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'SmackDown' hits Lexington for TV taping

World Wrestling Entertainment returns to Lexington on Tuesday for a taping of its SmackDown and ECW programs, the first such tapings in Lexington.

The city previously has played host to Raw and a pay-per-view event, but it's the first for SmackDown, which airs Fridays on MyNetworkTV.

But the past few weeks have seen some changes in that network that might affect WWE.

WWE moved the program last October to MyNetworkTV, the least-watched of the broadcast TV networks. The low-profile network was formed mostly by affiliates that lost The WB or UPN when the two merged to form The CW. The CW previously ran SmackDown but dropped it because the network had trouble converting wrestling fans into viewers of other shows.

And now MyNetworkTV isn't actually a network. Nielsen, which provides ratings data, dropped it from its overnight ratings service after MyNetworkTV announced recently that it would be dramatically reducing its original programming.

The network is now airing reruns of shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and The Unit on some nights.

It's being billed by executives at MyNetworkTV as a hybrid network, one that offers original programming and syndicated shows.

"These are shows the audience recognizes," said Paul Franklin, executive vice president at MyNetworkTV. "Salespeople are very comfortable selling the shows, and they lead up to our crown jewel, Friday Night SmackDown."

"On our end, nothing has really changed," said WWE spokesman Kevin Hennessy. "In fact the average viewer shouldn't see any change."

Rick Scaia, Webmaster of the longtime wrestling news site, said, "It's not really a gigantic change," though it does have some negative implications for WWE.

"Even before this, MyNetworkTV wasn't a real network," Scaia said. He noted that WWE signed with the network because its contract with NBC Universal, which airs Raw and ECW on its networks, prevented it from airing SmackDown on another cable network after The CW dropped it.

"It's not that they wanted to go there necessarily, but they had a two-hour TV show that had to air somewhere," Scaia said. "They assumed, and they assumed correctly, that their fans would follow them."

And as MyNetworkTV becomes a programming service, it increases the possibility that shows like SmackDown will be picked up by major network affiliates that air it at off-peak times to prevent conflicts with their own networks.

But, as Scaia said, "fans will look for it and find it. They will be OK."

And the move is a positive for Lexington ABC affiliate WTVQ, which airs MyNetworkTV as a digital subchannel, 36.2.

"I think this is an outstanding business model they have now," general manager Chris Aldridge said. "It gives us more established brands to sell, and we still get the enormous benefit of having SmackDown on Friday night."

Aldridge and WTVQ made headlines last year when they struck the deal with MyNetworkTV, previously affiliated with Lexington's low-power TV station WBLU (Channel 62).

WBLU wasn't, and still isn't, visible in many homes around the area and is operated out of state. Wrestling fans became vocal when they couldn't view SmackDown, going so far as to take out a classified ad in the Herald-Leader urging other angry fans to call WBLU's owner. WTVQ soon struck a deal to replace WBLU. Since adding the programming, WTVQ also has added a half-hour newscast at 10 p.m. on the channel.

But MyNetworkTV's switch to less original programming does raise a question. At a time when cable networks are rushing to launch as much original programming as possible, why would a network cut back, countering the prevailing wisdom?

"We're only in our fourth year of existence at all," Franklin of MyNetworkTV said. "They have a lot more resources than, say, MyNetworkTV does."