TV Guide – December 5-11, 1998
By Bruce Newman
Pro Wrestling’s Outrageous Superstars Are Pinning Down The Sport’s Biggest Audiences And Ratings Ever! Here’s Why.
Before you see him on-screen, you hear him coming with the thunderously amplified sound of glass shattering into a thousand jagged pieces. It’s as if Stone Cold Steve Austin had just kicked in the front of your television set. And in a way he has. Striding into the ring for Raw Is War (USA Network, Mondays, 9 P.M./ET), the feared dreadnought of the World Wrestling Federation glowers at the red light on the top of the television camera. But rather than rushing to drop his opponent into that orthopedic hell known as the Stone Cold Stunner, he responds to the crowd’s plea to once again preach the gospel according to him, Austin 3:16. “I just whupped your ass!” he bellows and triumphantly raises his huge biceps into the air. Like Hollywood Hulk Hogan, who at this moment is doing virtually the same routine on TNT’s WCW Monday Nitro (Mondays, 8 P.M./ET), Austin’s greatest strength as a wrestler is his mouth. “I don’t read from a script out there,” Austin says. “Everything from me is ad-lib. You turn a camera on, put that little red light on me, I’m gonna go.” So turn a little red light on TV’s hottest form of entertainment, because as Austin himself might say: Hell, yeah! Professional wrestling is ready for its close-up.
5 Reasons To Love Wrestling
1. Unlike Starr vs. Clinton wrestling, the bouts don’t last forever, and bad guys are easily identifiable.
2. It allows us to dream of one day seeing the Spice Girls vs. Degeneration X.
3. No animals are injured in the course of simulating violence.
4. At last, a place where Dennis Rodman doesn’t feel like an outsider.
5. In the post-Cold War era, it’s nice to think this is the closest thing we have to life-and-death struggles between good and evil.
Even against the strong seasonal pull of Monday Night Football and the contraction of Ally McBeal’s miniskirts, younger viewers have been abandoning the broadcast networks for World Championship Wrestling’s Nitro and the WWF’s Raw Is War, providing TNT and the USA Network a combined Monday night audience of almost 10 million viewers, a 36 percent increase since last year. The WCW, which exists essentially as a division of Ted Turner’s cable-television empire, and the WWF – once a mom-and-pop-you-in-the-mouth operation that has grown into a $500 million-a-year company headed by chairman Vince McMahon – produce a dozen hours of new programming each week, of which as many as seven hours routinely wind up among cable’s top 10 in the ratings. Weekly viewing for all wrestling combined is a whopping 35 million viewers. The two Monday wrestling shows are usually watched by more young men, more teens of both sexes and more children than any show on the broadcast networks. Among its target audience, wrestling is bigger than The Simpsons, The X-Files or Friends.
Wrestling last bobbed up in the pop-culture mainstream a dozen years ago, creating way-larger-than-life cartoons, such as the Iron Sheik and Sgt. Slaughter, whose chief preoccupations seemed to be race and patriotism. This time, no longer even pretending to be a real sport, wrestling has gone postal, creating dark narratives of rebellion in the work-place, gang revenge, epic family soap operas of an almost Dostoevskian complexity. “Now we’re going with the real issues,” says WCW star Hogan. “We’re going with the fact that ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage is divorced in real life and [so I might say] ‘Hey, Macho, I got your ex old lady. What are you gonna do about it?’ We’re digging a little deeper, personalizing it, trying to create emotion.”
The WWF has been wrestling with its own tough-love triangle of the androgynous Goldust, his estranged but pregnant wife, Terri, and Val Venis, who announced a few Mondays ago that he could not have fathered anything because of an old vasectomy, wrestling’s version of the disabled list. “We’re not in business to try and dictate to the audience what stories they should want,” says McMahon, who not only runs the WWF but also plays its most hated villain. “They’re going to tell us, and we’re going to listen to them.” McMahon was listening carefully when he began his attempt to supposedly push Austin aside and create a more button-down “corporate champion” last April. It set off a feud with Austin that has often left McMahon flat on the canvas, twitching deliriously following a Stone Cold Stunner.
McMahon might have gotten the idea of employer-employee conflict from the WCW, which in 1996 transformed long-time blond “babyface” (that’s wrestling lingo for good guy) Hogan into a “heel” or bad guy. He became the ringleader of the New World Order, a violent splinter group working within the WCW to foment rebellion against its billionaire boss, Ted Turner. “I wanted them to be rebels with a cause,” says WCW president Eric Bischoff, who is forever hatching dark plots or being kicked senseless as a sort of on-air stand-in for Turner. “I wanted them to stand up and say, ‘Hey, Ted Turner, kiss my ass!’”
