By FRANK SWERTLOW
Is it a stroke of programming genius, or a last-ditch effort to survive?
UPN's decision to introduce pro wrestling to its prime-time schedule last week is being described as both.
From 8 to 10 every Thursday night, TV viewers can catch the circus-like antics of the World Federation of Wrestling, which until now had been largely confined to cable.
"It's a bold, bold move," said Pam McNeely, a media buyer of Dailey & Associates. "It's either desperation or an inspired decision. If you look at the rest of the networks' schedules, nobody is focusing on young men 18 to 24. UPN is going after this demographic with wrestling. It could be very bright or the death knell for the network."
Indeed, Adam Ware, UPN's chief operating officer, said the network is specifically looking for the young male viewer.
"What is amazing is that for years there have been female soap operas like 'Melrose Place,' and 'Felicity,' " he said. "But nobody ever came up with a male soap opera. If someone did, everybody said it would be a home run. Well, the WWF has come up with one. It's going to be a terrific point to launch and reach younger viewers."
The move seems to make sense, considering the ratings that wrestling programs have been garnering on cable. WWF on USA Networks and World Championship Wrestling on TNT are regularly ranked in the top 10 cable programs every week.
The UPN broadcasts will be tamer than the later-night cable versions, said Ware. "The WWF has the ability to change with the times," he said. "We are aware that there will be younger children watching."
The hope is, of course, that viewers will tune into other UPN shows.
"It could act as a great promotional tool for UPN's other shows," said one media buyer. "Whatever audiences they attract will be enticed to other nights in the week. But it is still a desperate move. They are pulling out all the stops to keep the network afloat."
Indeed, UPN has been struggling. Last season, it averaged 1.4 million viewers in the key 18-49 demographic coveted by advertisers, according to Nielsen Media Research. By comparison, its rival, The WB, has 2.2 million viewers among that group.
UPN's sagging ratings led to a net loss last year of $180 million on revenue of $100 million. Already there are rumblings that UPN's co-owners, Viacom Corp. and Chris-Craft Industries, might dump the struggling weblet.
That fate might be averted if wrestling catches on.
"It could be a real shot in the arm in the short run," said Dave Davis, an investment banker at Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin.
While UPN's move may seem like a huge gamble, it comes at a time when network television is trying to reinvent itself. The surprise hit of the summer is ABC's quiz show, "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire," which had the top two spots in the Nielsen ratings for the week ended Aug. 22.
"It's an interesting time," Davis said. "A lot of the rules are being thrown out and there's going to be a lot of experimenting."
Ware debunked the notion that the network is heading toward oblivion. "I've been hearing that for years," he said. "It's still around and it is going to stick around."
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