Twenty years ago, professional wrestling in the United States consisted only of regional, state and local enterprises. Then Vince McMahon, a third-generation promoter, began to build the first national circuit, the World Wrestling Federation.
As an entrepreneur, McMahon has been hugely successful. Wrestling is more popular than ever, and the WWF is a mini-empire whose business partners include such behemoths as General Electric (through NBC) and Viacom, which owns CBS, Paramount Pictures, MTV and other large media companies.
In March, the WWF bought what had been its only significant competitor, the once-strong but more recently floundering World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Truly, McMahon bestrides the world of wrestling like a colossus.
For all that, it's probable that the greatest changes in wrestling since the early '80s have taken place not in the realm of finance but rather in the "sport" itself, which used to be a generally wholesome, if occasionally bizarre, spectacle that appealed to a great many children and adults alike.
These days, however, sexual material, extreme violence and foul language are its staples.
Worse still, this adult-oriented form of "wrestling" still is marketed -- aggressively -- to the young, and it is easily accessible to them on both broadcast and cable television. Nielsen figures indicate that on April 2 more than two million children and teens watched the WWF's flagship cable program, TNN's "Raw Is War/War Zone," and three nights later more than 2.4 million watched the broadcast show "WWF Smackdown!" on UPN.
"Smackdown!" airs at 8 p.m., McMahon's idea of family time, I suppose.
What children have been watching on wrestling shows in the past year and a half is detailed in a new study, "The Seamy Squared Circle," from the Parents Television Council, which I head. The PTC analyzed the previously mentioned WWF shows as well as WCW's "Monday Nitro," formerly of cable channel TNT.
The increasing public disgust with the WWF's programming, coupled with growing advertiser defections, led McMahon to promise, in late 1999, to tone down the garbage. Indeed, the PTC study found that wrestling has become somewhat less objectionable since then. In those days, references to such topics as masturbation, prostitution, pornography and sexual addiction were relatively common on "Smackdown!" and "Raw." These days, sexual material on both WWF programs consists largely of suggestive innuendo and vulgar anatomical references. It's not good news when you consider the millions of children influenced, but it is better news.
The especially sadistic forms of violence (e.g., outright torture) have almost completely vanished from "Smackdown!" and "Raw," but what we're left with is still dreadful. Most notably, wrestlers on both shows are routinely slammed onto tabletops and bash one another, usually over the head or in the face, with all manner of weapons, including metal garbage cans and lids, wooden swords, and, most commonly, metal folding chairs.
Anyone not troubled that youngsters are exposed to this brutality ought to look hard at a just-released survey carried out by a researcher at Wake Forest University's medical school. Dr. Robert DuRant found that if a teen watched wrestling within two weeks of going out on a date, it significantly boosted the chance that he or she would have a physical altercation with the other person. The likelihood actually increased more for girls (18 percent) than for boys (11 percent).
Moreover, according to the Associated Press's report on the survey, "the incidence of violence more than doubled if the teenagers watched wrestling twice within the (two-week) period." Given that to follow the WWF's plotlines it's necessary to watch both "Smackdown!" and "Raw," it's certain that plenty of teens watch wrestling twice in
Still, the pro-wrestling community continues to shrug its lack of interest. Vince Russo is a top wrestling scriptwriter who, in late 1999, told Entertainment Weekly, "Right now, the masses don't want family entertainment."
At the time, Russo had just jumped from the raunch-crazed WWF to the relatively clean WCW, which had fallen far behind in the Nielsens and felt it needed to vulgarize if it hoped to close the gap. Russo indeed sleazed up WCW, though it remained a distant second until the WWF acquired it.
In a recent web chat, Russo was asked about the "rude" and "immature" approach he used when scripting the WWF. He answered, "Ratings talk. Make no bones about it ... sports entertainment is a business ... ratings equal money. Vince (McMahon) wanted ratings -- the USA Network (which carried 'Raw' until last fall) wanted ratings -- the advertisers wanted ratings -- and the licensees wanted ratings. It is business ... and whether you agree or disagree ... my job was to get the numbers."
It's high time the wrestling business started looking at some other numbers, like the ones in the Wake Forest survey.