SLAM! WRESTLING: And Nothing but the Truth

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

Friday, May 7, 1998

Smackdown! was a breakthrough

Eric Benner
Special to SLAM! Sports

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Did you catch WWF Smackdown!, last Thursday on UPN, or, in other cases, at some time on some day on TSN? I thought it was a pretty good show. I was glad I watched it, and I was glad its on. Not just because of continuity's sake - and the WWF really saved themselves on a continuity level, it was nearly too late to save that angle - but for what it means to wrestling.

Maybe those readers who watched it on TSN don't entirely see the significance of it, but the special marks something very, very important in wrestling - a return to network broadcast television.

And maybe those of you who watched it on TSN don't think this is that big of a deal, but trust me, it is.

Please allow me to elaborate. You see, you and I are probably stuck in our own sheepish little lives. We watch wrestling on TSN, or in some areas, on USA and TNT. And in some areas, for those fans who really, really, really need their wrestling, so much so that they're willing to watch - ugh - WCW Saturday Night, there's also TBS. We all watch our shows and then tune onto the internet that same week, check out the ratings, check out our favourite news-people and views-people, and retire to real life, safe in the comfort that wrestling popularity is at an all-time high. It isn't.

Wrestling is still working back, recovering from a slump in the early nineties. Before that, I'd have to say that technically speaking, it was more popular.

Before you bite my head clean off, let me say that I'm not insane. I can tell that wrestling is 'bigger' in terms of fan support and merchandising and popular culture than it has ever been, and it's growing. This much is obvious to me. But you see those stations on which wrestling are watched, up there? Yeah, they're all cable stations. Any television show on a cable station, whether its South Park, WWF Raw, or (hypothetically speaking) ER, would attract fewer ratings as a result. Simply put, more people receive the broadcast networks, which generally reach 95%-100% of the American populace. USA and TNT both reach about 75% of television viewers, I think.

But it's more than that. People tune into the broadcast networks, surf to them, accidentally, arbitrarily, and haphazardly more often than they do cable stations. This attracts the 'casual viewer'. The casual viewer represents significantly larger ratings and revenues.

Still don't follow, or disagree? Well, have you seen the ratings that Smackdown! accrued? If you haven't, I'll fill you in, it earned a 4.0. The low rating is because a lot of UPN stations decided to show sports instead, as it usually does. So the clearance wasn't as high as it usually would be. That 4.0, to those people who are familiar with the cable ratings, may not seem that significant, since Raw earned a 6.9 or something this week. But you know what? Smackdown!'s rating (4) is higher than Raw's rating (6.9). That's because one broadcast network point represents more viewers than does one cable network point. That rating would have been even higher if all UPN stations had shown the wrestling show, which they most certainly will from now on.

That's right, starting in September, it is very likely that Thursday Thunder will have some competition, broadcast network competition which will likely blow it clear out of the water. UPN liked the ratings so much that it decided to act on an option to produce more. For the record, UPN is the lowest-rated of the networks, but Smackdown! dramatically increased that rating while it was on and even brought up the entire night's rating to second-to-last. For UPN, this is an uncommon event. For the record, the five broadcast networks who are defeating UPN weekly are NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and the one I can never remember, Warner Brothers (The WB).

Anyway, the point is that with a show on a broadcast station, wrestling is heading back to its position in the late eighties, when it had a weekly show on NBC. A Saturday-night show on NBC might not happen for some time, simply because of the content in today's wrestling, but this does represent a break-through. This time, though, we're going back to the broadcast networks with a lot more fans in tow. If it retains its spot on UPN on a weekly basis, you can expect that 4.0 to jump up to 6.0 in the first few weeks, as all the remaining stations pick up the show, and then even higher than that. Some industry analysts predict that it could break 10.0 rather quickly - and that's ten broadcast points.

If you think quickly about what this will do for ad revenue, merchandising, and pay-per-view hype, you'll probably realize what I did. This is the way of the future for wrestling, and the future is here.

I just hope that other organization, you know, the one with only cable shows -- what's it called, oh yeah, WCW! I hope WCW catches on soon. If they don't, then Fox may also want to air WWF programming, which would be great, since Fox isn't the worst-rated of all the broadcast networks. It is owned, I should note, by Rupert Murdoch, whose nemesis, Ted Turner, owns WCW.

Here's the mail:

Neil Mohammed, from, writes:
*I've always wondered about the collapse of the WWF in the early 90's. Like most wrestling fans today I was a huge fan in the 80's when Hulkamania was at it's prime. As the big stars began to leave in the early 90's, I always questioned their loyalty to McMahon and the Federation. Why exactly did all the big stars (Hogan, Savage, Warrior, Nash, Hall, Luger, Flair, et al) end up leaving? The rumour I hear is that Bishoff basically said I can make you as big a star in the WCW except I will double your salary. Is this true? If not, what was the real reason these stars left the federation. (I still can't believe how WCW used to stick it to WWF even though they were the people who basically stole all their talent from the federation).* Hmmm. To my knowledge, and I could be and often am wrong, McMahon had a falling out with some of his bigger talent during that period. The case is different for everyone, but I think that Hogan was basically getting to big for his britches, and Hall and Nash were beginning to exercise a little too much influence as the clique. This problem has yet to be identified in WCW, which just named Nash its head booker instead of dealing with it. What I think the situation was was that it basically seemed they had no place to go. WCW was a distant, distant second in terms of wrestling organizations. Being fired from the WWF was less like being let go by the Boston Bruins and more like being fired by the NHL. Bischoff, who was cleaning up the mess in WCW and trying to make it a big-time promotion, offered them the bucks, but I don't think they were all peachy and fine with McMahon then abandoned him for more cash.

Have a great week. I'll be a the IW2K show in Montreal tonight. Say hi if you see me. Thanks for reading, thanks for writing, Neil, and I'll see you in seven.

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