Television Time Machine: The History of Professional Wrestling on TV, Part 1
We all have our guilty pleasures, and some of them are television shows we don't admit to just anyone that we watch for fear of being ridiculed or ostracized. TV Rage's Kimberly Ainsworth recently discussed the subject of Shows You Hate To Admit You Love and provided an overview of the most derided genres, such as soap operas, reality shows, and cartoons. Another genre that must be included is professional wrestling.
Yes, pro wrestling: the oft-maligned "fake fighting" that has evolved into today's "sports entertainment" as presented by World Wrestling Entertainment. WWE's weekly primetime broadcasts of Raw on USA Network and SmackDown on SyFy regularly top their respective networks in terms of delivering a consistent audience in the millions, and that TV ratings success extends to Canada, England, and other countries across the globe. This isn't a true competitive sport like the UFC; the audience realizes that the WWE "superstars" aren't actually trying to hurt each other any more than the characters on Sons of Anarchy are really trying to kill each other. Ongoing serialized storylines and relatable or intriguing characters keep viewers tuning in week after week, just like any other TV show, except this show never goes into reruns and produces fresh content 52 weeks a year. It is also relatively inexpensive in comparison to other programming.
Now that we know what it is and what it isn't, let's hop into our TV Time Machine to explore the symbiotic relationship that pro wrestling has enjoyed with our favorite household appliance, the television! Please keep your arms and legs in the vehicle at all times. How do you work this thing...
THE GOLDEN YEARS
Since the advent of television, professional wrestling was a staple of the "boob tube" precisely because it was cheap to produce, simple to understand, and guaranteed to attract an audience. Between 1948 and 1955, pro wrestling shows were featured on all of the major broadcast networks, emanating live from arenas in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
The first televised wrestling event was presented on July 10, 1946, on Channel 4 WBKB from Chicago's Rainbo Arena, although technical difficulties resulted in the show being taken off the air a month later. ABC was the home of the first nationally televised wrestling broadcast on February 2, 1949, a two-hour program live from the Rainbo Arena with popular radio and television announcer Wayne Griffin handling the play-by-play. It was also reported that veteran newsman Mike Wallace called wrestling matches early in his career.
But it was the DuMont Network that went all-in on the latest fad and became the most-watched showcase for the titans of the squared circle. From its inception in April of 1948, the Windy City's WGN Television had wrestling on the local primetime schedule, but on September 17, 1949, the inaugural show at the Marigold Gardens was beamed out nationally across the DuMont Network for the first time. These weekly live shows were hosted by legendary sportscaster Jack Brickhouse, who otherwise served as the voice of Chicago's Cubs, White Sox, and Bears. DuMont also added another long-running weekly two-hour show that originated live from different venues in the New York City area, this one hosted by a game show personality named Dennis James whose expression "Okay, Mother" during the broadcasts became his signature catchphrase and even the title of one of his many daytime game shows.
Prior to television, the "sport" had been presented as a legitimate athletic competition between highly skilled grapplers, although the winners were predetermined and the matches depicted convincing exhibitions of true wrestling prowess. The very nature of TV necessitated a more entertainment-oriented approach and an emphasis on colorful characters to capture the public's interest, bestowing great infamy on dastardly villains like the mincing Gorgeous George and the glamorous "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers. Owing to their status as early television icons, both men served as inspiration for the effete character of Ravishing Ronald in the 1951 wrestling-themed Bugs Bunny cartoon entitled Bunny Hugged. Television viewers also tuned in to see evil foreigners receive their comeuppance, as a variety of unrepentant German Nazis and devious Japanese nationalists were featured as hated heels. Befitting the era of serial adventures and Westerns, the heroes were clean-cut good guys who always played by the rules and eventually emerged victorious after valiantly overcoming momentary adversity.
Although most of the vintage footage from the '40s and '50s is difficult to find, here's a taste of the lauded "golden era" of wrestling on television. Watch it for the casual use of the word "Jap" and the exaggerated war story meant to rally viewers behind the British hero, then stay tuned for the gloriously misogynistic recap of a women's wrestling bout.
By the end of the 1950s, oversaturation resulted in diminished ratings and the networks ditched their wrasslin' shows, shipping them off to the glue factory like a prize racehorse with a busted leg. (I have no idea if they actually do that, but go with me on this one.) Throughout the '60s and into the '70s, pro wrestling fell in popularity and was relegated to independent stations and late-night programming.
