- SEE CORRECTION APPENDED
In its bid to capture what World Wrestling Federation folks call "the future of America's eyeballs"--young males 12 to 34--here's what Vince McMahon is up against this particular Monday night: "Monday Night Football," a baseball playoff game, Ally McBeal's miniskirts and, of course, that other wrestling show, the one on the TNT network of "Billionaire Ted" Turner.
So McMahon has a flunky buy him a Corvette convertible and then he personally drives the thing into Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, cameras rolling, to start off his live telecast on the USA Network. He picks a Corvette to make his entrance because, "if you're going to destroy a car, make it worth destroying."
If viewers don't immediately grasp what will happen to the Corvette, they get a strong hint when the WWF's star, the defiant Stone Cold Steve Austin, makes his entrance in a . . . cement mixer. And by the time the surly, scheming "Mr. McMahon" starts fuming to his wrestler, "I will fire your ass!" even the most limp brain muscle in front of the tube understands the righteousness of Stone Cold turning such a lovely car into a concrete patio.
If it seems like a waste of a Corvette, don't worry. The overnight ratings will show that the stunt did exactly what it was supposed to for McMahon's "Monday Night Raw" show. The 'Vette is hardly done, either--McMahon has the wreckage towed to WWF headquarters in tamford, Conn., so it can someday become decoration for the new WWF hotel-casino in Vegas, or for a WWF-themed restaurant opening next year, or for . . . did we mention that the man wants to take on "60 Minutes"?
Now fast-forward two weeks to another Monday--same time, different place--and stand beside Eric Bischoff, Turner's wrestling chief, as he ponders how to make chicken salad out of a crisis that beset his World Championship Wrestling's pay-per-view the night before. Here you had all these kids and young males (those same "future of America's eyeballs") pooling their cash for the PPV only to have the satellite feed shut down--on some outlets--right before the Match, the one that had been teased and promoted and built up for a month, the bout featuring the WCW's star of stars, the Terminator-like Goldberg.
Tonight, someone will have to apologize on the WCW's live show, "Monday Nitro," and make amends to all those Goldberg fans who didn't get to see him emerge from a wall of pyrotechnics, stick out his tongue, then beat the bejesus out of Diamond Dallas Page. Of course, you'd never, never, never actually replay a PPV main event like that for free, for everyone, the night after others paid $29.95 for it . . . unless, perhaps, such a breach might just ruin the night for a certain rival wrestling show. "You know we wouldn't do something that looks like some manipulative ratings ploy, now would we?" Bischoff asks. Then he takes off his Rolex, dons his leather jacket and prepares to go before a sold-out arena in Phoenix to assume his on-screen persona--of a smirking, scheming wrestling czar.
A ratings ploy? No, we wouldn't expect that at all. Certainly not from a wrestling outfit planning its own restaurant down the street from Mr. McMahon's casino . . . and did we mention the WCW stock car?
A Weighty TV Audience
In its own strange way, wrestling today offers perhaps the most honest competition on television.
A sideshow staple of the medium from its earliest days, when Gorgeous George pranced around in tights, wrestling has survived boom years and busts--and some premature obituaries--to move center stage like never before. The numbers are eye-popping: Six of the top eight cable ratings go to wrestling segments one week, seven of the top 10 the next. Sorry, Larry King--the Rugrats come close, not you.
Between TNT, TBS and USA, there's a dozen hours of new wrestling programming shown nationwide each week, drawing 35 million viewers. But the hot action is Monday night, when nearly 10 million Americans tune in to McMahon's two hours on USA, or Bischoff's three on TNT.
What you have, then, are virtually identical programs going head to head, with big dollars at stake, may the best man win. In that sense, it's not entirely unlike the competition among network morning shows, midday soaps or the evening news. But you don't see Susan Lucci--as her same character--suddenly abscond to a rival soap. And it's probably been a while since Brokaw's producer gleefully offered Rather's the finger during litigation.
What prompted the gesture among wrestling honchos? An argument over intellectual property.
