Smacked Down

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After turner broadcasting system cried uncle and sold its money-bleeding WCW to WWF in March, wrestling impresario Vince McMahon felt victorious in a title bout. Not only did his World Wrestling Federation Entertainment snap up WCW for a bargain price of under $5 million, but WWF now had control of its main competition.

Since the purchase, however, Mr. McMahon seems to have discovered a monopoly isn't always good business. For years, WWF benefited from its rivalry with World Championship Wrestling as fans of each learned to hate the other. Mr. McMahon could paint Ted Turner as a villain if he needed to stoke the fires, with TNT (part of Mr. Turner's TBS, now part of AOL Time Warner) offering WCW opposite the WWF on USA and, then starting last year, Viacom's TNN.

"Wrestling is far more interesting when people think there's competition," said Dave Meltzer, editor of Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

And fans now know that there is no real competition-and that could be one reason the WCW looks likely to join the XFL as a brand that pinned down Mr. McMahon. Another may be Mr. McMahon's wallet. So far, he has been unwilling to pay to sign WCW stars such as Goldberg, Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair.

The WWF had planned to operate WCW as a standalone franchise with separate programming beginning this summer. Benefits would have included using WCW to diversify programming on Viacom's UPN, TNN and MTV. Specifically, plans included launching a Saturday night prime time WCW show on TNN or shifting the Monday night programming block on TNN from WWF to WCW. The Monday switch would have capitalized on the audience familiarity with the programming from its TNT days, and the hope was to boost ratings of the Thursday night WWF primetime show "Smackdown" on UPN. Those plans have been tossed out of the ring.

"Our current creative direction doesn't include plans to create an exclusive WCW program within the existing nine hours of TV we have each week," WWF spokesman Judd Everhart said.

The WWF has now committed to gradually introducing WCW wrestlers and storylines into its WWF content, employing an "Invasion" theme where WCW wrestlers and others are portrayed as invaders of WWF turf.

But the WCW integration hasn't worked well so far. Earlier this month, the WWF taped TNN and UPN broadcasts in Tacoma, Wash. But fan reaction to WCW wrestlers within the WWF arena was so negative, it contributed to the decision to scrap separate WCW programming. And it cast more doubt on the wisdom of the WCW purchase. Some WWF fans don't see WCW wrestlers as evil invaders, but simply as unworthy opponents. As Matthew Ercolani, a medical student in New York and a WWF fan who's lost interest since the XFL fiasco, puts it, "It's more like merging a minor league with a major league."

NOT `EVERYTHING WE HOPED'

"I'd say it wasn't everything we hoped it would be, but we think that going forward with the very talented creative team that we have we'll be very happy in the long-run," WWF's Mr. Everhart said. Another WWF spokesman, Gary Davis, said: "The objective behind the purchase of the WCW brand is still on target. The key objective was to create a new dynamic in our creative and storylines and provide options for future programming."

No matter the fate of the WCW, the WWF remains a strong business, though it posted a net loss of $20.4 million reflecting a loss on the folding of the XFL in its most recent quarter. Its TNN programming remains the highest-rated regularly scheduled show on cable and has allowed Viacom to relaunch the network as a hub for pop culture. Ratings on UPN on Thursday remain a linchpin for that struggling network. And Jim Rothschild, WWF's senior VP-North American sales, said despite the economy his company has completed upfront advertising deals with no cost-per-thousand decreases vs. last year.

TV ratings remain strong, but have slowed; live-event attendance is declining as top stars like The Rock are on hiatus.

Mr. Meltzer, the industry expert, said the WWF has failed to introduce any fan favorites recently. As Mr. McMahon tries to hold his salary structure down, WCW stars such as Goldberg and Hulk Hogan remain on the sidelines collecting checks from AOL Time Warner.

Contributing: Ken Wheaton

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