Fusient-TBS Deal Body Slammed

The final bell for World Championship Wrestling may ring as early as next week.

Turner Broadcasting System Inc. last week put the grappling organization on hiatus as a deal to sell the beleaguered company to Fusient Media broke down.

Newly appointed TBS Inc. chairman and CEO Jamie Kellner may have dealt the deal's fatal blow by indicating he had no interest in securing a primetime cable slot for the struggling wrestling organization, industry sources said.

TBS Inc. and Fusient, headed by former Classic Sports Network president Brian Bedol, initially announced a tentative pact in mid-January. At the time, Fusient agreed to purchase a majority interest in the WCW in a deal worth about $75 million. TBS Inc. would have retained a minority interest in the company.

The agreement also included a multiyear television agreement under which Turner Network Television and TBS Superstation would carry WCW programming. Former WCW president Eric Bischoff was expected to return to oversee the day-to-day operations and storylines for the grappling group.

Fusient had expected to complete the deal within 45 to 60 days.

But sources said Fusient began to re-evaluate its position after taking a closer look at the WCW's financial ledgers. Despite a successful run against World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. in the mid- to late-1990s, the WCW has been mired in red ink. Industry observers estimate it lost from $50 million to $70 million in 2000 alone.

"After taking a closer look, [Fusient] realized that the company was in much worse shape than it was led to believe," said the source.

The two parties continued to negotiate through March, but the deal-breaker apparently came when Kellner-whom AOL Time Warner named two weeks ago to oversee a new TV-networks group that includes TNT and TBS Superstation-nixed the television component.

"Kellner decided that he wasn't enamored with wrestling, and without distribution, the asset had no value," said the source.

Representatives from Fusient would not comment on the matter. A Turner spokesman labeled the reports as "speculation," and cited company policy in declining comment.

The Turner spokesman confirmed that the company did send out an internal memo last Friday that said WCW programming would go on an unspecified hiatus. Multichannel News
obtained the internal document.

"The WCW will review its programming plans and determine the course of future WCW-branded entertainment events," the memo read.

Sources said if the Fusient-TBS deal falls through, it's possible that TBS would close down the wrestling promotion, rather than seek a new buyer.

The industry source also said a TBS-Fusient deal was still possible under different circumstances, but labeled the prospects "unlikely."

Ratings for the WCW's signature Monday Nitro
series have tanked in recent years, and currently fall well short of the WWF's Raw Is War. During fourth-quarter 2000, Monday Nitro
averaged a 2.4 Nielsen Media Research rating, less than half the 5.1 rating tallied by Raw
in head-to-head competition.

The disparity is even greater on the PPV side of the coin. In 2000, the WWF averaged around a 1 buy-rate on monthly events, while the WCW's buy-rates averaged between 0.2 and 0.4.

Industry executives, however, remained hopeful that a deal would be completed. "It would be very disappointing to lose a consistent pay-per-view revenue generator like the WCW," said one industry executive. "While revenues are down, it's still welcome given the lack of reliable PPV event programming."

If the WCW shutters, it would be pinned to the mat alongside Extreme Championship Wrestling. The ECW-which offered a more salacious and often violent take on wrestling-is struggling financially and hasn't produced a live show in nearly three months, according to sources close to the company.

Two weeks ago, ECW abruptly cancelled a March 11 PPV event and has yet to schedule any future events. The company took a major financial and publicity hit last September when TNN: The National Network (then The Nashville Network) dropped a weekly ECW series and replaced it with WWF programming.

ECW representatives could not be reached for comment by press time.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.