Network seals deal to keep franchise

World Wrestling Entertainment may be developing its own cable channel, but the company isn’t ready to pull the plug on its existing TV partnerships just yet.

The company has inked a deal with USA Network that will keep its biggest franchise, “Monday Night Raw,” on the cable net through 2014.

USA was quick to pin down the series for another four years as “Raw’s” strong ratings have consistently helped make USA into the top-rated basic cabler since 2005.

While WWE chairman Vince McMahon has become more vocal this year about his desire to create a new WWE-branded basic cable channel that can exploit the hundreds of hours of footage the company has stockpiled over the years,

as well as a slate of original series and films the company produces, such a web won’t bow for at least 18-24 months, the company said.

That’s mainly because WWE still does not have a deal with a distributor for the net. The company, actively developing programming internally for the channel through its WWE Studios arm, will likely want to partner with a company to handle advertising and other sales since WWE does not currently have such a team in place.

There’s been much speculation that USA parent NBC Universal could eventually help launch the channel given that USA airs “Raw,” and Syfy has “ECW” on Tuesday nights.

“USA Network is a true partner and not just a network that distributes WWE’s premiere television show,” McMahon said.

The expected takeover of NBC U by cable giant Comcast isn’t expected to become a sticking point given the lucrative audience WWE’s shows attract, especially when it comes to males and families. But McMahon would have to wait for that complex deal to be finalized before plans for WWE’s channel could proceed.

For the year to date, “Raw” is averaging 5.5 million viewers on USA and 2.7 million adults 18-49. Its aud is up 11% this fall thanks to a wide variety of celebrity guest hosts, including Jeremy Piven, Shaquille O’Neal, Bob Barker, the Osbournes, Snoop Dogg, Cedric the Entertainer and Seth Green who have helped attract new viewers to the show.

The USA platform is also key to promoting WWE’s live events and three or more pay-per-view events that it produces each quarter, boosting the company’s bottom line.

“Raw” first bowed on USA in 1993 but moved over to Spike TV in 2000, where it ran for five years before moving back to USA.

During the Spike TV period, ratings for “Raw” fell, even though the net specifically targets males with its programming.

“I couldn’t be happier about continuing one of the most successful collaborations in television history,” said Bonnie Hammer, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Prods. prexy, of the new four-year pact.

“Friday Night Smackdown” on MyNetworkTV and “WWE Superstars,” which bowed this year on WGN America. The MyNetworkTV deal is expected to be renegotiated next year when its initial two-year contract is up.

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