Pro wrestling has found its current niche by shedding the coy is-it-real-or-fake stage to embrace its status as pure over-the-top entertainment that "like all stories, dramas, movies, books and plays . . . is dependent on characters and story lines." That comes from the 2-year-old legal battle in which Connecticut-based Titan Sports--producer of World Wrestling Federation shows--accuses Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting of stealing characters and story lines for its World Championship Wrestling.
Don't for a minute think this competition isn't real. It's been deadly serious since Turner's wrestling team--led by Bischoff--signed up Hulk Hogan and "Macho Man" Savage, vowed that "WCW is about to dominate the globe" and on Sept. 4, 1995, positioned its marquee "Nitro" show directly against Titan's "Raw."
In quiet moments, both sides agree "the wrestling war" has been good for each, helping triple their combined audience and shrink that of "Monday Night Football." But that doesn't stop them, like other TV producers, from battling for any edge, whether by exploiting the competition's commercial breaks or pushing their shows--minute by minute--further past the supposed 11 p.m. cutoff, each seeking the last word with wrestling fans.
"The economics involved is simple--more people watching your television programs equals to larger potential markets for pay-per-views, arena events and merchandise sales," McMahon's lawyers noted in an early brief in the suit in U.S. District Court in Connecticut.
These days, the competition extends far beyond Wrestlemanias and toy Andre the Giants. Who will put an arm-bar on the Latino market? Whose restaurants will score a pin-fall? Whose celebrity alliances and "synergies"--was that really Leno in the squared circle? or Chucky?--will be counted out by fans as too absurd?
One pair of characterizations doesn't seem a stretch to audiences, though--the roles played by the heads of the rival empires, the beefy perfectly coiffed McMahon and the Yuppie pretty-boy Bischoff. Put 'em before the camera, and they both become control-freak wrestling impresarios forever conspiring against their enemies.
They are fighting, in effect, over the Minutaglio brothers, Matt and Mike, 20 and 26, from Staten Island. The brothers will pay to view, buy the merchandise, phone the hotlines and drive people at work nuts by using wrestlers' lingo, calling everyone a "Jaboni" and asking, "You smell what the Rock is cookin'?"
They spend most Monday nights clutching the channel changer. "If there's a bad match or the story lines drag," says Matt, a file clerk, "we flip."
This Monday, Oct. 19, the WWF is in the area, so they're here in person, at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, Matt wearing a Seinfeld-inspired Yankees jersey ("Costanza 00") over a black New Age Outlaws T-shirt: "Oh, you didn't know?" "Well, your ass better call somebody."
Like legions of wrestling fans, they're fascinated by the competition outside the ring. They can tell you every wrestler Turner and Bischoff lured away from the WWF, and how the Atlanta outfit--as Turner vowed--did dominate ratings for more than a year. Their "Monday Nitro" went on the air minutes early to strike the first blow; then it added an hour--8 to 9--before "Raw" got started; and then it began running overtime, forcing McMahon to follow. The Minutaglio brothers predict "Raw" will go tonight to . . . 11:06.
They also know how McMahon made his comeback this year by going more risque, using silicone babes like Sable, Austin's middle finger and language--a lotta language--to titillate a younger male "demo."
"The other show's more for families," Mike says. "They'll say, 'I'll kick your butt!' or 'You stink!'
"In this one, it's 'I'll kick your ass!' or 'You suck!' "
As the turnstiles open, the arriving "Raw" fans put that word to use, waving $10 Styrofoam middle fingers amid chants that mock the competition. " 'Nitro' Sucks!" "Goldberg Sucks!"
The giant wrestling set is a multimedia marvel plunked down on the arena floor. Above the staging area to the side is an enormous screen to show the maneuvers in the ring, music video-like clips and the "action" backstage. When it's time to boogie, the wrestlers--the "heels" and "baby faces"strut out from under the screen, then down a ramp to the ring amid pyro displays, laser shows and blaring theme music.
Tonight, a trio of giants--the Live Oddities--dance down the ramp with a white hip-hop group, the Insane Clown Posse, before getting on with the body slams.
"They're signed for five episodes," Jim Byrne, a Titan Sports vice president, says of the music group. "I wouldn't be surprised if they re-up."
