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USA Network Tries a Novel Wrestling Move

Will the possibility of “Vince McMahon: The Ride” help USA Network land a TV deal with World Wrestling Entertainment? The network is laying out plenty of inducements—including an affiliation with parent company NBC Universal’s theme parks—in its negotiations. Unfortunately, the network is not laying out a lot of money.

USA Network lost WWE’s main attraction, Monday night prime time matches, to Spike TV in 2000. But with WWE’s ratings fading on Spike, which has found the off-network rights to CBS hit CSI a more reliable investment, new Spike President Doug Herzog is not pursuing a new deal with WWE Chairman McMahon, though he does have the right to match any USA offer. (USA Network would not comment on the negotiations, and a WWE spokesman could not be reached.)

SEC filings show that WWE was collecting $31 million annually from Spike TV, but WWE sold the ad time itself. Industry executives say that USA isn’t offering any big hike in the fee, instead relying on deal sweeteners, such as matches carried on NBC U’s Telemundo Spanish-language network; wrestling specials on NBC; and wrestling-based attractions and promotions at Universal’s theme parks.

When USA Network lost the rights five years ago, Spike offered its own enticements, including a plan to publish wrestling books and schedule a wrestling-based reality show on Viacom sibling MTV. But Spike also tripled WWE’s license fee.

WWE isn’t quite the treasure it was back then, when USA Network rushed to court to try to stop Spike (then called TNN). Ratings are down by almost half, from a peak Nielsen household rating of 6.0 to 3.4 today.

However, the Monday matches remain one of the biggest draws on cable and are a magnet for young male viewers, so rasslin’s hardly on the ropes.

Tom Harkin’s Food Fetish

Sen. Tom Harkin, enemy of childhood obesity and scourge of marketers who target children with junk-food commercials, is likely to make a few folks squirm on Tuesday in Washington. He’s addressing a regulatory conference that includes the American Advertising Federation, the Association of National Advertisers, and the American Association of Advertising Agencies—not the biggest fans of a lawmaker who last month threatened to push for federal regulation of kid-oriented junk-food commercials.

But if Harkin supersizes his criticism of the marketers, they might be tempted to quiz him about his reaction to critics who say an essential ingredient in the American obesity problem is government agriculture subsidies. Some researchers such as James Tillotson, professor of food policy and international business at Tufts University, argue that subsidies result in the oversupply of commodities that can foster bad diets. Corn, soybeans and wheat—grown by agribusiness with the help of massive subsidies—are used, for instance, in sweetened drinks (corn syrup), hydrogenated oil (soybeans) and hamburgers (grain-fed beef and nice, fluffy buns). And the subsidized prices make healthier but subsidy-deprived fruits and vegetables seem too expensive.

As the junior senator from the farm state of Iowa and as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Harkin has few higher priorities than protecting the $30 billion in annual subsidies the federal government hands to growers. One current battle: fending off the Bush Administration’s attempt to cut ag subsidies 17% by 2010.

Flash!back

The 2005 National Cable & Telecommunications Association convention this week is no doubt teeming with industry movers and shakers making fearless predictions about the television business—fearless, as in not particularly worried that anyone a few years from now will bother actually checking their accuracy.

Hoping to put a little scare into them, B&C went back a decade and dug up some prognostications that we solicited from top cable executives in the run-up to the 1995 NCTA.

Alas, it turns out that these folks were shockingly prescient. We presented them with a list of about 40 new or yet-to-launch cable channels and asked these expert programmers to pick out the 10 most likely to succeed. They chose: America’s Talking, Cartoon Network, ESPN2, FX, Golf Channel, History Channel, HGTV, Sci Fi, Food Network, Turner Classic Movies.

On this list, only America’s Talking did not become a top-tier net on its own, but even that channel was re-engineered into MSNBC, and AT’s founding president, Roger Ailes, parlayed the “talk cable” approach into a wee bit of programming success of his own.

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