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The CW gives 'Smackdown' the brushoff

The TV network will drop wrestling as it tries to build its audience by targeting young women.

February 09, 2008|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

The CW no longer will be a ring rat for wrestling.

For the last decade, millions of viewers have tuned in each week to witness the antics of the pumped-up characters of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.'s popular "Friday Night SmackDown." But the CW network and WWE said that come September they would end their partnership.

"Since the CW's exclusive negotiation period ran out as of last Thursday, Jan. 31, we have been contacted and have been in negotiations with other networks," WWE said in a statement. Its final appearance on the CW will be Sept. 12.

"SmackDown" has been largely a match of convenience.

In the late 1990s, the show averaged more than 7 million viewers a telecast for the CW's predecessor, UPN, giving some ratings juice to the struggling network. But wrestling didn't fit in with UPN's other shows, including "Girlfriends" and the "Star Trek" spinoff "Enterprise." Nonetheless, hanging on to the pseudo-sport show helped attract the elusive young male audience desired by some advertisers.

When UPN folded in 2006, its successor, Burbank-based CW -- a joint venture of CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. -- brought along "SmackDown" and its hefty Friday audience.

This season, "SmackDown" has been pinning down nearly 5 million viewers a week, according to Nielsen Media Research. Although off from its heyday, the two-hour program continues to be a champ for the CW, whose prime-time ratings have fallen 21% among its key demographic of viewers 18 to 34 years old.

"Wrestling has been one of the most consistent ratings performers for the CW," said David Scardino, an executive with Santa Monica-based advertising agency RPA. "That stability has value. Maybe they want to go out and test the waters to see what they could get in the open market. I don't think this is their final act."

Neither the CW nor WWE would comment beyond their separate statements. But the CW is facing financial strain. The network will lose about $50 million this year, and it is trying to build its audience by targeting young women with such shows as "Gossip Girl" and "One Tree Hill." Wrestling fans rarely watch other female-oriented CW programs, making the night an island on the network's schedule.

Stamford, Conn.-based WWE did not say what other suitors may be outside the ring interested in claiming the rights to the franchise. Another WWE program, "Monday Night Raw," is also a heavy lifter in the ratings for NBC Universal Inc.'s USA Network. "Raw" brings in an average 4.8 million a viewers for the cable channel.

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meg.james@latimes.com

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