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Advertiser pullout threatens UPN's comeback

By DAVID BAUDER -- Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Pro wrestling helped make a winner out of UPN. But now the network might be in for a body slam.

A growing advertiser revolt that forced the World Wrestling Federation to tone down its "WWF Smackdown!" has UPN wondering if that will endanger the program the underdog network has built its comeback around.

In its first test Thursday night, there was no evidence that the toned-down "Smackdown!" would fall prey to the Jerry Springer Syndrome, in which viewers drift away when outrageous antics become less outrageous.

Explicit language and sexualthemes led advertisers like Coca-Cola, the Army and AT&T to back away from "Smackdown!" The conservative lobbying group Parents Television Council organized a campaign to pressure advertisers.

In response, the WWF promised to cool it a bit. Thursday night's edition contained no crotch-grabbing, marginally better language and fewer shots of scantily clad women.

The result: The show's Nielsen ratings in the nation's biggest markets were identical to what "Smackdown!" has been averaging this fall.

UPN is confident that its most popular program will continue to thrive.

"The WWF knows how to talk to their audience," said Adam Ware, UPN's chief operating officer. "Ultimately, it will not affect the ratings on the show or affect the ability of people to enjoy it."

"Smackdown!" is the centerpiece of UPN's strategy of building itself by appealing to teen-age boys and young men -- much the way its rival, the WB, created a buzz by going after teen-age girls.

UPN's average audience has increased 42 percent over last year, when it was bleeding viewers at nearly the same rate. The number of men ages 12 to 34 watching on Thursdays -- wrestling night -- is five times what it was a year ago.

"They thought we were dead," Ware said. "Everyone thought it was over. UPN has turned it around and showed not only was it not over, but it has found a demographic that was underserved."

Up until then, UPN looked like it was in trouble. When part-owner Viacom merged with CBS in September, executives had to bat down rumors that UPN would be shut down.

UPN uses wrestling to promote other youth-oriented shows, such as the dorm room-like "Shasta McNasty" and "I Dare You," a reality series due in January in which daredevils try to top each other with wild stunts.

Howard Stern comes to UPN next fall, producing and providing the voice of the lead character of an animated science-fiction series, "Doomsday."

"They have a strategy now, which they had not had in the past," said Robert Igiel, president of the broadcast division of the advertising firm Media Edge.

The network is competitive again with the WB, which at some points last year doubled UPN's audience. So far this season, UPN has an average audience of 3.8 million viewers in prime time, while the WB has slipped to 4.2 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Its critics believe UPN is pandering to an audience's worst instincts.

"If you look beyond 'Smackdown!,' it's just trash what they put on," said Brent Bozell, chairman of the Parents Television Council. "It appeals to people with the IQ of a banana. It's really stupid stuff. I don't think that has sustaining power."

Ware, a former Fox executive, said Fox ran into the same criticisms a decade ago in the era of "Married ... with Children." Critics like Bozell have a political agenda and little concept of what young males want to watch, he said.

He also said UPN is not a one-note network: "Star Trek: Voyager" is its most successful long-running series, while "Moesha" and "The Parkers" have carved a niche with many black viewers on Monday nights.

But everyone agrees that wrestling is the engine that runs UPN. It was no surprise when UPN tried to boost its ratings during a "sweeps" month on Tuesday by running "WWF's Greatest Hits" as a special.

When Springer first curbed the fisticuffs on his talk show, under political pressure, ratings slumped. The show quietly brought the antics back before a second round of criticism led to the current, more sedate, version.

Will the "WWF Smackdown!" ultimately disappoint its fans by being more polite?

"I think that's a question," Igiel said. "I don't know the answer."