Wrestling still big on TV, but not what it used to be

Richard G. Carter | 10/12/2012, 4:17 p.m.
"Everybody needs somebody else who can make them feel ashamed of themselves..."--Jack Oakie, "The Rat...
Colony Records was my place for original Black R&B

"Everybody needs somebody else who can make them feel ashamed of themselves..."--Jack Oakie, "The Rat Race" (1960)

A couple of weeks ago, Vince McMahon--the bigger-than-life honcho of World Wrestling Entertainment--was body-slammed in his ambitious attempt to launch a cable television channel dedicated to today's grunt-and-groan grapplers. And as a child of wrestling's TV hey-day, I have mixed feelings about his failure

These days, McMahon's popular WWE shows are on national cable TV twice a week: "Monday Night Raw" on USA and "Friday Night Smackdown" on SYFY. Both are taped before raucous audiences, garner high ratings and pave the way for heavily hyped, pay-per-view "Wrestlemania" extravaganzas and other live shows from coast to coast.

Indeed, there was a time when pro wrestling was to TV ratings what Hank Aaron was to baseball--the undisputed, undefeated home run king. Millions watched for free and many still do. This is why McMahon is trying to emulate NBA-TV and NFL-TV.

And pro wrestling is racially diverse. Black stars have included Bobo Brazil, Bearcat Wright, Ernie Ladd, Albert "King Kong" Patterson, Junkyard Dog, Booker T, Mark Henry, Ron "Farooq" Simmons, Koko B. Ware, Kamala and Rocky Johnson--the father of movie star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who recently returned. Furthermore, Theodore "Teddy" Long is the current general manager of "Smackdown."

Sure, there were naysayers who swore they'd never tune in to what was clearly choreographed mayhem, complete with fake blood. But millions watch, which is why a cockamamie "sport"--er, sports entertainment--is still, perhaps, TV's hottest attraction since "Batman" and "Peyton Place" dominated the tube three times a week in the 1960s.

So whether you call it "sports entertainment" or "good vs. evil," to millions, pro wrestling on TV is better than a soap opera--which, of course, it really is. But much better.

At its peak in the late 1990s, wrestling attracted 35 million viewers to its 20 hours of weekly cable time. In those days, WWE was known as the WWF--World Wrestling Federation--and the shows were "WWF Sunday Night Heat" on MTV; "Smackdown" on Thursday night on UPN; and TNN's "WWF Monday Night Raw" and "WWF War Zone"; Saturday morning's "WWF Live Wire"; and "WWF Superstars" on Sunday morning.

But that was then and this is now. At this writing, McMahon has yet to reach an agreement with a cable or satellite TV provider to carry his channel. He hoped to launch the WWE network, on April 1 in 40 million homes to coincide with "Wrestlemania" on PPV.

WWE has a long-term deal with NBCUniversal's USA Network to air "Monday Night Raw"--one of cable's most-watched, albeit raunchiest, programs. It routinely attracts 4 to 5 million viewers, mainly 18- to 34-year-old males. Of late, however, WWE has been trying to become more family-friendly to increase its appeal to advertisers.

When I discovered it as a kid in the 1950s, the grunt and groan game was televised in living black-and-white, matches were two-out-of-three falls and lengthy. Male grapplers were athletic, but few had spectacular moves like today's heavily muscled grapplers.