SLAM! WRESTLING: And Nothing but the Truth

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.

Friday, March 5, 1998

Ratings can be misleading

Eric Benner
Special to SLAM! Sports

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One of the advantages of writing a column to an audience as interested in and as well-read on the subject as you folks is that I can assume a higher base of knowledge. This comes into play when I want to decide whether to write a column about, say, the importance of Nielsen ratings to professional wrestling. I could be wrong, but I could reasonably assume that most of you know (a) what Nielsen ratings are, (b) where wrestling's Nielsen's are at, and (c) your own thoughts on the subject.

For those of you unfamiliar with the topic, here's some background:

* The Nielsen ratings are a survey-like poll which determine how many people are tuned into the various shows on television.

* The WWF and WCW use the Nielsen ratings, like any other television show would, to some extent, to see how popular their product is at a given moment. As a direct consequence of that, it's a good gauge of which organization is more popular, or which one is gaining or losing ground.

* Cable ratings are different than broadcast ratings, and are worth slightly less.

* In addition to that, neither the two cable networks which broadcast Monday night wrestling reach the full American viewing audience, and I believe that USA (Raw) reaches slightly more people than TNT (Nitro).

* Starting in 1997 and ending sometime last year, WCW bested the WWF over eighty consecutive times in the ratings.

* The WWF is on the verge of a similar streak, which has reached over twenty weeks so far, I believe.

There are lots of places where one can catch the ratings every week, and as someone who tries to keep up with the business end of wrestling, I think it's a good idea to do so.

That being said, it's hard to tell just how much impact the Nielsen ratings really have on, well, anything. Last week, for instance, Monday Night Raw set two new records for the ratings: the composite ratings for the whole show (6.4) and the highest-rated television wrestling match ever, Kane v. Austin (7.6). That translates to millions and millions of homes being tuned into the show. Nitro scored a respectable 4.3 on the same night, but did get royally clobbered.

But how much does that really matter? It's not like wrestlers are going to switch organizations because of the ratings, and it's not like WCW is in danger of folding. In fact, it should be pointed out that WCW is not achieving low ratings - it's the WWF which is setting new trends. Last year at the same time, WCW was still earning 4.3 ratings, but the WWF was earning ratings well below 4. So no one's worrying too much yet, but Eric Bischoff's arrogance from last year at this time are starting to haunt him.

Then again, ratings do affect one thing a great deal, and that's sponsorship. It's pretty obvious to me that the higher your ratings, the more lucrative your advertising time, the more money you make. That's why a slot at the Superbowl cost the WWF one-point-six million, and a slot during WCW Saturday Night -- well, I could probably afford a few.

Even this, though, is misleading. Both wrestling organizations make most of their money from pay-per-views, merchandising, and live attendance gates. It's not like other television shows are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, either, so this is no exception. So neither one is particularly concerned with their advertising dollar, in and of itself. This is why the Nielsens are so much more important as an indicator, though. It's no coincidence that the WWF has been beating WCW all around the ring in the pay-per-view department, either, over the past twenty weeks. And on the heels of their record-setting Raw, it looks like Wrestlemania XV, live from Philadelphia, may also set the pace. If I'm WCW, I'm probably not going to be too worried. I mean, it's a competition, sure, and the WWF is besting them right now, but they're not doing any worse than before, it's the WWF which is doing better. Now if Eric Bischoff wants to make it personal, then fine, maybe he'll lose some sleep, but other than that, this is mostly hype, and there really aren't any problems in Turner land, at least not as far as the ratings are concerned.

Well, it's time for the reader mailbag, and with that, I have some comments. First off, thanks again for all the mail. It's probably the thing that keeps me writing the most - the knowledge that people are reading, and that at least some of them care enough to click on my name and write something. On that note, most of you wrote to me last week suggesting that I stick to what's of global interest - the everlong saga of the Big Two - and I'll do my best to continue doing that.

James Innes, all the way out from, New Zealand, writes:
*There's a lot of grey area in the field of copyright. I have studied the media industry and broadcast copyright at a tertiary level, and I can tell you one thing, it's a grey area, and when it's grey, it's hard to enforce the rules.
Example1: ECW Sandman's music. "Enter Sandman" by Metallica. Unless I misheard the song on my ECW video tape, this is the exact song hence a blatent ripoff. ECW should be sued by Metallica for every penny they own.
Example2: WCW DDP's music, this is a cheap imitation. Not the original, you'll notice certain notes are different. This is soemthing they can much more easily get away with. There are only so many notes to go around, and musicians are often copying eachother's samples, beats etc etc. WCW won't get sued for this.
I don't know for sure why ECW weren't sued right into the ground. They should have been. Did they strike a deal with the bands they took music from? I'm sure they did to release a cd, but I really don't think Metallica released as many songs for ECW use as I hear ECW have actually used. It's not all ripped off though, I once remember reading something Bret Hart wrote, I think he said he and Jimmy Hart actually wrote his WWF theme music, and when he shifted to WCW he mentioned he was "working on his new music", which has actually been changed 2 or 3 times.*

Thanks for all the insight, James. I learned a few things from all the readers who sent in their comments on this, one thing among them that music, of course, is probably difficult to patent, given that someone can alter it and make it invalid. I agree, that's probably what WCW is doing.

And I know that WWF either has an in-house composer or a hired gun who's done the music of Austin, the Rock, the Undertaker (his rock version), Mankind, Kane, Degeneration-X, the Outlaws, and so on, so they're probably not guilty of anything.

Steve James, from, writes:
*I've got a quick question for you. What happened to Steve Austin's "wrestling" skills? Don't get me wrong, I am a Stone Cold fan, but it seems to me that he has no more skills than the much criticized Goldberg. When Austin was with the WCW, he was a very good "mat technician". Now all he does is punch and Stun. Why does this never get criticized? I've seen Goldberg use more moves in one match then Stone Cold has used in the last 2 years. I know it's all part of his character, but I would love to see Austin do some "wrestling" once in a while.*

I dig the address name, Steve.

There's actually a very straight-forward answer to your question, Steve. Stone Cold Steve Austin indeed used to be a good mat technician, in fact, a very good one, but lately he does seem to do more brawling. Well, trace that back to Owen 3:16 - I just broke your neck. Everyone in the biz who I've ever spoken to says that Austin has never been the same since his neck injury. In fact, remember when Goldberg called out Austin on the Tonight Show? Well, the buzz in the industry is that Goldberg could probably back that up - but only because of the neck injury. Before that, reports circulate, one wrestler who's wrestled both men claims "it would have been interesting."

That's all for this week, thanks for reading, thanks for writing, see you in seven. Oh, one last thing --- what day would you all like to see my column printed on? If more people would get the chance to read it on a day other than Friday, let me know!

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