USA Network is adding at least 104 more hours of wrestling when WWE's "SmackDown" moves to the channel from sibling Syfy next year, bringing its annual total to 263.
It's a risky move for the NBC Universal cable network, given advertisers' longstanding perception that WWE's crude storylines attract a downscale audience. So NBC Universal and WWE have spent the last several months out in the marketplace attempting to change the image of the franchise.
The result: 37 new advertisers, including the first auto marketers, have signed on to run commercials in WWE programming on USA. Aside from "SmackDown," USA also airs "Monday Night Raw" and the reality series "Tough Enough," which follows WWE hopefuls competing to be the next WWE star.
"In the past, WWE wasn't associated with being family-friendly," said Dan Lovinger, exec VP-advertising sales, NBC Universal. "We had to redefine what it is to both advertisers and consumers,"
"We didn't spend much money at all" in WWE in the past, said Neil Vendetti, exec VP-national video activation, Zenith. "Brands didn't feel comfortable."
With the increase in wrestling inventory coming to USA from Syfy, NBCU was aggressive in its pitch to agencies and clients during this summer's upfront, according to media buyers.
"They asked us to go back to our clients and ask them to re-evaluate the reasons why they didn't want to be in wrestling," Mr. Vendetti said.
The franchise is "an easier sell now," Mr. Vendetti added, citing reasons for advertisers to get past "legacy" thinking. "It does a good rating, has amazing staying power and is relevant with younger audiences," he said.
While NBC Universal's pitch was well-received for the most part, some advertisers continue to shy away from the content. And for them, the increase in WWE programming on the network makes USA a harder buy.
"We ran into issues with supply in prime time on USA because of wrestling's presence," Mr. Vendetti said. "There are still a number of advertisers that won't be in it because of legacy, so it blocks out some advertisers from buying USA in prime time."
While "Raw" and "SmackDown" are among the most-watched programs on cable TV, averaging 3.3 million and 2.1 million viewers, respectively, viewership is down 13% for "Raw" and 16% for "SmackDown" year-over-year.
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"The problem with how bullish they were on it in the upfront is that it's ratings are down, which just continues to add to USA's ratings issues and total capacity," said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national broadcast, Horizon Media.
Like most cable networks, USA is struggling with ratings declines. In the third quarter, USA's viewership eroded 17%, according to research in a note from Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger.
The addition of "SmackDown" to USA may take away some hours that would have been filled with reruns of "Modern Family" or "Law & Order," but it also bring 52 weeks of original content that for the most part is DVR-proof, attracts family viewing and over-indexes on multi-cultural audiences, Mr. Lovinger said.
"SmackDown" will also serve as a lead-in to USA's new original series on Thursday nights. "Colony" will be the first to premiere after "SmackDown" in January, with another new series debuting in the 10 p.m. slot every quarter, said Chris McCumber, president, USA Network.
At least one goal is that viewers who perhaps wouldn't tune in to USA for programming outside of wrestling will sample the series following "SmackDown," Mr. McCumber said.
After signing a new deal last year to keep WWE programming on NBC Universal channels, the two companies have made a concerted, coordinated effort to change the perception of the franchise and create more robust opportunities for marketers. The increased cooperation resulted in deeper integrations and branded content opportunities for advertisers.
Snapple tapped WWE personalities such as Triple H and Stephanie McMahon for a commercial in April, while Paramount promoted "Terminator: Genisys" with a WWE integration that included Triple H making a grand entrance during "WrestleMania" using imagery from the movie.
When "SmackDown" debuts on USA next year, Weinstein Co.'s "Hateful Eight" will be the presenting sponsor.
Since WWE controls every aspect of the programming and the participants, it can create storylines that include brands, Mr. Vendetti said.
Previously, WWE and NBCU spoke to marketers and struck deals separately, said Michelle Wilson, chief marketing and revenue officer, WWE.
But WWE and NBCU are now meeting with marketers together to come up with bigger integrations that can live across WWE, NBCU and brand's TV, social and digital assets, Ms. Wilson said.
"This is how you create ideas that go viral," she said.