One wrestler, a pimp in feathered fedora, brings two gals down the ramp so he can taunt a clean-cut rival, "You ever been with a ho? " There's the luscious Val Venis, who gyrates to clips of a pneumatic drill, and a 7-foot drag queen, Goldust. Another wrestler carts a prop woman's head. "You see the whole panoply of human archetypes laid out," says Byrne.
There are story lines being laid out, too. The one that frames this show is McMahon versus Stone Cold. For months, "Mr. McMahon" has been trying to strip the title from the shaved-head beer-guzzling wrestler.
Their entrances in the Corvette and cement mixer are spaced through the first hour. The major confrontation has the tyrant boss in a wheelchair protected by two police dogs--real police dogs--ranting about how his own wrestlers have pounded on him, even in the hospital. "I may never, never again play a polo match . . . being stuck in the cranium by that thick metal bedpan . . . and my rectal area. . . . " Not subtle stuff, but just right to get the crowd yelling, "A-----!"
McMahon gets his revenge in the featured match, when Austin is ambushed from behind by the burly Bossman--clearly acting at the boss' behest. The telecast ends at 11:05 with the star smashed and McMahon watching smugly from the ramp, flanked by flunkies. The live audience gets a little extra--Vince wheels down the ramp to rub it in, never dreaming, of course, that Stone Cold may not be so out cold. . . .
The next day, the wrestling Internet sites--there are hundreds--go over the "Raw" and "Nitro" shows like fans analyzing, and second-guessing, their favorite films. Each show drew more than 5 million viewers at times, but McMahon's swept the 9-11 p.m. head-to-head.
On the Rage Board, the fellows decide the WCW needs better story lines, that it's relying too much now on its star power, like having Hogan simply taunt a rival into a match, "Right here, brotha!" The chat room also ponders the crowd reaction to the wrestling bosses. "Whether it's Bischoff getting taken to jail or Vince getting his car filled with cement . . . humiliating the boss is always great fun. That is, until you become the boss," observes one fan. "Does this say that today's audience never expects to be the boss?"
Another answers, "Eric and Vince represent the totalitarian authority of 'The Corporate Establishment,' which we fear and loathe. . . . Very few will be in a position of that kind of authority."
Some worry that McMahon's show is getting too risque (someone heard a "mother----") and others complain of "commercial gimmickry" exploding any semblance of plausibility on Bischoff's. There, a mysterious figure talking trash with a wrestler turned out to be Chucky, the killer doll, a promo for the new "Bride of Chucky" movie.
Everyone has kind words, however, for the best comic actor among McMahon's wrestlers, Mick Foley, who plays the deranged Mankind. Monday, he took off one of his nasty socks and placed it over the nose of Mark Henry, the 400-pound Olympic weightlifter. There was supposed to be a claw hold underneath, but one could imagine it was the aroma from Mr. Socko that was reducing the giant to unconsciousness.
A Rage Board chatter suggests that Foley be the next champ, "if nothing else to reward him for making me laugh so hard."
A Wrestling Empire
"We have a long ways to go with Mr. Socko," Vincent K. McMahon says.
The 53-year-old CEO is back at his glass-walled headquarters, which flies a pirate-like WWF "attitude" flag. There's a prop leg cast on his sun porch, which overlooks the wealthy Connecticut waterfront. His conference room is a small museum of props (an "Attitude Adjuster" bat) and mementos of the McMahon family.
McMahon's grandfather put together boxing cards for legendary promoter Tex Richard before turning to wrestling. His father staged wrestling around the Northeast in an era when the "sport" was controlled by regional fiefdoms. Television was used then, much like infomercials today, to advertise the live shows. McMahon's legal papers in the Turner case recall how "the stars would not wrestle each other on free television but would traditionally wrestle (and pin) 'jobbers.' " As pitiful as those cards might be, they worked for stations like Turner's TBS as cheap counter-programming to Bible shows on other channels.
In 1984, McMahon purchased Georgia Championship Wrestling, which supplied TBS' shows. But the arrangement was short-lived, he said, because Turner seemed intent on buying out his operation. McMahon dumped the Georgia offshoot--which became World Championship Wrestling--and went on to make wrestling history.