THE CABLE RESURRECTION
When future media mogul Ted Turner launched his UHF television station WTCG in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1972, he stocked his new creation with reruns of classic sitcoms and a new pro wrestling program called Georgia Championship Wrestling. Featuring grappling stars who toured the Southeastern United States, the show proved to be quite popular in the station's surrounding markets and helped Turner transform WTCG into Superstation WTBS, the first cable station to uplink to a satellite and go national. Along with old movies and reruns of The Andy Griffith Show, wrasslin' helped keep TBS afloat throughout the '70s, a fact that Turner never forgot and the reason that TBS featured weekly wrestling shows up until 2001 when he lost control following the AOL/Time Warner merger. However, it wasn't until the national expansion of cable television in the '80s that the country found itself engulfed in wrestling fever... a WrestleMania, if you will.
With the proliferation of nation-wide cable networks, cheap and readily available programming was required to fill out the schedule, so once again pro wrestling was in vogue. Previously confined to syndication, Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation overtook the USA Network in the mid-1980s with an assortment of programs featuring a colorful roster of larger-than-life superstars who became mainstream entertainment personalities — recognizable names like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper drew millions of viewers to weekly broadcasts of Prime Time Wrestling and eclectic variety show Tuesday Night Titans.
A partnership between the WWF and the upstart MTV music network produced the immensely successful "Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection," consisting of cross-promotional storylines in which chart-topping pop star Cyndi Lauper crossed paths with Hogan, Piper, Captain Lou Albano, and women's champion The Fabulous Moolah, while several WWF personalities appeared in Lauper's music videos. MTV's broadcast of The Brawl To End It All live from New York's Madison Square Garden on July 23, 1984, saw Cyndi in the corner of female grappler Wendi Richter as she "won" the WWF Women's Title from the aged Moolah, delivering a 9.0 Nielsen rating that marked the most-watched program on the fledgling network.
The logical follow-up on February 18, 1985, The War To Settle The Score was also broadcast live from MSG and featured a main event tussle between Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper that climaxed with the involvement of Lauper and popular TV personality Mr. T, star of NBC's action-adventure series The A-Team. This event popped an even bigger rating for MTV and helped to ensure that sports entertainment was back in the eye of mainstream television.
That's just the first half of our journey. Check back tomorrow for Part 2! I would also like to thank TV Rage's Adam J. Langton for the use of his Television Time Machine. Now if I could just figure out how to fuel this thing up...
Terrible article. Doesn't even mention the GCW wrestling show, which was the first one to air nationally on cable tv. The article also fails to name any of specific programs that aired nationally on abc or the other big networks and doesn't even mention what wrestling promotion was behind them. The only thing he cared to detail was the success of the WWF, which was a late addition to wrestling history.
Level 3 (9%) Points: 1.5 Since: 02/Aug/12
Message Posted On Jan 22nd, 2013, 8:30 am
That would also make half of our staff here idiots as well. Just accept that it isn't for you and try not to judge people based on their television habits.
msd85 (Crazed Contributor)
Level 38 (1%) Points: 17153.7 Since: 07/Jul/10
Message Posted On Jan 22nd, 2013, 8:19 am
I watch WWE rtruell, have since I was a kid. Does that make me an idiot? The college I graduated Summa Cum Laude from didn't seem to think so. The lesson here is not to generalize.
Level 1 (36%) Since: 17/Apr/12
Message Posted On Jan 22nd, 2013, 7:33 am
I don't see how you can put "professional wrestling" and "WWE" in the same sentence, let alone equate them. WWE is nowhere near professional wrestling; it's barely wrestling at all..."scripted choreography" is a much more accurate description of what WWE is. To call WWE "professional wrestling" is to malign and insult actual professional wrestlers.
Also, you said 'the audience realizes that the WWE "superstars" aren't actually trying to hurt each other'. Ummm, sorry, no...the people that watch WWE think that what they see is very much real. Believe me...I've met people that are fans of WWE and they are absolutely certain that what they see is real and you *cannot* convince them otherwise - even the "stunt" that, if real, would result in one guy being dead with a caved-in chest. I even at one point had a date with a woman that, when we got back to her place, was willing to have sex with me...but not until *after* the WWF (as it was known back then) broadcast that was about to start was over. Which explained why she was in a hurry to get back home...I'm a pretty easy-going kinda guy, but some things are too much to put up with :-)
People that watch WWE are idiots...plain and simple.
Level 6 (59%) Points: 1061.9 Since: 11/Oct/12
Message Posted On Jan 21st, 2013, 10:29 pm
My guilty pleasure? I had a thing for The Million Dollar Man.