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The WWF has limits: Wrestlers don’t kill each other, CEO says

Top programming on cable is moving to TNN this fall

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PASADENA, Calif. — Anyone who is concerned about the violence, vulgarity and sexism that are part of the World Wrestling Federation week in and week out may be relieved to know that there are limits to how far the shows will go.

"Clearly there are limits," said Linda E. McMahon, president and CEO of the WWF. "In the World Wrestling Federation, we don't kill anyone."

Well, that's a relief.

What may be more surprising, however, is the fact that McMahon, the wife of WWF guru Vince McMahon, appeared startled that her comment drew gales of laughter from a room full of TV critics. Talk about losing touch with reality.

The fact is, however, that these days there's not much the WWF's critics can do to slow its momentum. It's the highest-rated programming on cable; it may have saved the UPN network from extinction; it's launching its own football league — the XFL — on NBC, UPN and TNN this coming February.

And, in the TV world, it's huge news that the cable portion of the WWF's wrestling programs are moving to TNN from USA — a move that seems certain to make TNN one of the most-watched cable networks in America.

It's part of the WWF's overall deal with Viacom, which owns UPN and MTV Networks, which includes TNN since Viacom acquired CBS.

"We are looking forward to our new relationship with TNN and we hope to be able to . . . bring our 20 million-plus viewers that we have every week," Linda McMahon said. "And we're quite confident that we're going to be able to do that."

At TNN, they're setting out to make sure that happens. The three WWF cable shows will all occupy the same time slots at their new home that they occupied at their old home. Beginning the week of Sept. 22, TNN will air "WWF Raw" Monday nights, "WWF Livewire" Saturday mornings and "WWF Superstars" Sunday mornings.

While McMahon had nothing bad to say about the USA Network, it's clear that the move to TNN and Viacom is part of a plan to raise the WWF's profile even higher.

"Our goal, as stated when we took the company public last October, was to form strategic alliances with other media companies (so) that we could grow and expand our company," she said. "Especially with the merger of Viacom (and) CBS, we clearly have more of those platforms available to us."

Expect to see and hear news of the switch to TNN all over Viacom's cable networks, which include everything from MTV to VH1 to Nickelodeon to TV Land. And on UPN and CBS. And on CBS's huge string of radio stations and enormous outdoor advertising company.

There's even a question of whether WWF programming will appear on the so-called Tiffany network itself, CBS. McMahon said nothing has been set — yet — but said it is a possibility.

"We are currently formulating some of those plans in there," she said.

And nobody seems particularly concerned that some advertisers have pulled out of UPN's "WWF Smackdown" — other advertisers are lining up to replace them.

"There are a lot of advertisers who are supporting this property," said Brian Hughes, TNN's vice president of programming. "I think that this is an enormously huge entertainment property and one that we're very excited to have."

And, nobody's going to be killed — barring another accident like the one that took the life of WWF wrestler Owen Hart.

"We're not shooting people," McMahon said. "Nor are we giving the impression that we're killing anyone or knifing anyone. We do have slapstick. We will hit you over the head with a steel chair or a shiny new trash can. And we'll do some of these kinds of antics within our programming."

And, as always, the WWF defends itself as just another entertainment alternative.

"It is certainly a matter of personal preference and choice," McMahon said. "Clearly, there are critics of our product. Clearly, there are those who do not like our product just as there are many who don't like ballet or opera or other entertainment options that are available."

(An interesting analogy. But then ballet and opera don't teach young viewers that violence is an acceptable answer or promote vulgarity and misogyny.)

"There have been times that we felt we pushed the envelope a little far," McMahon acknowledged. "Our fans reacted. We pulled back. . . . So we think we're pretty close to having the right formula at this point."

They're betting on that at Viacom.

E-MAIL: pierce@desnews.com