Media titans go to the mat

Viacom, USA wrestler case now in court

NEW YORK — Call it “Stone Cold” Sumner Redstone vs. Barry “The Rock” Diller.”

Monday marked the first day of the trial in Wilmington, Del., between Redstone’s Viacom and Diller’s USA Cable over a new contract with the World Wrestling Federation centered on the meaning of right of first refusal.

USA is coming to the end of a five-year contract with the WWF, and Viacom’s attorneys said in their defense petition, released publicly for the first time Monday, that USA has refused to match such provisions as:

  • a $3.5 million payment to the WWF for seven annual TV specials;

  • a $660,000 producing fee to the WWF for a new drama series to run on the Viacom-owned UPN broadcast network;

  • In a marketing fee of $8 million ponied up by Viacom to promote the shift of five weekly wrestling series from USA, four of which would go to the Viacom-owned TNN and one to MTV. In the shift, TNN would get the Monday night two-hour “WWF Raw/WWF War Zone” package, which is consistently the highest-rated regular series in all of cable throughout the calendar year, and;

  • a $500,000 script-development fund created by Viacom to come up with ideas for possible WWF-produced series.

USA filed suit trying to stop the WWF from signing this deal with Viacom, claiming that a first-refusal clause allows it to renew its current contract for another five years.

If USA lost its five hours a week of high-rated wrestling beginning in the fall of 2000, it almost certainly would relinquish its steady position as the highest-rated basic-cable network in primetime.

And TNN, which tied for 14th among basic cable networks in the primetime Nielsens last year, easily would shoot into the top 10 if it could get its hands on four weekly WWF programs.

But even though most objective observers are convinced that USA would suffer in the ratings if wrestling went away, Viacom has highlighted remarks in depositions from USA chairman and CEO Diller and other such top execs such as Barry Baker, president and chief operating officer; and Stephen Chao, president of USA Cable, to the effect that the USA Network “could prosper without” wrestling, in Chao’s words.

Court observers said the trial will probably continue at least through Friday, with one source saying that because the new contract takes effect in September, the trial judge has promised a decision by the end of June.

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