Professional wrestling is one of those things that a lot of people enjoy but many do not admit to watching. In spite of the perceived lack of interest in wrestling, ratings tell a different story. Today, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Monday Night RAW is a top cable ratings performer for the USA Network. TNA Impact Wrestling is often the highest rated program on the Spike Network. The history of wrestling underscores the role this genre of entertainment has played over the history of television.
Early Television. In the genesis of broadcast television, professional wrestling was an attractive offering. It was cheap to produce, easy to sell, and popular with viewers. While ABC aired the first nationally broadcast live wrestling event in August 1949, the Dumont Network in the early 1950’s used weekly wrestling broadcasts as a flagship for their broadcast schedule. Dumont’s wrestling was a top-20 program, spawning similar shows on the local and national scene. The result was a glut of wrestling programming that resulted in a backlash.
Local Programming and Territory Wrestling. The proliferation of wrestling territories in the 1960s and 1970s lead to local stations airing the syndicated shows on weekend or late night television. Groups like Mid-South Wrestling in Louisiana and Mississippi, World Class Championship Wrestling in Texas, and Mid-Atlantic Wrestling in the Carolinas provided excitement among local fans. The goal of the television show was to drive fan attendance at local live events.
The Growth of Cable, the End of the Territories. Ted Turner’s Superstation WTBS broke ground for widespread cable television in the mid-1970s. Drawing from the success as a UHF station in Atlanta, WTBS featured two significant sources of programming: Atlanta Braves baseball and Georgia Championship Wrestling. GCW evolved into World Championship Wrestling, which was owned by Turner until the merger of AOL and Time Warner in 2001. His success opened opportunities for other companies as well, including WWE on USA Network, the American Wrestling Association on ESPN, and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) with a short run on The Nashville Network. With the national audiences came increased operating costs for travel and more sophisticated event sets that looked good on television, as the live event was now used to bring excitement on the small screen. Over time, the territories merged, went out of business, or were bought out, ultimately leaving WWE and WCW as national organizations.
Pay-Per-View (PPV). WrestleMania I in 1984 opened a new era in professional wrestling with a live event simulcast via closed circuit television around the country. This evolved into PPV events, which had been focused on boxing events primarily. The early days saw PPV events from WWE and WCW, and later Extreme Championship Wrestling and TNA/Impact Wrestling. A regular cycle saw stories develop on the regular television programs, with the culmination on the next PPV event. WWE pay per view events can regularly draw nearly 100,000 buys, with large events like WrestleMania or Summer Slam as much as three times that number.
The WWE Network. In February 2014, the WWE Network premiered as an over-the-top streaming network available online and through television set-top boxes. For $9.95 a month, subscribers would see content, including live events and PPV events, from a multitude of compatible devices. By April of that year the WWE Network had over 460,000 subscribers, and helped bring viewership of WrestleMania XXX to over 1 Million viewers. Typically used by sports leagues like Major League Baseball, this technology for wrestling has potential to change the way fans access the product. It also gives a window into history, with events on the Network going to back into the early 1990s and thousands of hours of content that has not been shown.
Wrestling has been involved in television and entertainment for many decades, and has been on the cutting edge of broadcasting since television was invented. Streaming networks are the next frontier, and wrestling has already established a presence in this early stage of development. It is safe to say that as new entertainment options grow, wrestling will likely have a place there as well.
“Time Machine: The History of Professional Wrestling on TV Part I”. www.tvrage.com, published January 21, 2013