USA Network has stepped back in the ring with World Wrestling Entertainment and could pin down a slot as basic cable’s top-rated network as a result.
The grappling group signed a three-year deal with NBC Universal that will return its Monday Night Raw franchise to USA, beginning in October.
The deal also calls for a one-hour weekend Raw-branded show that will air in daytime on USA, while sister Hispanic broadcast service Telemundo will air a two-hour Spanish-language version of the show on weekends.
In addition, each year NBC will air at least a pair of 90-minute WWE specials in late-night windows.
The deal brings WWE back to USA — which had an eight-year run with Raw on Monday nights — before the product moved to Spike TV predecessor The National Network in September, 2000.
Both sides declined to discuss license fees, although observers estimate that USA will allocate some $30 million annually, about $600,000 per weekly, around the same price Spike is putatively paying. Unlike the MTVN outlet, though, USA will control the advertising inventory, which WWE holds under its current pact.
In an 8K filing, WWE said it had received $37 million in advertising revenue from Spike TV, which translated into $13 million worth of net income.
Although not quite the white-hot ratings juggernaut it was in the late 1990s, when Raw often helped USA finish as the top-rated basic-cable network, the show remains a fixture among the weekly top 10 highest-rated shows in the medium throughout the year.
Adding what is basic cable’s top year-round ratings producer among original series to its Monday-night lineup could regularly vault USA past Turner Network Television atop the primetime ratings race.
“That’s part of the expectation; we’d like to think that will happen,” said USA Network and Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer. “Raw, along with our strong original series [like Monk, The Dead Zone and The 4,400] and now with Kojak, and our other programming make for a very strong lineup.”
Raw’s Nielsen fortunes should receive a significant boost across the NBC Universal family
“We’re very happy to return to work again with Bonnie Hammer and her team at USA. She truly understands our brand,” said WWE spokesman Gary Davis. “We’re very confident that ratings will grow as we work in promoting WWE with NBC Universal and USA Network, starting in October.
“We’re also pleased by opportunities with Telemundo as we have a growing base of Latino fans, and with NBC via late night specials. In the late 1980s, NBC had a great deal of success with those Main Event shows.”
Davis said as part of the deal, there will be $8 million worth of initial promotion across the various NBCU outlets to “let viewers know where they can find Raw.”
Hammer said WWE will be “teased” as part of new USA Network branding campaign that will be introduced this summer. A harder thrust for Raw will begin about a month before the show shifts back to its old network haunt.
“I think you’ll see that right after our U.S. Open [tennis coverage],” she said. “I’m sure there will be a boffo Raw opener.”
Tim Brooks, TV historian and executive vice president of research at Lifetime Television, who was with USA in the 1990s, said WWE fare produces, but is not necessarily compatible with other shows.
“Wrestling is not as hot as it was in the late 1990s, but still generates big numbers on a consistent basis,” he said. “It’s a mixed blessing, though, because it doesn’t necessarily fit well with lead-in or lead-outs.”
Hammer acknowledges that was a problem, but notes that USA is a general-entertainment service and programs for a lot of different groups, 18 to 49, 25 to 54. “The last couple of years we’ve lowered our median age. WWE will help us with that.”
She also vows that Raw will not be “left on an island,” in terms of ambient programming. In the near term, Hammer said USA will initially surround Raw with action-based movies from the network’s library. Down the road, USA will look to develop complementary programming, possibly scripted reality fare.
“That type of programming appeals to many young viewers,” she said pointing to the success Sci Fi has achieved among the 18-to-34 and 18-to-49 demographics with its alternative Wednesday-night programming.
Hammer also thinks that Raw could get a boost should the WWE match or mix its storylines more often with its SmackDown! series on UPN.
“The anticipation could build. Vince and Linda [McMahon, the chairman and CEO of WWE] are smart. You might see them working more toward the creation of more competition between the wrestlers and series on UPN and USA,” she said.
Davis said WWE fans got a taste of that with Wrestlemania 21 in Staples Center on April 3, when SmackDown!’s Kurt Angle squared off against Raw’s Shawn Michaels. “Our fans found that to be very exciting. But I think you’ll keep seeing that as being more of a pay-per-view highlight,” he said.
As for Spike, it will lose a proven ratings performer. Spike TV officials said last month the male-targeted network would not renew its contract with WWE when it expired, as it is committed to developing more original shows and purchasing other series.
Brooks said that on the surface, Raw seems to be good fit for Spike. “There are clearly a lot of young male viewers, although there are quite a number of women and families watching and going to the events,” he said. “Spike has done very well with CSI [in primetime] but that has brought in a lot of women. It looks like they’re trying to figure out what they want the network to be. Maybe wrestling would fit in with that down the road.”