Television Time Machine: The History of Professional Wrestling on TV, Part 2
Welcome to the second half of the Television Time Machine retrospective on the History of Pro Wrestling on TV!
Our travels first took us to 1946 with the first-ever televised wrestling broadcast, then to the "Golden Era" of the 1950s when wrestling was featured on the primetime schedules of all of the major broadcast networks. After being exiled to independent stations and late-night for most of the '60s and '70s, sports entertainment was back in a big way in the mid '80s with the birth of the Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection, a pop culture phenomenon forged between Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation and the upstart MTV music network.
When we left off, MTV had just scored massive ratings for its live broadcast of The War To Settle The Score on February 18, 1985, headlined by a titanic collision for the WWF Heavyweight Championship between Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. The end of the match saw the involvement of breakout pop star Cyndi Lauper and popular actor Mr. T, the burly star of the highly-rated NBC action-adventure series The A-Team who had previously appeared with Hogan in 1982's Rocky III. In addition to Mr. T and Cyndi, the event was attended by celebrities of the small screen such as Bob Costas of NBC Sports, Danny DeVito of Taxi fame, and Joe Piscopo of soul-crushing irrelevance. Legendary artist Andy Warhol also wandered through and he could barely contain his excitement over what he had just witnessed.
THE "ME" DECADE EMBRACES WRESTLEMANIA
By this time, pro wrestling was back in the thick of mainstream pop culture and an entire generation was enthralled by Hulkamania. Banding together as a tag team of epic proportions, the Hulkster and Mr. T hosted Saturday Night Live on March 30, 1985, to promote the following evening's closed-circuit WrestleMania extravaganza and appeared in a classic "Fernando's Hideaway" sketch with Billy Crystal that is fondly remembered for the sight of the two musclebound behemoths cracking up.
After seeing the huge numbers that the two WWF specials had drawn on MTV, SNL executive producer Dick Ebersol partnered with WWF head Vince McMahon to produce a 90-minute special for NBC called Saturday Night's Main Event, marking the first wrestling show on a broadcast network since the late 1950s. The first edition aired on May 11, 1985, in SNL's timeslot and did such tremendous ratings that Saturday Night's Main Event became a semi-regular series of specials, usually broadcast on holiday weekends and other times when SNL was in reruns.
When the episode that aired March 14, 1987, set the record for the 11:30 PM timeslot with a whopping 11.6 rating, NBC granted the WWF a primetime Friday night special in an attempt to replicate its overwhelming success in a more lucrative timeslot. Unlike the prerecorded Saturday late-night shows, The Main Event was broadcast live from Indianapolis, Indiana, when it premiered on February 5, 1988, and the heavily hyped clash pitting Hulk Hogan against Andre the Giant did not disappoint, delivering a huge 15.2 rating with a total audience of 33 million viewers that remains the largest audience ever to view a pro wrestling broadcast on TV.
Since the '80s were a time when any and every pop-culture fad received the animated treatment, CBS wanted a slice of that sweet wrasslin' pie and worked with the WWF to create a Saturday morning children's cartoon entitled Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection. Although each episode featured live-action cut-ins starring the actual wrestlers, their animated counterparts were played by voice actors, including Everybody Loves Raymond's Brad Garrett as the titular Hulkster. Memorable to any child of the '80s, the Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection produced 26 episodes between September 1985 and December 1986 and continued to run wild in reruns until July 1987.
Meanwhile, over on TBS in 1988, Ted Turner purchased the wrestling company that became known as World Championship Wrestling — named after the highly-rated weekly Saturday night program that had been running on the Superstation at 6:05 PM for years — and set in motion a series of events that would lead to pro wrestling's next monumental impact on the television industry during the mid-to-late 1990s.
Television's infatuation with the over-the-top characters and theatrical athletics of pro wrestling once again waned in the late '80s and early '90s due to overexposure, just as it had 30 years earlier. The stars of the '80s had faded in the public's perception and ratings were down. The final installments of Saturday Night's Main Event and the Friday primetime Main Event both aired on NBC in the first half of 1991, although FOX acquired the rights afterward and broadcast two dismally-rated late-night episodes in 1992.
THE ERA OF THE ANTI-HERO
We board our TV Time Machine and cruise on a few years ahead, as the WWF's flagship primetime program Monday Night Raw premieres on the USA Network on January 11, 1993, and brings pro wrestling back to its TV roots by presenting a live weekly broadcast from the intimate confines of the Manhattan Center's Grand Ballroom in New York City. Gone were the Hogans, Pipers, and Andres of the WWF's heyday, replaced by a new generation of stars without the mainstream name value. TV personalities such as William Shatner and Tiny Tim got physically involved in the early days of Raw, which USA often used to promote new shows and movies airing on the network.