Exploding the regional fiefdoms, McMahon took his World Wrestling Federation national, developed ties to the music world--MTV even--and filled 90,000-seat stadiums for pay-per-views featuring Andre the Giant and Hogan. He also figured out that the TV shows might do better, even in prime time, if you allowed your top attractions to wrestle each other, not patsies. "McMahon established himself as arguably the greatest promoter this country has produced since P.T. Barnum," his legal papers state.
Then came the '90s, and the scandals. A Pennsylvania doctor admitted in federal court that he sold steroids to wrestlers, including Hogan, and to McMahon himself, who wound up with a conviction for "conspiracy to defraud the FDA." Two WWF executives and an announcer resigned after a 21-year-old man alleged he was sexually harassed while working as a ring boy. Andre the Giant died. Other stars aged. There were predictions wrestling would "disappear like Roller Derby."
It was during this time, McMahon says, that Turner again tried to buy him out. Rebuffed, Turner "paid millions" to sign Hogan, he alleges, then stole Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, who stepped from one show to another in the very personas--as "Razor Ramon" and "Diesel"--that McMahon's show had developed. With Turner's people claiming they enticed away the wrestlers, not the characters, the "unfair competition" suit is pending.
"I do not like Ted Turner," McMahon says.
In the early days of the Monday night war, his show presented a comical "Billionaire Ted" with a corncob pipe. Turner's show, in turn, would announce the results of McMahon's taped matches, telling viewers there was no need to watch. McMahon's response: Go live whenever possible.
McMahon insists that virtually everything his rival does is copied. He sells WWF merchandise on the Home Shopping Network, they sell their stuff on QVC.
But along with the venom, McMahon says this: "As it turns out, the competition has been good for business."
His research staff analyzed January-September ratings to show that "Monday Night Raw" was attracting more young (12-34) males during its two hours--about 1.7 million--"than ABC, CBS and NBC."
In September, Titan closed a deal to take over Debbie Reynolds' hotel-casino. "I knew instantly--that's our audience. Las Vegas is our audience!" McMahon says.
The hotel is where he hopes to base a midnight talk show. This very day, he's forwarding the outline to William Morris: a man and woman host, sexual tension, a little confrontation and NO politics, no Clinton jokes like you hear on "Leno." "Live! Live! Live! From the entertainment capital of the world . . . welcome to the 'Strip Club'!"
See, it's set on the Vegas Strip. "But 'Strip Club' is going to get the attention of males." He envisions them taking a peek and calling out, "I'll be up in a minute, honey!"
McMahon hopes to open the first Wrestlemania Cafe next September along 42nd Street in Manhattan. "Then there could be others in other parts of the world."
With 110 countries already getting the WWF's wrestling shows, he's not ignoring what got him here. He hopes to have a Spanish-language Sunday show on Univision shortly, featuring Mexican-style wrestlers--the fellows are not the gargantuans American audiences insist on, but they're amazing daredevils, flying about the ring like gymnasts.
Sunday night is also where his "go after '60 Minutes' " strategy comes in. He wants to mock that television institution in vignettes between the matches in the new show ("WWF Superstars") that USA debuted over the summer and recently ordered up for two more years.
"I want to stick a microphone in Mike Wallace's face. Ambush interview. I want to see how well he does on the other side of that stick. . . . Diane Sawyer--catch them coming out if their limos. . . . "
He's not done.
"One day, there may be a WWF network, a mainstream entertainment network." No 13-episode seasonality. No repeats. All original programming--like you offer 'em with wrestling.
A WWF network? It sounds as crazy as a wrestler getting elected governor.
"This product was one of the original staples of television and is destined to be one of the harbingers," McMahon says. "We are the future of television."
A Punishing Schedule
The World Championship Wrestling crew is tired, and who can blame them?
Last night was the big event of the month, the pay-per-view "Halloween Havoc," at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Now they have to gear up down here, in Phoenix, for three hours of "Monday Nitro." The Oct. 26 show requires 70 stagehands and a WCW crew of 46--writers, light people, pyro crews--not counting the Nitro Girls dancers and the wrestlers. They filter into America West Arena wheeling suitcases, carrying gym bags, jabbering into portable phones. Kevin Nash, the 7-footer whose defection helped set off McMahon's lawsuit, has his tiny son in tow, the boy clutching his giant dad's index finger.
