Sunday, July 16, 2000

It's TNN vs. USA in ratings smackdown

        PASADENA, Calif. — Let's get ready to rrruuummmmble!

        The biggest fight of the fall TV season won't be networks' counter-programming of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, or NBC moving Fraiser opposite ABC's Dharma & Greg on Tuesdays.

        The real Steel Cage Death Match will be between TNN and USA, which loses the World Wrestling Federation to TNN this fall.

        TNN, no longer your father's The Nashville Network, is looking for a smackdown.

        USA executives, however, say they're not going to take a fall, despite a Delaware court ruling in late June that the WWF could jump to Viacom, which owns TNN, MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Showtime, Paramount Studios, Paramount's Kings Island, Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books.

Four new cable series debut next Sunday, including two USA comedies and Nickelodeon's first Latino sitcom:

  The War Next Door (9 p.m. next Sunday, USA): Linden Ashby (Mortal Combat) and Damian Young (Snow Day) star in a dark, violent comedy about a retired CIA agent whose nemesis moves into the suburban house next door. In the tradition of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, or Mad magazine's Spy vs. Spy, the two literally fight to the death each week — with the deceased coming back to life in the next episode.
  Manhattan, AZ (9:30 p.m. next Sunday, USA): Brian McNamara (Arachnophobia) plays a single father, big-city cop named sheriff in a quirky desert town. Chad Everett co-stars as the mayor in this series reminiscent of Fox's short-lived Bakersfield P.D. or CBS' Northern Exposure. But it's not nearly as clever or funny.
  The Brothers Garcia (8:30 p.m., Nickelodeon): Comedian John Leguizamo narrates the comic adventures of brothers Larry, 11 (Alvin Alvarez); George, 12 (Bobby Gonzalez); and Carlos, 13 (Jeffrey Licon). It's the first of three new Latino series coming to Nickelodeon soon.
  “We're doing a pretty good job reflecting images of blacks and whites and Asians, but we really felt we have under-represented Latino kids,” says Albie Hecht, executive for Nickelodeon TV and films.
  Strong Medicine (9 p.m., Lifetime): Janine Turner (Northern Exposure) stars as a no-nonsense Philadelphia surgeon who helps a young doctor (Rosa Blasi) operate a women's medical clinic. Whoopi Goldberg, an executive producer on the series, came up with the idea when her daughter had a baby.
        Strong Medicine will follow Lifetime's critically acclaimed interracial drama, Any Day Now (8 p.m. Sunday), starring Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint.

        The move caps the WWF's spectacular growth in the past year, in which the WWF became a publicly-traded company, announced the XFL pro football league with NBC, and launched a weekly WWF Smackdown! on UPN, vaulting that network past WB in the ratings.

        “This is an enormously huge entertainment property, and one that we're very excited to have,” says Brian Hughes, TNN vice president for programming, during the Television Critics Association summer press tour here.

        WWF Raw is War (9-11 p.m. Mondays), consistently the No. 1 weekly cable series, moves to TNN this fall, along with the weekend morning WWF Livewire and WWF Superstars.

        It's the biggest cable deal in mankind, not to forget The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Goldberg, Chyna or other WWF stars. It's like ER jumping to CBS, or Regis Philbin's Millionaire going to Fox.

        TNN, once the home of Crook & Chase and Ralph Emery, ranks No. 12 in cable's prime-time ratings, and No. 10 in cable homes (75 million). USA is No. 1 in prime-time ratings, and No. 3 in subscribers (77.4 million).

        In recent years, TNN has shed country music videos and its signature nightly country music talk show in favor of drama series 18 Wheels of Justice, Magnificent Seven, Dukes of Hazard, movies, the roller derby, football and Extreme Championship Wrestling.

        But the quickest way to become a general-interest basic cable channel was to climb into the ring with the WWF, and toss USA over the ropes.

        “Our goal is to make TNN a top-10 network in terms of viewership,” says Mr. Hughes, whose network became part of MTV when Viacom bought CBS earlier this year. “Our (ratings) expectations most certainly are to start equal to what WWF has done at USA.”

        Viacom ripped the WWF from the clutches of USA with a real hammerlock — the promise to put a wrestling show on MTV; a 13-week commitment for a WWF-produced drama on UPN; a book deal; and WWF promotion on Viacom billboards and CBS' Infinity radio stations, according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine.

        “Without question, this deal would not have happened for TNN had we not been part of MTV Networks. This deal goes across so many different aspects of Viacom to include CBS,” says Mr. Hughes, who has canceled the ECW.

        The deal was made by Linda McMahon, co-founder of World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. and wife of Vince McMahon, WWF ringleader and chairman. She's confident that 20 million WWF viewers will follow the fans to the Grand Ole Opry channel, after the MTV Networks' $8-million promotional campaign.

        “(MTV President) Tom Freston indicated to me that if you were on this planet — man, woman or child — there would be no way that you would not know that the WWF is moving to TNN, and to MTV,” Mrs. McMahon says.

        Mrs. McMahon says the WWF will tailor its programming to various venues, as it does for broadcast (UPN) and cable (USA) audiences. The WWF knows its limits, she says.

        “WWF won't kill anyone. We're not shooting anyone. Nor are we giving the impression that we're killing anyone or knifing anyone. We do have slapstick. We will hit you over the head with the steel chair, or a shiny new trash can,” she says.

        “But there have been times that we felt we pushed the envelope a little far. Our fans reacted. We pulled back. It has not clearly been the most popular of things that we have done, and our fans have indicated that. So we think we're pretty close to having the right formula at this point,” she says.

        Over at USA, programmers point out that USA is the top-rated network in prime-time, even if you subtract Monday night ratings for WWF Raw is War.

        “We're working night and day,” says USA Cable President Stephen Chao, “to make sure USA remains No. 1 by focusing on what USA does best — original programming and key movie and series acquisitions.”

        But one of USA's most popular dramas, Peta Wilson's La Femme Nikita, has been canceled effective in August.

        And TV critics weren't impressed with USA's two new “broad, absurdist” situation comedies previewed before their debut next Sunday. Both The War Next Door and Manhattan, AZ. are single-camera filmed shows, like Sports Night or Malcolm in the Middle.

        “The television landscape is populated by multi-camera situation comedies,” says David Eick, USA senior vice president for original series programming. “And with the possible exception of Malcolm in the Middle, the single-camera comedy genre is sparsely represented on the viewing landscape.”

        There's also too much wrestling on TV, but nobody seems to mind. Except the folks at USA cable.

        TV Critic John Kiesewetter is reporting from the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.