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  Aug 6, 1999

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TNN enters the squared circle

By DAVID BAUDER -- Associated Press

ECW World Heavyweight Champion, the human suplex machine, Taz.
NEW YORK (AP) -- What does pickin' and grinnin' have in common with bone-jarring wrestling? We're about to find out.

The Nashville Network joins the professional wrestling party later this month, after agreeing with the producers of Extreme Championship Wrestling to air a one-hour weekly series. It premieres Aug. 27 at 8 p.m. EDT.

This intriguing deal is a window into the malleability of a television network enticed by something hot, and seems certain to mobilize critics who worry about the effects of this entertainment on children.

For three years, ECW producers tried without success to interest TNN in a wrestling series, said Steve Karel, the organization's managing director.

It seemed like a natural fit: TNN was popular in the rural South, and that's where ECW had most of its fans. The Nashville Network clung to its country music roots, but eventually couldn't help seeing what wrestling was doing for TNT and the USA network.

World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling shows are routinely among the highest-rated cable programs each week. Pro wrestling is a cultural phenomenon with young men and boys, an audience that TV advertisers crave and find difficult to reach.

TNN's corporate parent, CBS, has already demonstrated its eagerness to reach this demographic by giving Howard Stern a weekly show through the company's syndication arm.

The fit suddenly seemed more natural.

"I don't think a network like TNN, even a year ago, would have touched this," said Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter. "The WWF has in some ways changed what has become acceptable."

TNN had been showing demolition derbies on Friday nights, then in January successfully paired that with an up-to-date, crunching version of roller derby. Wrestling will be the third show in that lineup.

ECW depicts itself as an innovator in the entertaining, story-based form of professional wrestling. Yet because it has been seen only on pay-per-view events or in syndication, it doesn't have the high profile of its two competitors.

"In some ways it's more extreme than the WWF and in some ways it's less. It's just different," Meltzer said. "I would say it's heavier on the violence than the WWF and lower on the perversion."

David Hall, TNN president, said he wants a show that will put more emphasis on wrestling, and less on outside-the-ring dramas.

TNN will air a show with a "consumer-friendly, mainstream approach," he said. Some of the more extreme antics that are shown in a pay-per-view special won't fly on basic cable, he said.

"I don't like the phrase 'tone down,"' ECW's Karel said. "I'd like to use the phrase 'focusing on the action inside the ring."'

Authorities have questioned whether wrestling is a harmful influence on young people. Dallas police this spring issued a warning to parents and youngsters following the accidental death of a 3-year-old boy at the hands of an older brother who was imitating a wrestling move he'd seen on TV. Wrestling officials deflect responsibility, saying it's up to parents to watch what their children are doing.

As is almost predictable when something is successful, television may soon face a wrestling glut. The struggling UPN broadcast network will introduce its own wrestling show in the fall.

TNN will give its show a TV-14 rating, setting itself up to walk the same fine line as Comedy Central does with "South Park." Both are presented to the public as for adults, yet they're very adolescent in their appeal.

"It's not something for your kids," Meltzer said, "and at 8 p.m., it's going to be viewed by kids."

Wrestling is one part of an effort by TNN to broaden its appeal. Another subtle indicator: It refers to itself as TNN, instead of The Nashville Network, so as not to turn off people who don't like country music. "We're looking at more of an approach toward Americana than country right at this second," Hall said.

That doesn't necessarily mean TNN will stand for extreme sports more than it does country music. Then again, if the wrestling ratings go through the roof ...

"You can do too much too soon," Hall said. "I think we're planning on Friday night as the right place. But we'll see what happens."