"Smackdown" moves to SyFy

In a move which illustrates once again the declining clout of broadcasters – and the growingpower of cable, Vince McMahon and the WWE have announced the departure of Friday Night Smackdown from Fox’s My Network TV and is moving it to NBC Universal-owned cable channel SyFy effective October 1.

SyFy smacked down Fox with a $30 million offer to WWE, topping the $20 million bid the News Corp. unit made.

This is the second time in two days cable has trumped broadcasters in a major deal. On Monday, TBS snared Conan O’Brien to do a late-night talk show, catching Fox off guard. O’Brien did Late Night for sixteen years and The Tonight Show for seven months, both for NBC.

Already, SyFy airs WWE NXT, a reality show featuring wrestlers participating in a reality show about making into the WWE big leagues (one wrestler who does appear on the show is David Otunga, who is engaged to R&B singer and Chicago native Jennifer Hudson.) In the past, SyFy aired ECW, the former stand-alone wrestling promotion which went bankrupt in 2001 but was bought out by the WWE and re-created into a brand in 2006. ECW disbanded in February.

NBC’s USA Network also airs Raw, a longtime Monday night staple.

Smackdown aired for seven years on UPN when it and the WB merged to become The CW. In 2008, CW dropped Smackdown in an effort to appeal to more young women, as the show was mainly male-driven.

My Network TV picked up the show shortly thereafter, and maintained its ratings. (Recent numbers showed Smackdown drawing an average of 3.5 million viewers per week.) However, My Network TV dropped almost all original programming at the end of last season and became a “programming service”, leaving Smackdown as the only show left producing new episodes. Also not helping is the lack of promotion Smackdown has received – not to mention running into delays because of sporting events (which was the case here in February and March as WPWR-TV bumped Smackdown to 10 p.m. or later to run the IHSA Boys and Girls Basketball Tournaments.)

With the move to cable, the deal marks the end of an era of sorts with no WWE programming on any over-the-air broadcast outlet or syndication this fall on a regular basis (with the exception of Raw airing on Spanish-language network Telemundo) for the first time in recent memory. In a post I wrote on February 8, 2008 regarding CW’s cancellation of Smackdown, this is what I summed up if the show moved to cable:

…[b]ut a move to USA (where Raw already resides) or SciFi (the home of ECW) would also be possible, and if that happens, for the first time in over 25 years, there would be no regularly scheduled wrestling program on over-the-air television. Chalk it up to changing times in the television business. Twenty years ago, the WWE had as many as four weekly shows in broadcast syndication, including “Superstars of Wrestling” and “Wrestling Challenge”.
That prophecy has indeed become true.

My Network TV is reportedly in negotiations to acquire off-network rights to USA’s Burn Notice, which could fill the two hours left vacant by wrestling. But even if this were the case, the numbers wouldn’t even come close to those earned by Smackdown.

Thought: Another day, another program or event lost to cable from the broadcast side. This is especially painful for My Network TV, as the “programming service’s” future is now in serious jeopardy past next season. As for Fox, this is two losses in two days. Is Rupert Murdoch channeling the late “Dollar” Bill Wirtz? The former Chicago Blackhawks owner once said winning the Stanley Cup was “too expensive”. I guess some broadcasters now feel the same way about acquiring – and keeping good programming, even if it does well in the ratings. One shouldn’t ask the Hawks how the cheapskate plan worked out – it sent fans fleeing for the exits and resulted in a near-defamation of a franchise in which the Hawks are only now beginning to recover from. While Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have saved the once-again Mighty Blackhawks, who will save broadcasters?