That idea became such a ratings blockbuster that it allowed the WCW to create a young adversary named Goldberg for the 45-year-old Hogan. By last summer, Goldberg was the rage, becoming heavyweight champion in July. That month alone, the WCW sold more than $400,000 in Goldberg caps and shirts.
Outdoing TNT’s WCW is not a problem at USA Network, where high concept and wretched excess have led to a decisive 19-7-1 edge since April in the unholy war for Monday-night ratings. Recently, the WWF made a highly rated spectacle of itself by having the Undertaker’s younger brother Kane douse three helpless opponents and a referee with gasoline. (Kane wears a mask because he was supposedly disfigured as a child from a fire accidentally set by the Undertaker.) Fortunately, referees managed to stop Kane before he could light his blowtorch. Then there was a female plant in the audience performing a memorably obscene act on an Italian sausage. Not to mention McMahon apparently wetting himself in terror during a match.
“McMahon is doing things that involve a tremendous amount of excessive, gratuitous violence,” says the WCW’s Bischoff. “I know that sounds ironic coming from a guy who produces wrestling. But the blood, the carnival approach to wrestling, the extreme violence, are all kind of shocking. Ted doesn’t want to see blood.”
At the USA Network, executives have a tendency to start nervously burbling euphemisms for vulgar when McMahon’s name comes up. McMahon himself is unapologetic. “Everything [controversial] is there for us to use in terms of the fiction we write every week,” he says. “Quite frankly, the race issue [which dominated wrestling during the Gulf War] is dead. If it were a real hot topic, I’d use it. In a heartbeat. I will unabashedly use whatever is necessary to entertain our fans.” The lone demurral on this policy comes from Austin, the heel with a stone-cold heart of gold. “I can’t say that I agree with every storyline we have,” he says. “Every time you hear some racism or a bunch of the sexual stuff, that’s a complete turnoff for me.”
With continually sold-out arenas now accounting for only a fraction of wrestling’s muscular bottom line, television has become its glorious, incandescent fountainhead. The cable shows serve as diverting infomercials for the monthly pay-per-view extravaganzas to which the storylines inexorably build. Those subscription bonanzas, in turn, drive the sale of the Undertaker home video on the Home Shopping Network and a Goldberg collectible figure on QVC. (Home Shopping Network sets up temporary studios in the arenas so the wrestlers can be part of the real action, which is in licensing fees and other ancillary sales, valued in the tens of millions of dollars. QVC plans to do the same beginning December 30.) Almost everything connected with wrestling is merchandised these days, from hats and shirts to temporary tattoos and beach towels. The WCW has ever sponsored a car in NASCAR’s Busch series for the last three seasons, while the WWF is planning a casino in Las Vegas and a theme restaurant in New York City’s Times Square.Not even the widespread assumption that many wrestlers use steroids to pump up their brawny physiques can harm the bottom line. In fact, the rumors may have added to wrestling’s outlaw mystique. The WCW claims to have a testing program, although Bischoff remains deliberately sketchy on how it is enforced. McMahon, who does not deny he used steroids himself at one point, says the WWF tests only when it detects signs of abuse. What are those signs? “If we found a syringe filled with steroids, we’d say, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” McMahon explains. “But the audience doesn’t give a damn. No one cares.”
As wrestling’s pitchmen discovered in the sharp decline that followed its vogue in the ‘80s, there is a line that can’t be crossed without alienating hard-core loyalists. The WCW has recently edged up to that line in an attempt to attract more mainstream viewers, promoting a procession of celebrities who have climbed into the ring. Last summer, Jay Leno wrestled at a WCW event in South Dakota, not long after several unconvincing appearances by basketball’s Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone.
From television’s first tottering steps in the ‘40s, when there was more airtime than there was programming to fill it, wrestling has been the medium’s alarmingly big-boned stepchild. Almost purely visual in the beginning – like Kabuki but with blondes – wrestling is now driven by storylines so powerful, they could almost work as radio. “It’s total male soap opera now,” says Dave Meltzer, the editor of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “The characters are more realistic because that’s what the public wants, a Jerry Springer-type show. It’s a lot more talking and a lot less wrestling than it used to be.”It’s no accident, then, that its leading libertarian thinker is also wrestling’s biggest star. Standing defiantly on the ring post looking out, Austin brays his gospel to another sold-out arena, while his fans refract it back to him with the red laser targeting lights used on high powered weapons, lighting up the massive promontory of his chest with dancing red dots. Stone Cold is ready for his close-up. Hell, yeah.