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MyNetwork TV Pins Future on WWE's Brawn

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Earlier this month, MyNetworkTV assured World Wrestling Entertainment fans that SmackDown would survive a restructuring of the channel’s business model, a shift from the traditional broadcast template to a hybrid that more closely resembles a cable network, only with broadcast affiliates.

While MyNetwork plans to shrink its broadcasting day, paring its weekly programming load down to 10 hours from an even dozen—Saturday is being returned to its 180 affiliates—SmackDown will remain in place, serving as the channel’s beefy saviour in transitionary and recessionary times.

At present, SmackDown will stand as the lone original series on the MyNetwork schedule when the fall season begins, as the bulk of the current lineup will be stripped out and replaced with syndicated fare like NBC Universal’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

Thursdays will continue to function as movie night, leaving just a handful of hours up for grabs.

“We still have two nights to fill out before we have a full slate, and we’re not ruling out the possibility of running other originals,” said Paul Franklin, executive vp, sales/marketing and program development, MyNetworkTV. “From now until the time of the switch, we’ll continue to program the network on the six-night schedule. It’ll be a seamless transition.”

While the collapse of the nation’s economy effectively ended MyNetwork’s stint as a broadcast network, news of the shift comes as the channel is putting up its strongest ratings numbers. MyNetwork is averaging 1.74 million total viewers season-to-date, up 54 percent versus its year-ago average; moreover, it now ranks as the 10th ranked outlet among adults 18-49. At this point last season, MyNetwork ranked 19th in the core demo.

Franklin said that the lion’s share of that growth spurt can be attributed to SmackDown, which boasts a 2.1 household rating, more than double that of the channel’s 12-hour weekly average. “It’s a franchise we can build around, and it just continues to grow in popularity,” Franklin said. “SmackDown has become a hugely recognized brand, and when you can offer viewers something that’s so identifiable, you don’t have to put a lot of marketing dollars behind it.”

Case in point. There are only two career paths available to the entertainer who assumes the alias Sexton Hardcastle, and the notion that either of them might lead to a gig as the face of a broadcast network is a bit of a rib-tickler. And yet this is more or less precisely what lies in store for wrestler Aaron Copeland, who has also performed under the equally porny sobriquets Damon Stryker and Adam Impact.

Now billed as Edge, the 35-year-old Canadian is the reigning World Heavyweight Champion of SmackDown, a WWE division that has existed in various incarnations for a decade. The two-hour SmackDown showcase has been television’s top draw for men 18-34 in Friday prime time, averaging 519,000 in the demo, per Nielsen ratings data through Feb. 13.

The delivery represents a 354 percent improvement in the demo versus the comparable period a year ago, and as such, establishes SmackDown as the weblet’s franchise property (the WWE’s contract with MyNetTV expires in 2010).

If the decision to adapt to a quasi-syndication model while pinning all hope on big dudes in tight lycra seems to carry a faint tang of desperation, thus far affiliates appear not to have noticed.

“Everybody knows this is a work in progress,” said David Smith, president and CEO, Sinclair Broadcast Group. “Given the state of the economy, they’re doing things that they feel are necessary to keep them afloat.”

Some observers believe that syndicated content may enable MyNetwork and its affiliates to attract a better class of advertiser. “Even if they are repeats, a Law & Order would be a much more favorable environment for my clients than something like Street Patrol,” said one national TV buyer on the condition of anonymity. “Some of their original stuff, you had battered wives and car wrecks—serious content issues.”

While SmackDown may not be everyone’s Full Nelson, those looking to connect with a younger male audience find it difficult to dismiss the genre’s staying power. In addition to the MyNetwork franchise, the WWE boasts a perennial powerhouse in the two-hour Raw, which draws more than 5 million viewers to USA Network week in and week out. And the Tuesday night ECW: Extreme Championship Wrestling is Sci Fi Channel’s second most popular show, trailing only Ghost Hunters International in total viewers. (A fourth program, WWE Superstars, launches on WGN America in April.)

If MyNetwork bolsters its lineup with a few solid shows—20th’s My Name is Earl might be a good fit for a comedy night—the net may be able to continue to build up its male viewership. That said, some marketers say that greater efficiencies can be found on cable nets like USA, TBS, Spike TV and Comedy Central.

“A lot of it comes down to looking at overall budgets and unfortunately they aren’t as big as they used to be,” said Amy Vierzchalek, advertising manager, BP Lubricants, the parent company of long-time Raw sponsor Castrol. “With cable, we also see a lot of innovation…
There are greater opportunities to create integrations and vignettes. The WWE delivers brilliantly, and for us, the best buy is on USA.”