'Raw' drops 10% in total viewers

Will Vince McMahon’s WWE suffer a backlash from wrestler Chris Benoit’s June 24 murder of his wife and son and subsequent suicide?

The preliminary answer may be yes. Since the terrible event, Nielsen ratings of the two-hour Monday-primetime “WWE Raw” on USA at 9 have dropped by 10% in total viewers — and, more significantly, by 21% in men 18-34 and by 17% in men 18-49. (The comparisons are to average ratings for the second quarter.)

Similarly, Sci Fi Channel’s Tuesday-primetime “Extreme Championship Wrestling” at 10 tumbled by 9% in total viewers and by 28% in men 18-34 and 19% in men 18-49. McMahon’s writers had assigned Benoit as a regular performer with “ECW.”

But a spokesman for World Wrestling Entertainment said there’s no proof these falloffs are traceable to the Benoit tragedy. The two series, he said, faced some stiff competition during July such as “Home Run Derby” on ESPN and even a Larry King interview on CNN with marquee wrestler John Cena.

And WWE’s staff writers had to scrap the popular scenario, introduced during a “Raw” episode, postulating that McMahon was murdered in an explosion and that the authorities were trying to find the killer.

But whatever the reason for the Nielsen declines, Rick Gentile, professor of sports management for Seton Hall U., said, “The WWE should make the ratings an incentive to be pro-active in counseling the wrestlers, and making sure they don’t do steroids.”

“We’re always looking for ways to be more effective in bolstering the health and wellness of our talent,” the WWE spokesman said. Since March 2006, the WWE has performed random testing on each of its wrestlers at least four times a year, employing independent company Aegis Sciences Corp. Penalties for failing the test range from the minimum 30-day suspension (for the first drug-positive) to a permanent ban (three drug-positives).

A USA spokeswoman said that, in previous years, the ratings of “WWE Raw” have spiked when the writers began to punch up the storylines in anticipation of a big pay-per-view annual event in late August called Summer Slam. The network expects the same thing to happen this year, she added.

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