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WWF's Big Smack

“WWF Smackdown!”‘s powerful ratings have UPN saying WHAM! BAM! Thank you, Vince McMahon

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At a taping of UPN’s Nov. 11 edition of WWF Smackdown!, Arnold Schwarzenegger strides onto the floor of the sold-out Baltimore Arena, steps into the ring, and announces, ”I’m going to pump you up!” Though he characteristically mangles the delivery (it’s ”pump you up,” Ahnuld), he’ll keep the promise, joining forces with WWF superstars The Rock and Steve Austin to pummel resident überheel Triple H with a folding chair.

Later, winding down his well-hyped appearance by chugging a beer with ”Stone Cold” (as is Austin’s wont after a victorious match), Schwarzenegger creates a moment that is at once downright surreal and utterly predictable. Did it seem more than a bit contrived? Sure. Maybe even a little embarrassing? Absolutely. But what self-respecting wrestling fan ever let that get in the way of a good time? Besides, boiled down to showbiz terms, his collaboration with the World Wrestling Federation is strictly business, a mutually beneficial meeting of billion-dollar enterprises. (As to rumors that Schwarzenegger received $1 million for his appearance, the WWF will only say, ”Whatever the exchange was, we were thrilled to have this immense talent on Smackdown!”)

Not long ago, such an alliance would look perilously close to slumming for an action-movie megastar. But in choosing the WWF as a promotional platform for his new movie, Schwarzenegger was nothing if not ingenious. Putting aside the irony that wrestling’s unprecedented popularity should be placed in the service of a flick called End of Days, he’s hooking up with a multimedia behemoth that, as of this writing, boasts cable TV’s top ratings (courtesy of Monday night’s Raw Is War on the USA Network), the No. 2 album on Billboard‘s charts (World Wrestling Federation: The Music—Vol. 4), the No. 2 book on the New York Times best-seller list (Mick Foley’s homespun autobiography, Have a Nice Day!), and, in Smackdown!, the most colorful success story of this TV season.

But the biggest winner is UPN, which, thanks to Smackdown!, has finally established a Nielsen beachhead almost five years after the network’s launch. Since the show’s debut on Aug. 26, the two-hour extravaganza—an outrageous concoction of sex, soap, and jaw-dropping physicality—has slapped a hammerlock on the precious young-male demo; it consistently wins its time slot among male teens, and places second only to NBC among males 18-34 on Thursdays. In addition, it has improved that night’s performance among total viewers a whopping 168 percent since last season.

For UPN CEO-president—and admitted wrestling fan—Dean Valentine, snagging the WWF meant acquiring an established franchise, a potential flagship show that was itself already a pop-culture Titanic. Likening the net’s alliance with the WWF to Fox’s with professional football, he says, ”We needed our version of the NFL or NBA or NASCAR, [something] that was self-starting, that would bring an audience with it.”

After getting an eyeful of the WWF’s ”Attitude” makeover (the 1998 revamping that transformed ”sports entertainment” with its emphasis on plot and personality over actual fighting), Valentine recalls, ”I realized it was just brilliant. They had taken it and turned it into a comic soap opera. You could understand why guys get addicted to it.” That led to a meeting with WWF chairman Vince McMahon and a sweeps-week tryout last May that turned out to be Smackdown!‘s pilot.