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WWF to tone down content

By JUSTIN BACHMAN -- Associated Press

 ATLANTA -- The World Wrestling Federation has decided to tone down the content on its popular telecasts in the wake of Coca-Cola's decision to end a two-year advertising deal.

"As good business people, we are willing to initiate change," said Jim Byrne, senior vice president of marketing for the WWF. He said future shows will contain "less use of colorful language and less sexuality."

The pledge, made late Monday, is to take effect on Thursday's edition of "Smackdown!" -- no stranger to fake blood, vulgarities and bikini-clad women yanking each other's hair.

Such antics have made the WWF a winner among teen-age boys, who have helped WWF's ratings grow in recent years. Sponsoring the show gave the Coca-Cola Co. access to the coveted 12-to-34 male demographic, but left its officials cringing.

Coke stopped advertising on WWF shows last month, citing objectionable language and content on broadcasts such as the Monday night cable program "RAW is WAR," which draws about 6 million viewers weekly.

However, the world's biggest soft drink company continues to advertise with WWF's main rival, World Championship Wrestling, a subsidiary of Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting System.

Although the WCW has recently been accused of making its programs more racy to compete with the WWF, Atlanta-based Coke says the WWF went too far.

Stone Cold Steve Austin swills beers, spouts profanity and salutes other wrestlers with obscene gestures. The Godfather enters the ring dressed like a pimp and accompanied by scantily clad women.

Nothing is off limits -- there are even cracks about masturbation.

"It crossed the line in terms of content, particularly in terms of language and story lines," said Coke spokesman Bob Bertini said Monday, before the WWF's decision. "It's not about one episode or one particular character. It's what we observed over a period of time."

Earlier this year, gum maker Wrigley said it would not renew its contract with WWF because of the content of the shows.

Coke's decision comes as the Parents Television Council, a Los Angeles-based conservative group, pressures advertisers to drop "WWF Smackdown!" The show is the top-rated program on the fledgling UPN network.

L. Brent Bozell III, the group's founder, said the council has sent letters about the program to 100 companies since it began its campaign six weeks ago. He said the group hopes the WWF will "shape up" the show's content

On Monday, the WWF said it was changing the rating of "Smackdown!" from TV-14 to TV-PG, although such ratings are voluntary and generally do not affect content much. WWF officials said that change was unrelated to the council's campaign.

Coke's decision won't reduce WWF income. Advertising money from Coke made up 3 percent of WWF revenue, but its ad slots were "immediately snapped up by the movie studios and video game manufacturers at a premium," Byrne said.