USA ready to wrestle for top spot

Cabler could loosen TNT ratings chokehold

NEW YORK — The big story in cable TV for the rest of the year could boil down to whether Vince McMahon’s live wrestling matches on USA can body-slam “Spider-Man” on TNT.

For the past decade and a half, TNT and USA have waged an unremitting battle over which network can claim bragging rights to the position of top dog in the primetime Nielsens.

USA was a fairly consistent No. 1 in primetime through much of the 1990s, benefiting heavily from McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment extravaganzas every Monday night. But the network tumbled out of first place at least in part because it allowed itself to be outbid by TNN (now Spike TV) for the cable rights to WWE’s matches from fall 2000 to fall 2005.

In 2001 and 2002, Lifetime, a dark horse, finessed its way to the top of the primetime pole, mainly on the strength of TV movies. But in 2003, TNT’s heady mix of movies, NBA playoff basketball and reruns of “Law & Order” helped the network to vault over Lifetime and put a lock on first place.

That lock remained firm in 2004 and, based on its current lead, TNT looks like a shoo-in for calendar 2005.

But Laura Caraccioli-Davis, a top media buyer with Starcom Entertainment, says USA could start chipping away at TNT’s lead beginning this week when the Monday-night “WWE Raw” returns to USA.

USA took the WWE contract back by offering inducements (such as an $8 million promotional budget for the 2005 launch) that Spike TV declined to match. “Who said you can’t go home again?” was McMahon’s rhetorical question at a press luncheon in New York to promote the rekindled partnership between USA and the WWE.

USA is adding to its arsenal not only wrestling but also seven hours a week in primetime of reruns of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which began on the network two weeks ago and is already paying Nielsen dividends.

By contrast, TNT won’t get access to multiple primetime runs of its next big off-network series, the CBS hit “Without a Trace,” until fall 2006. Instead, during the fourth quarter, TNT is counting on big numbers from its triple runs of three blockbuster theatricals: “Erin Brockovich” (Oct. 21-23), “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (Dec. 9-11) and “Spider-Man” (Dec. 16-18).

TNT also gets a weekly exclusive National Basketball Assn. Thursday doubleheader early in November. But those early-season NBA games usually draw fewer people than the theatrical movies that the network typically runs on Thursday in the spring and summer. Where TNT scores big with the NBA is around playoff time, when the mass audience starts paying attention to pro basketball.

Although it doesn’t spend as much money on sports as TNT, USA has its share of exploitable theatricals during the fourth quarter, such as “Bruce Almighty,” “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “The Hulk.”

The bottom line: USA could slip ahead of TNT in the fourth quarter, although both will almost certainly finish behind ESPN, which has dominated the past four months of each year since 1998, when it bought exclusive cable rights to Sunday-night NFL games, an eight-year contract that cost the network $4.8 billion.

The big question for USA is whether the push it gets in the fourth quarter carries over into next year. Bonnie Hammer, president of USA and the Sci Fi Channel, is making no predictions, but she points out that USA’s parent, NBC Universal, is cheerleading for the placement of McMahon’s most popular wrestlers — among them John Cena, Torrie Wilson, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H, Carlito and Kurt Angle — into guest spots on TV movies and original USA series like “Monk,” “The Dead Zone” and “The 4400.”

McMahon says his wrestlers will easily make the transition to scripted drama; he calls the WWE’s carefully rehearsed matches “soap operas laced with action-adventure and humor.”

And Jeff Wachtel, executive VP of original programming for USA, says he’s banking on character-based drama threaded with humor as the recipe for another hit series among the projects in development at the network.

Already given the greenlight for production as a pilot is “Psych,” about a young man who has stumbled into the job of psychic detective even though he has no supernatural powers whatever.

Not only does he have to keep up the pretence but he has to solve a new crime every week.

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