Wwf Tones Down Its 'Smackdown' Act

Four wrestlers, clad in black T shirts bearing the legend suck it, are explaining to a packed arena how they spent a recent Monday night. They direct everyone's attention to a video screen, then roll footage of what appears to be two of them sexually assaulting a young woman. Back in the ring, they pull out a red dress. The crowd goes wild. "Is that thing all gooey?" asks one wrestler. "We might need to check it for some DNA," another says.

Kodak moments like this have turned "WWF SmackDown!" UPN's Thursday-night wrestling bonanza, into "Must See TV." The show pulls in 6.5 million viewers, and even just vaulted one of its stars, Mankind, onto the top of The New York Times best-seller list. But advertiser defections and a nettlesome campaign by a clean-TV crusader, the Parents Television Council, left "SmackDown" crying uncle last week. Conceding that the show's content is often too "colorful," executives vowed to tone down the sex and foul language. "There won't be any trade-off in entertainment value," says WWF spokesman Jim Byrne. "These are changes we're happy to make."

This bout of conscience took longer than a three-count to emerge. Coca-Cola, Domino's Pizza and AT&T all yanked ads from "SmackDown" more than a month ago. And in an Oct. 22 letter to the PTC obtained by NEWSWEEK, WWF chairman Vince McMahon sounded less than contrite: "Thanks for getting on our a--," it begins. "Now I'm going to get on yours." Later, McMahon accuses the PTC of being anti-American and, in a word, lame. "Lighten up!" he writes. "Where's your sense of humor?" The WWF takes losing clients more seriously. It'll part with a torn blouse or two if that'll get AT&T back. "It's just smart business," says Byrne. None of the big accounts has ruled out a return to "SmackDown," but, says one corporate spokesman, "we're in a 'show me' stage right now." That's if they can bear to watch.