AOL Cuts Pro Wrestling

ATLANTA — AOL Time Warner Inc.’s Turner Broadcasting System Inc. has decided to stop airing World Championship Wrestling, a mainstay of the network’s lineup since its fledgling days in the 1970s, as it continues to scout a buyer for the troubled company.

The decision means that WCW will go on hiatus after a March 26 event in Panama City Beach, Fla., pending its sale to a new owner. Fusient Media Ventures, a New York media-investment firm, announced its purchase of the company in January.

That deal fell through when Turner decided to end its wrestling programming, leaving the WCW without a broadcaster. “At this point, they’re still talking,” Fusient spokesman Paul Breton said.

Turner spokesman Jim Weiss said Turner expects WCW, which lost an estimated $80 million last year, will be sold quickly. “It was a nice ride, but it’s time for the ride to be over,” he added.

The decision to scrap wrestling was one of the first major programming decisions made by new Turner Chief Executive Jamie Kellner. He had been the founder and chairman of the fledgling WB Network, which is also owned by AOL (AOL). Earlier this month, the company decided to fold the WB into Turner, which includes the cable channels TBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, the Cartoon Network and the CNN networks. Time Warner bought Turner in 1996.

Mr. Weiss also confirmed that one of the bidders for WCW is its longtime rival, World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. (WWF), whose ratings have trounced WCW in recent years.

The decision to scrap pro wrestling, a vehicle which Turner founder Ted Turner rode to ratings success through much of the 1980s, marks the end of a 30-year era for TBS. Mr. Turner began airing wrestling shortly after he bought a local Atlanta television station in 1970 and later carried it nationally when the company gained access to a satellite in 1976.

With big-name stars such as Hulk Hogan and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Turner turned WCW into the most popular TV-wrestling brand. But as the rival WWF developed newer, younger talent and racier story lines based on ribald language and situations, WCW slipped into irrelevancy for many wrestling fans and its pay-per-view revenue and TV ratings slumped.

The transition from wrestling comes as Turner seeks to reach a more affluent segment of TV viewers with an emphasis on more original programming and movies. Older shows such as “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” will give way to newer programs such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” Mr. Weiss said.

WCW’s show “Monday Nitro” is on TNT, while TBS features “Thunder” on Wednesday. “Professional wrestling, in its current form and its current style, isn’t consistent with the higher-end, upscale brands we’ve created at TNT and TBS,” Mr. Weiss said. “These are huge, big-time networks. It’s not the old TBS anymore.” The company will fill its WCW slots with movies.

Copyright (c) 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.