In the bowels of the arena, Bill Goldberg and Diamond Dallas Page talk over last night's match. Goldberg has a headache--he mashed his head into the mat doing his trademark spear tackle. But he's not complaining, no sir.
Goldberg's from Oklahoma, where his father is a gynecologist, his mother a violinist. He went to Georgia on a football scholarship, then played on the defensive line of the Atlanta Falcons until injuries ended that career. Then he ran into Bischoff at an upscale Atlanta club--the sort with dancing ladies--and they got to talking.
Now the former line mule makes something like $2 million a year and may be the No. 1 idol of Jewish kids in America. All he has to do is snort and take care of business in the ring--none of that comedy stuff. "It's not," he says, "in my repertoire."
Goldberg heads off to a see some members of the Phoenix Cardinals football team who have come to the matches and want to meet him backstage.
Bischoff has a headache too. He says he learned of the problem with the PPV when he phoned his 12-year-old son from the MGM Grand at the end of the matches. The boy was yelling at their local cable company because the broadcast had been shut off after three hours on many outlets--depriving 10% to 20% of the viewers of the Goldberg match.
Bischoff, 43, worked for an agricultural equipment manufacturer before he decided, on a whim--he loved the Saturday morning TV matches--to join a Minneapolis-based wrestling outfit. He later auditioned to join McMahon's company--as an announcer--but wasn't hired and wound up, instead, with Turner's WCW.
In addition to leading the move to go head to head on Monday nights, he and Bradley J. Siegel, the president of TNT, began campaigning to convince advertisers that wrestling now draws a large computer-literate, college-educated audience, one far more sophisticated than the rural, trailer-park stereotype. WCW thus helped schools like Dartmouth hold wrestling nights and sent wrestlers to spring break promotions. It doesn't ignore the redneck set--it sponsors Monster Trucks and race cars, bringing in the Cartoon Network as a partner in that next year. There's a WCW MasterCard, as well, and the first Nitro restaurant next spring will go, Bischoff says, on the Vegas Strip.
TNT's Siegel has encouraged the use of wrestlers, such as Hogan and Roddy Piper, in made-for-TV action movies. "These are our stars," he says, "and part of my job is that we build the career of our stars."
Bischoff says all the effort to position wrestling as mainstream entertainment is one reason he is worried by the recent turn in McMahon's rival show, toward "adult-oriented content."
"This past Monday, they had a plant in the audience, a female plant, perform simulated oral sex on a Italian sausage. . . . They had Vince urinating in his pants. . . . They've had the f-word. . . ."
Has it worked?
"Sure, it's worked. Every pimp on every street corner in every city knows you can sell sex."
But you can also sell Goldberg. Tonight's issue is what to do about the aborted PPV.
In a backstage lounge, the WCW's announcers are waiting for marching orders. The normal practice would be to tease the live TV audience with a few details about the match--but not spell out what happened.
"Hell, no," says Larry "The Legend" Zbyszko, "there's an encore presentation this week," two pay-per-view replays to sell.
"We're going to kind of tell them what happened," interjects Bobby "The Brain" Heenan.
"We're not gonna tell them s---," quips Zbyszko. "If you do, I'm leavin' the set!"
Minutes later, higher powers send the announcers a surprise: The TV audience will learn exactly what happened. They're going to show the Goldberg match this evening. The announcers will open the 8 p.m. telecast with a "call your friends" pitch stating that the match will come on at 9--the exact time, of course, when McMahon's show comes on.
In the TNT control truck, associate director Mark Sanders is on a headset to Atlanta. "They're getting phone calls up the wazoo," he says.
A week earlier, McMahon had lamented how TNT has "a whole hour to promote what's coming up" before his show airs. He, in turn, tries to time his own biggest pitches for moments when "Nitro" is on commercial break. His producers keep an eye on the enemy's show--and Turner's people have one screen in their trailer set on his.
At 8:50, there's a change of plans. "We're going early," Sanders announces. Another match is being pulled so the Goldberg tape can start at 8:56. That will give them four minutes to hook the viewers before McMahon's show starts.
The assistant director tells Atlanta through the headset, "Apologize to people who call in. Y'all may be getting some irate calls from some people who started their VCRs exactly at 9."
