The Viacom-owned cable channel said late Thursday that it has terminated negotiations with World Wrestling Entertainment over primetime powerhouse “WWE Raw” as well as several other WWE-branded series.
Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire had been known to be exploring other options since the fall, including a return to its former home, USA Network.
“After several months of negotiations, we have decided to end our discussions about extending our relationship with the WWE beyond September 2005,” Spike TV said in a statement. “Moving forward, Spike TV will expand its investments in original programming and new acquisitions for its core audience.”
A WWE spokesman declined comment, and Spike TV declined to elaborate on its statement.
The end of negotiations means one of cable’s most-watched programs over the past decade is up for grabs after five years at Spike TV. The two-hour “Raw” was the highest-rated program on cable this past week among viewers 18-49, according to Nielsen Media Research. Its 2.1 rating was enough to make it the only nonbroadcast series to place among the top 100 shows for the week ending March 6 (finishing 79th).
Despite “Raw’s” high ratings, sources said Spike TV was balking at paying an increase in license fees that would have cost Viacom an estimated $40 million per year. The WWE delivers 260 hours of programing 52 weeks per year, including weekend series “Heat,” “Velocity” and “Experience.”
The WWE’s smashmouth sensibility also might have clashed with the newly refined Spike TV, which indicated its male-targeted brand would be altered under the direction of Doug Herzog, the Comedy Central president replacing outgoing Spike TV president Albie Hecht.
Paying for “Raw” and company also could have been deemed prohibitive after the acquisition of the syndicated series “CSI: NY” to accompany the original “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” — the network’s successful primetime anchor. An additional expense on Spike TV’s ledger could be scripted programing, which Herzog has intimated he would like to see on Spike TV.
Unknown is whether the negotiation breakdown spells the beginning of the end for a five-year strategic alliance the WWE signed with Viacom. WWE also has a series on Viacom’s UPN, “WWE SmackDown!” that has two years left on a separate contract.
Sources indicated that WWE reached out to several cable groups last year, including NBC Universal, Turner Broadcasting and FX Network. USA is believed to be on the inside track given its past association with WWE; its president, Bonnie Hammer, worked with McMahon during a previous stint at the network.
USA declined comment.