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Can pro wrestling save Rupert Murdoch's MyNetwork?

Once upon a time, pro wrestling helped save UPN. And now it's serving largely the same function for its successor network, MyNetworkTV. There's a larger message here somewhere, and it's not just that a lot of young men like to watch beefy guys in posing suits smash each other's heads with choreographed fight moves. 

A couple of years ago, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. launched MyNetwork with a full slate of low-cost telenovelas, such as the campy "Fashion House" with Bo Derek. The experiment got a lot of media attention because pundits were curious whether Americans would turn to nightly serialized soaps the way they do in some other countries.

The answer, alas, was no. Ratings stank, and News Corp. reportedly lost $2 million per week on the telenovela strategy. So the cheap soaps were replaced with theatrical movies and cheap reality. And in October, the network began airing "WWE Friday Night SmackDown," which it signed following previous gigs on UPN and the CW. As a result, MyNetwork, launched to skew heavily female with all those soaps, suddenly swerved to become a young-male destination, at least on Fridays.

The results have been pretty dramatic. Season to date, MyNetwork is up a whopping 73% in total viewers, to 1.7 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. Last week it hit an all-time high, averaging 2.4 million viewers. Season to date, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are all down compared with last year.

Obviously, much of that is due to "SmackDown." Fridays are up 150% in households compared with last season, far more than any other night. But it's not just a wrestling story. Even without "SmackDown," MyNetwork is still up 39%, to 1.4 million viewers.

Whether MyNetwork can keep up this momentum, however, is a very big question mark. The network is piling up big gains now because (1) the early ratings were so terrible that even a small increase in absolute terms yields a large fluctuation percentage-wise, and (2) wrestling, no matter what its detractors say, is a proven magnet for young males.

Next season, of course, the comparisons won't be as favorable. And ultimately MyNetwork will face the same problem that UPN and the CW did: While wrestling can help draw audiences, getting those young guys to stick around to sample other programming is by no means assured. Shows like "Street Patrol" — which is essentially the outakes from "Cops" — and the Flavor Flav sitcom "Under One Roof" have not exactly electrified the crowds.

Can MyNetwork survive long-term? Well, it's too soon to tell. But the odds remain daunting, with or without wrestling. Competition is increasing. Programming continues to be expensive. The Internet is siphoning off viewers. Hits are few. MyNetwork is happily touting its progress this fall, but it's basically elevated itself to basic-cable-type numbers. And unlike basic cable networks, MyNetwork can't count on subscriber fee income to supplement its ad revenue.

Broadcast TV is a tough business, in other words, and it's about to get a lot tougher. Like the wrestlers on "SmackDown," the broadcasters these days have to scramble to avoid getting caught by a pile-driver.

—Scott Collins

 
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