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A war for bragging rights

With USA losing wrestling, a new network may climb to the top of the ratings heap 7/09/2000 08:00:00 PM Eastern

With top-rated cable network USA Network losing the huge Nielsen boost from World Wresting Federation programming, several networks suddenly see an opportunity to seize the bragging rights to the No. 1 prime time slot.

Except during football season when ESPN dominates, USA Network has, for the past two years, generally maintained a comfortable lead over its closest cable contenders in the Nielsen Media Research rankings, fueled by two weekly prime time hours of body slams and cursing. WWF Raw Is War scores a 6-8 rating each Monday night, or about 4.5 million to 6 million households. That's a giant number in the world of cable, where a 2 average rating is enough to make a network No. 1.

Two weeks ago, USA lost a critical court case to keep World Wrestling Federation Entertainment from moving its four weekly shows over to Viacom's TNN and MTV networks, with TNN getting the ratings magic of Raw Is War. USA Cable President Stephen Chao is countering the loss by filling the Monday-night slot with the strongest movies on his slate, originals and the first-broadcast run of theatrical releases. He's beefing up other nights by consolidating original series on what had been a mix of movies and series.

Still, researchers estimate that if USA replaces wrestling with programming that averages the rest of its schedule, the network will lose about 0.4 rating points. For the second quarter, that would have dropped USA from a 2.2 back into a pack of five other networks that now could bounce up on slight audience shifts.

"Statistically, it's pretty clear," said Lifetime Executive Vice President of Research Tim Brooks. "There's a whole cluster around the 2 level, 1.7 to 1.9. That's three- to four-tenths of a point among this howling pack of competitors."

The "howling pack" includes Turner Broadcasting Systems' TBS and TNT networks, each averaging 1.9, and the combined Nickelodeon and Nick-At-Nite, which is averaging 1.8.

Even Lifetime and TBS' Cartoon Network, whose ratings are running 1.7, have a shot at the top slot if they can maintain their ratings momentum of the past several months. Researchers consider Lifetime a dark horse because it is the only one of the top-rated cable nets not heavily chasing men. TNN, where the WWF is heading, is starting with a 0.6 average household rating, so it won't jump to the top anytime soon.

Household ratings don't directly affect ad sales because advertisers buy time based on demographics. But that doesn't keep networks-including USA-from bragging mightily in trade ads and other pitches to advertisers and affiliates when they hit the top slot. Momentum helps woo affiliates, producers and talent, too. "This is always an argument, who was the highest rated for the quarter, for the year," said Horizon Media's Brad Adgate.

The big question is how important the WWF is to the rest of USA's schedule. Chao contends that wrestling has been "a beast into itself," with little lead-in or lead-out effect. But networks always use high-rated shows to promote the rest of their schedule, and, in court papers, USA argued that the "halo" effect was substantial. A research executive at a rival programmer said that the WWF shows had "great promotional tentacles."

WWF's most direct rival is TBS' World Championship Wrestling, which runs on TNT Monday nights against Raw Is War on USA. TNT General Manager Steve Koonin contended that WCW won't alter its programming at all in response to the WWF's relocation.

But he did say TNT is refiguring its schedule generally, in part to take a swipe at USA's misfortune. The network will move its strongest product-theatrical movies getting their broadcast premieres on TNT-from Sundays to Fridays, a night Koonin contends "all other networks have basically abandoned."

TNT's latest attempt to launch original series will be scheduled on a single night, Tuesdays, which had been home to National Basketball Association games in the fall and winter. Those will move to Wednesday and Thursday nights. WCW will remain on Mondays.

USA smackdown? USA Network's loss of wrestling could allow a new cable network to claim the top spot in Nielsen household ratings. Below are second-quarter household ratings for the top 10.

Cable rating Avg HH*
















A & E












*In thousands

Source: Nielsen Media Research