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Wrestling in court

USA Network executives muffed the renewal of World Wrestling Federation Entertainment's hugely popular programming by neglecting the expansive ambitions of the tag team of Vince and Linda McMahon.

That's the position the husband-and-wife team took in court in Delaware last week, where they testified to defend against USA Network's legal challenge of the WWF's April deal to take its top-rated progamming over to Viacom CBS' TNN cable network. USA Network sued to enforce its right of first refusal to counter any rival offer, even though the five-year Viacom deal has non-cash features USA can't possibly match.

Even if Chancellor William Chandler III decides that the WWF has to stay with USA for five more years, he can't heal the McMahons' apparently poisonous relationship with USA Networks corporate President Barry Baker, USA Cable President Stephen Chao and outgoing corporate Executive Vice President Steve Brenner.

Under both current and previous management, the McMahons sought for two years to reach beyond what Vince McMahon called their athletic "soap opera." For example, they wanted to produce action dramas starring their wrestlers, a late-night talk show and a Judge Judy clone.

USA executives talked, but they never delivered. And when it came down to hammering out a renewal agreement, USA's only substantive addition was making WWF an anchor of an e-commerce proposal including its Internet and Home Shopping Network units.

Other than an increase in the meager license fees paid for programming (because WWFE retains all advertising time) from $12,000 to $20,000 per episode to $50,000 to $80,000, no numbers were attached to the plan. "I was so disappointed that I couldn't even respond," Linda McMahon said. Viacom eventually agreed to pay $100,000 to $300,000 per episode.