USA pins wrestling’s ‘Sunday Night Heat’

Cabler gives grapple-fest two-year commitment

NEW YORK — It may not be all-wrestling-all-the-time, but the USA network is heading in that direction.

USA has just given a two-year commitment to “WWF Sunday Night Heat,” the weekly hourlong 7 p.m. showcase that kicked off two months ago as a late-summer stunt to feed bigger numbers of viewers into the original episodes of its three-hour block of action hours.

But the ratings proved to be so gaudy that they forced USA to make wrestling a permanent fixture of its Sunday schedule. In the eight weeks since Aug. 2, “Sunday Night Heat” has chalked up an average Nielsen rating of 3.5 in cable households. That’s a stunning 30% increase over the 2.7 rating USA was pulling down with theatrical movies from 6-8 p.m. for the equivalent eight Sundays in 1997.

Rings in viewers

Other than Sunday night National Football League games on ESPN, wrestling has become the most reliable generator of big audiences for cable networks. “Sunday Night Heat” is the fifth weekly hour of wrestling on USA, joining “WWF Raw” every Monday from 9 to 10 p.m. and “WWF War Zone” Monday from 10 to 11 p.m., plus the one-hour cablecasts of “WWF Live Wire” Saturday at 10 a.m. and “WWF Superstars” Sunday at 10 a.m.

USA’s main wrestling competitors are TNT and TBS. TNT schedules three hours of high-rated WCW wrestling every Monday at 8 p.m., repeating the program in its entirety six hours later at 2 a.m. TBS does a two-hour WCW wrestling show Thursday at 8 p.m. and rebroadcasts it at midnight. In addition, TBS slots another two-hour WCW wrestling event Saturday at 6 p.m.

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