So it is that "Nitro" will beat "Raw" in the 9 p.m. hour this week. Who'd watch another scene of McMahon in that wheelchair when Goldberg is bursting from a curtain of fireworks and snorting toward the ring, where the tuxedoed ring announcer Michael Buffer will declare, "The moment the whole world has been waiting for . . . Let's get ready to rummmble!"
In the TV control truck, Edwards says, "The good news is, it's an 18-minute tape," and he steps out to grab a smoke. In the wrestlers' lounge, basketball's Charles Barkley yuks it up with the guys, asking Ric Flair to join him for a drink across the street. First the platinum-haired Nature Boy will have to do his bit in the arena, give a trademark "Whoooa!!" and confront the show's evil wrestling boss, who--in the WCW's story line of the moment--has been conspiring to keep him from wrestling.
Bischoff is a busy man tonight. Taunting Flair. Cozying up to Hogan. Drawing all those boos. And running the whole show, for real, backstage.
"You know, if I really wanted to milk it for ratings," he says of the Goldberg tape, "I would have put it on at the end of the show. Then we could have talked about it for two hours, really built it up."
Staff writer Sallie Hofmeister contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Wrestling War: Tale of the Tape
World Wrestling Federation
Titan Sport Inc.
Star Wrestlers: Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, The Rock
Headed By: Vince McMahon
Quote: "We're competing against someone (Ted Turner) who has unlimited sources and doesn't have to make money and has a superior vehicle in terms of male demos, the TNT network. . .He's done all kinds of things to crush us, really. His intent was to drive us out of buisness. . .It hasn't worked out I'm happy to say."
Sat. 10-11 a.m.; WWF Livewire; on USA
Sun. 10-11 a.m.; WWF Superstars; on USA
Sun. 7-8 p.m.; WWF Sunday Night Heat; on USA
Mon. 9-11 p.m.; WWF Raw, WWF War Zone; on USA
Plus: Twelve live pay-per-view shows per year
In Syndication: WWF Shotgun and WWF Shotgun Saturday night shows in 110 countries and 10 languages
World Championship Wrestling
Turner Broadcasting System Inc., Atlanta
Star Wrestlers: Goldberg, Hollywood Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair
Headed By: Eric Bischoff
Quote: "Advertisers have to look at us as viable entertainment, a good place to move their product. . . .Wrestling has had to overcome years of being thought of as a low-rent form of entertainment no one wants to see their product on. (McMahon) is further stigmitizing our genre as not a good place to be."
Sat. 3-5 p.m.; WCW Saturday Night, TBS
Monday 8-11 p.m.; WCW Monday Nitro; TNT
Thursday 9-11 p.m.; WCW Thunder; TBS
Plus: Twelve live Pay Per View shows per year
Early morning replays of Monday ans Thursday shows
In Syndication: WCW World Wide shows in 85 countries and 10 languages
* Los Angeles Air Times
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Top Cable Ratings, a Sample Week
Show Network Day Time Viewers* 1. NFL Football ESPN Sun. 8:15 p.m. 8.31 million 2. TBS Prime Movie TBS Sun. 9 p.m. 5.17 million 3. WWF Wrestling USA Mon. 9 p.m. 5.17 million 4. WWF Wrestling USA Mon. 10 p.m. 5.30 million 5. WCW Wrestling TNT Mon. 8 p.m. 5.15 million 6. WCW Wrestling TBS Thu. 9 p.m. 5.01 million 7. WCW Wrestling TNT Mon. 10 p.m. 4.28 million 8. WWF Wrestling USA Sun. 7 p.m. 4.46 million 9. WCW Wrestling TNT Mon. 9 p.m. 3.98 million 10. NASCAR Racing TNN Sun. 2 p.m. 4.29 million
* Ratings are based on the percentage of viewing audience watching, not the raw number of viewers.
-- START OF CORRECTION --
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times
A Nov. 15 article in Sunday Calendar incorrectly reported the disposition of a New York case in which Vince McMahon, the head of the World Wrestling Federation, faced federal steroid conspiracy and possession charges. McMahon was acquitted on all counts in 1994.
-- END OF CORRECTION --