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Spike TV smacks down WWE

The cabler and McMahon part ways

Spike TV has severed ties with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment, effectively ending its run on the cabler this fall.

Move is said to be part of a larger repositioning at Spike aimed at evolving the men’s net beyond low-budget reality shows. Doug Herzog, who became president of the cabler in January (Daily Variety, Jan. 31), has stressed quality over quantity in recent interviews and said his priorities are to produce a handful of high-quality scripted shows — a natural and logical complement to the cabler’s “CSI” repeats.

“After several months of negotiations, we have decided to end our discussions about extending our relationship with the WWE beyond September 2005,” Spike said in a statement. “Moving forward, Spike TV will expand its investments in original programming and new acquisitions for its core audience.”

With the WWE’s contract with Spike expiring in September, McMahon reportedly held preliminary discussions last year with several cable groups — including Turner Broadcasting, NBC Universal and FX — about possibly relocating the franchise, which has suffered ratings losses in recent years.

Previous landlord USA seems to be the sole option left on basic cable. Reps for Turner and FX said neither company was interested in acquiring the franchise. Sci Fi Channel/USA prexy Bonnie Hammer is said to have a soft spot for the sport, having championed it when she was a programming exec at USA a dozen years ago.

Spokesmen for WWE and USA separately declined comment.

Brand USA

Hammer, who’s busy carving out a brand for the general entertainment cabler, has said in past interviews that USA’s new positioning could very well include a home for wrestling should it return to her fold. Still, the wrestling audience, made up primarily of young males, may not be the best fit for USA, which targets an older 25-54 crowd.

McMahon had been seeking rate increases from Spike, which has been coughing up around $500,000 per week for 260 hours of fresh programming, which it runs 52 weeks a year. Split won’t affect WWE’s pact with Viacom sibling network UPN, which has a year left on its contract. Web is home to “WWE SmackDown!,” one of its most-watched shows since it debuted in 1999.

Wrestling was integral to Viacom’s rebranding of TNN to Spike in 2003, and programming — while on the ratings decline — continues to draw big numbers to Spike. Monday night event “WWE Raw” claimed eight of the top 25 spots on the list of the most-watched shows on ad-supported cable last month, with auds reaching more than 5 million. Spike also airs weekend fare “Experience,” “Heat” and “Velocity.”

Along with top-performing “CSI” repeats, wrestling helped vault Spike to the No. 4 spot in adults 18-49 for February, up 30%.

Insiders say with runs of “CSI: NY” on the way, Spike was only too eager to shake its dependence on wrestling.

Grappling auds

A source familiar with the negotiations said that the problem for McMahon and Co. has always been the same: Madison Avenue isn’t interested in the aud wrestling attracts.

“Advertisers don’t like it. So even though it does big ratings, they don’t necessarily translate to revenue for the network,” the source said. “If I’m Spike, and only three people in the marketplace are willing to buy time during wrestling, it doesn’t make sense for me to keep paying considerable money to keep it on.”

What’s more, wrestling has yet to prove itself as a valuable promotional tool for a network’s other programs. Only recently has Spike seen some growth leading out of “Raw,” with original series “Ultimate Fighter.” Most recent episode of the skein, from “American Chopper” exec producer Craig Piligian, drew 1.9 total million viewers Monday — up a whopping 100% in men 18-49 from the previous year.

Without a TV home, however, McMahon stands to lose the two-thirds of the revenues brought in by live events and pay-per-view. “If you take away the television element out of the wrestling formula, it’s death for the company,” the insider said.

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