Although the format of the show switched to being taped in different cities, Raw was the only game in town until WCW's Monday Nitro debuted live on TNT on September 4, 1995, and went head-to-head with the established WWF machine.
Using a combination of more sophisticated storylines and a roster of recognizable superstars from the '80s boom period such as Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Nitro claimed the top spot in the battle for ratings supremacy dubbed the Monday Night Wars, an ongoing game of oneupmanship that resulted in both shows expanding to two hours and pushing the envelope in terms of mature content.
Wrasslin' wasn't for the kiddies anymore; the Hulkamaniacs of the mid '80s had grown up and demanded a product suited to their high school and college-aged sensibilities. Rather than the cartoonish caricatures of their childhood, viewers wanted three-dimensional characters who were flawed yet relatable.
The television landscape in general was shifting toward "shades of grey" and away from a black-and-white depiction of good and evil. Sometimes the good guy had to bend or outright break the rules to survive, and sometimes the bad guy had a perfectly reasonable motivation. Controversial and explicit fare was all the rage, from MTV's Beavis and Butt-head to South Park to Howard Stern, and relatively unlikable but entertaining characters like those on Seinfeld and Oz dominated the airwaves.
The WWF reacted accordingly, rebranding its Monday night broadcast Raw Is War and embarking on an "Attitude" campaign that took the TV ratings by storm and finally toppled Nitro from its perch in the spring of 1998. The true turning point was the night that boxing star Mike Tyson visited Raw Is War to promote his involvement in the pay-per-view extravaganza WrestleMania XIV and was confronted by anti-hero Stone Cold Steve Austin. Straddling the line between reality and entertainment, footage of their faceoff was replayed on SportsCenter and Entertainment Tonight alike as it became the defining moment for a generation. Pro wrestling was "cool" again, welcomed and accepted as part of the edgy and alternative pop culture of the era. T-shirts emblazoned with the likenesses of Austin 3:16, The Rock, and the nWo were fashionable across the nation, and WWF stars once again appeared on MTV and Saturday Night Live.
For its part, WCW enjoyed cross-promotional efforts with legitimate sports figures such as the NFL's Reggie White and the NBA's Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman. The Turner company's other celebrity involvement is one that most people would rather forget. Now portraying a self-absorbed and egomaniacal villain, Hulk Hogan made a special appearance on NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to trigger a storyline that culminated in the lantern-chinned talk show host participating in a 1998 pay-per-view tag team match. Yes, that really happened, and here's the proof.
Both wrestling shows were used by their respective networks to exploit the increased viewership and promote new original series on USA and TNT. At its peak, the very real competition between Raw and Nitro regularly attracted a total audience of 10 million viewers, huge numbers for primetime cable. In an unprecented development, Nitro expanded to three hours, airing every Monday from 8–11 PM. Due to the success of the Monday night shows, TBS requested a second two-hour WCW broadcast for Thursdays entitled Thunder in early 1998, while the WWF countered the following year with its own weekly two-hour Thursday program on UPN called SmackDown. After absorbing a regular thrashing in the Thursday night ratings, Thunder was shifted to a Wednesday timeslot several months later.
THE END OF THE LINE
Yet again, overexposure reared its ugly overexposed head and damaged the WCW brand, which had been suffering creatively and routinely lost to the WWF in the ratings. Following the AOL/Time Warner merger, Ted Turner lost control of the networks that bore his name and the new regime wanted nothing to do with pro wrestling, putting WCW on the auction block and banishing all of its programming from TNT and TBS. Left without a television outlet, the WCW brand was nearly worthless to any potential investors and the holdings were sold to the WWF, which planned to incorporate the countless hours of television footage into its own video vault. The final edition of Monday Nitro was broadcast live from Panama City, Florida, on March 26, 2001, and concluded with the first-ever simulcast between TNT and TNN, the home of Raw since the show's move from USA in 2000.
Once more, it was the end of an era in TV history and Raw viewership dropped off in the following years, although the numbers still rank in cable's Top 20 on a weekly basis. Now known as WWE, the company broadcasts several weekly programs on different channels and hopes to launch its own television network at some point, apparently not learning from the mistakes of the past.
In a sense, professional wrestling was the original reality show. It was presented as "real" and watched by millions of viewers who willingly believed that what they were seeing was unscripted, populated by outrageous characters who easily inspired emotions of love or hate, and filled a void on television for a relatively inexpensive price. The genre has earned its place in the pantheon of television's storied history and produced unforgettable pop culture icons in three separate eras. It has rubbed shoulders with the giants of the TV industry and left an indelible mark in its wake.
To paraphrase French semiotician Roland Barthes from his 1957 essay The World of Wrestling: wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to watch a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of The Sopranos or The Walking Dead.