WWF Smackdown!’s powerful ratings have UPN saying WHAM! BAM! Thank you, Vince McMahon.
December 3, 1999
By Mike Flaherty and Lynette Rice
Picture Editor Denise Sfraga
WWF Superstars “Stone Cold” Steve Austin & Ivory
Brush with greatness WWF grappler Ivory gets a last- minute touch-up before a television appearance at Penn State University
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin
At a taping of UPN's Nov. 11 edition of WWF Smackdown!, Arnold Schwarzenegger strides onto the floor of the sold‑out Baltimore Arena, steps into the ring, and announces, "I'm going to pump you up!" Though he characteristically mangles the delivery (it's "pump you up," Ahnuld), he'll keep the promise, joining forces with WWF superstars The Rock and Steve Austin to pummel resident Überheel Triple H with a folding chair. Later, winding down his well‑hyped appearance by chugging a beer with "Stone Cold" (as is Austin's wont after a victorious match), Schwarzenegger creates a moment that is at once downright surreal and utterly predictable. Did it seem more than a bit contrived? Sure. Maybe even a little embarrassing? Absolutely. But what self‑respecting wrestling fan ever let that get in the way of a good time? Besides, boiled down to showbiz terms, his collaboration with the World Wrestling Federation is strictly business, a mutually beneficial meeting of billion‑dollar enterprises. (As to rumors that Schwarzenegger received $1 million for his appearance, the WWF will only say, "Whatever the exchange was, we were thrilled to have this immense talent on Smackdown!")
Not long ago, such an alliance would look perilously close to slumming for an action‑movie megastar. But in choosing the WWF as a promotional platform for his new movie, Schwarzenegger was nothing if not ingenious. Putting aside the irony that wrestling's unprecedented popularity should be placed in the service of a flick called End of Days, he's hooking up with a multimedia behemoth that, as of this writing, boasts cable TV's top ratings (courtesy of Monday night's Raw Is War on the USA Network), the No. 2 album on Billboard's charts (World Wrestling Federation: The Music‑Vol. 4), the No. 2 book on the New York Times best‑seller list (Mick Foley's homespun autobiography, Have a Nice Day!), and, in Smackdown!, the most colorful success story of this TV season.
But the biggest winner is UPN, which, thanks to Smackdown!, has finally established a Nielsen beachhead almost five years after the network's launch. Since the show's debut on Aug. 26, the two-hour extravaganza ‑an outrageous concoction of sex, soap, and jaw‑dropping physicality‑ has slapped a hammerlock on the precious young‑male demo; it consistently wins its time slot among male teens, and places second only to NBC among males 18‑34 on Thursdays. In addition, it has improved that night's performance among total viewers a whopping 168 percent since last season.
For UPN CEO‑president ‑and admitted wrestling fan- Dean Valentine, snagging the WWF meant acquiring an established franchise, a potential flagship show that was itself already a pop‑culture Titanic. Likening the net's alliance with the WWF to Fox's with professional football, he says, "We needed our version of the NFL or NBA or NASCAR, [something] that was self‑starting, that would bring an audience with it."
After getting an eyeful of the WWF's "Attitude" makeover (the 1998 revamping that transformed "sports entertainment" with its emphasis on plot and personality over actual fighting), Valentine recalls, "I realized it was just brilliant. They had taken it and turned it into a comic soap opera. You could understand why guys get addicted to it." That led to a meeting with WWF chairman Vince McMahon and a sweeps‑week tryout last May that turned out to be Smackdown!'s pilot.
McMahon had approached "a number of networks," including Fox, about a broadcast‑television slot, secure in his belief that wrestling was ready for prime time. Needless to say, he feels more than a little vindicated by Smackdown!'s performance: "We're the only successful variety show on television."
It's certainly a triumph of opportunism. Thanks to NBC's Nielsen juggernaut, Thursday night has been a virtual death sentence for new series for well over a decade, but Smackdown! has flourished by counterprogramming against the rest of the schedule: shows that skew older (CBS' Diagnosis Murder and Chicago Hope), more female (The WB's Popular and Charmed), or just plain dumb (ABC's Wasteland). Most tellingly, perhaps, Fox wound up shelving its entire Thursday lineup just last month, including its two male-friendly comedies Family Guy and Action.
Valentine attributes the success of Smackdown! solely to McMahon, whom he describes as "a genius. [He] is basically the P.T. Barnum of our age, the Steven Bochco of this particular form of entertainment." And while he puts the show's female viewership at around 30 percent, he also sees it as a reaction to an "increasingly feminized prime time," claiming "UPN is here to plant the flag for guys."
The question for the network and the WWF is one of endurance. Historically, wrestling has been a maddeningly cyclical phenomenon, muscling its way into the zeitgeist every 10 years or so (usually due to the emergence of a larger‑than-life character like Hulk Hogan in the '80s or, more recently, Austin and The Rock), then receding to a place of relative obscurity. Valentine, for one, isn't worried. "I think it will probably be around longer than a lot of currently popular shows, like Dawson's Creek. Talk about cyclical," he adds, alluding to the current crop of teen‑friendly dramas. "If [the WWF] keeps on working at getting great stories, there's no reason it shouldn't have the same longevity as Days of Our Lives." McMahon believes audiences will stick around because Smackdown!'s "such a hybrid ‑we borrow from action-adventure, talk shows, rock concerts, Comedy Central."
Whether advertisers stick around is another question. In mid‑October, Coca‑Cola bailed out of its sponsorship of the WWF, citing its envelope‑pushing shenanigans. And though Smackdown! is hardly hurting for advertising dollars, attracting upscale, mainstream endorsement has been a continuing problem (the show's ad schedule thus far has been dominated by spots for young‑adult‑oriented fare like videogames, auto parts, and fast food). The "sport" may never overcome its low-rent stigma, no matter the size of its audience or the precious male demo it brings. Then again, says Tim Spengler of Western Initiative Media, "advertisers will sometimes lower their standards, quote unquote, if it's that unique of a reach." He cites NYPD Blue as an example. "Remember when no [advertisers] wanted to be on it? Then they were saying “Well, they're going to show butt and be a little gratuitous, but it's a big hit…' "
On the other hand, there's always the danger that blue-chip advertisers and continuing ratings growth will corrupt the WWF's gleefully disreputable image. Could wrestling actually get too mainstream? "No," says McMahon, "because we're always making fun of the mainstream. We'll always have our edge, we'll always have our mystique."
As for the perennial chorus of criticism against the WWF for violence, alleged sexism, and general profanity (most recently by L. Brent Bozell III's Parents Television Council), McMahon is practically hospitable: "That plays right into our hands. We enjoy creating the image that we are the bad boys of television, when obviously we're not. We don't pick fights, they just come along. I guess we're truculent by nature." Let's see Felicity use that word in a sentence.