in cable in five years, since TNT was in its heyday from the third quarter of 1996 to the fourth quarter of 1997.

Thanks to “SpongeBob” and “Cosby Show” reruns, Nickelodeon, at a 1.8 primetime rating in cable homes, tied for second with TNT in the quarter, climbing by 20% over the second quarter of 2001. TNT, boosted by movies and pro basketball, was up by 6% quarter to quarter.

TBS and Cartoon Network tied for fourth at a 1.7 rating, with TBS up by 13% from last year’s quarter and Cartoon flat.

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