WWF foes step out of the ring

Mar 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The three-count of wrestling leagues that dominated cable ratings and pay-per-view broadcasts during 2000 will now be pared down to one.
Turner’s World Championship Wrestling and popular indie league Extreme Championship Wrestling, once programming staples of the TNT, TBS and TNN networks, are now down for the count, leaving the World Wrestling Federation as the sole prime-time player in the industry.
WCW was in the process of being purchased by Fusient after drawing interest on the auction block from the likes of Mandalay Entertainment and wrestling champion WWF. WCW had at one time ruled the cable ratings but had recently served as a financial drain on Warner Bros., which needed to drop excess weight before merging with AOL.
Now, only one week after taking over as Turner Broadcasting chairman, Jamie Kellner is pulling the plug on Turner’s long-running WCW after the deal with Fusient fell through, according to industry sources familiar with the situation.
Mr. Kellner could not be reached for comment at press time.
Turner had signed in January a preliminary agreement with Fusient Media Ventures for the sports group to take over WCW. The plan was for Fusient to revamp the WCW and keep it on Turner’s networks TNT and TBS.
Turner had agreed to sell WCW to Fusient for an undisclosed sum of cash. In return, Turner had promised the sports group a long-term distribution deal on TBS and TNT.
But that deal unraveled during the past two weeks.
Sources said Turner and Fusient had renegotiated their original contract and were about to sign it last week, but it was put on hold after AOL-Time Warner Chairman Bob Pittman appointed Mr. Kellner, The WB’s chairman, to oversee all the Turner networks, including TBS and TNT.
Mr. Kellner quickly let it be known that WCW did not fit into Turner’s long-term future.
“Jamie Kellner earlier this week decided that he didn’t want wrestling on the Turner networks,” said a source close to the situation. “They’ve already decided to cancel it.”
Once cable’s top-rated wrestling series, the WCW’s ratings have steadily declined since 1998, with Vince McMahon’s flashier WWF drawing away viewers.
Turner was selling the WCW to Fusient with the hope that a revamped league could increase its ratings. Sources say that even though the WWF is again interested in purchasing the federation, the writing is on the wall for the league now that all WCW programming will be pulled from the Turner networks.
As for prime-time indie player ECW, industry observers say it’s not a question of if but rather when ECW founder Paul Heyman decides to pulls the plug on the near-bankrupt wrestling group.
“ECW hasn’t run a show since January,” a source said. “They’re not even on life support-they’re dead.”
ECW two weeks ago canceled its scheduled pay-per-view event when the group couldn’t cut a distribution deal with PPV distributor InDemand or find a venue at which to hold the event. The league’s champion and a flock of other talent have signed deals with the two other wrestling federations, while Mr. Heyman himself is currently working as color commentator on WWF’s “Raw on TNN.”
ECW was dealt a major financial blow when it was dropped by TNN after the WWF moved to the network from USA. Although Mr. Heyman entered serious negotiations with other cable outlets, no deal has been signed to pick up the show.
“It’s just a matter of when Paul wants to go to court and say, `We’re folding-we need bankruptcy protection,”’ the source said.
On the broadcast front, the series was well cleared as a syndicated weekly hour, but stations haven’t received any ECW programs to air since the beginning of the year, causing scheduling problems for some outlets. “We don’t expect ECW to come back, and at this point it would be difficult to reopen a slot for the show,” said one station general manager.
ECW began in the early ’90s as a small independent league, eventually working its way into the mainstream via its deal with TNN and numerous PPV events.
“We’ve always been able to understand the wrestling business and know how to make it work,” said WWF CEO Linda McMahon commenting on the troubles of the company’s competitors. “By staying in touch with what the consumers want, the WWF will continue to stay on top of the industry.”