This appeared on page 8 of the Detours section of the The Knoxville News- Sentinel on Friday, May 22, 1998.
As it did in the 1980s, pro wrestling is making a huge comeback in the late 1990s.
Just like an episode of "The Jerry Springer Show," pro wrestling has vaulted up the ratings ladder in recent months, dominating cable programming with nine hours of highly rated shows on three leading networks.
Just like Springer, these grapplers have thrived on outrageous spectacle, with huge men in tight pants flying through the air, slamming into each other and anyone else who happens to be in the way, with names like the Undertaker and attitudes like the damned.
With the newfound popularity has come a certain responsibility long reserve for the creators of B movies, soap operas, and potboiler novels.
"I think what we're doing now is opening up the creative envelope, and availing ourselves of more creative techniques," said Vince McMahon, the third-generation wrestling promoter who's Titan Sports promotes the other major circuit, the World Wrestling Federation, for the USA Network.
"We should be allowed the same techniques as any sitcom, as any talk show, as any soap opera," McMahon said. "When you think about it, that's what the WWF is, really, a hybrid of all those forms."
McMahon says the characters portrayed by the wrestlers are, "more reality based, less cartoonlike" and "not just black and white. Everyone we deal with is various shades of gray. Then the public decides whether they like a certain arrogance."
With the big, new ratings have come other things as well, like a phalanx of big-time advertisers, far beyond the Slim Jim and chewing tobacco crowd of wrestling Southern roots.
Now major corporate players like Sony, MCI and Coca-Cola are buying time, trying to grab the eyeballs of the young men who overwhelmingly watch wrestling.
The advertisers have figured out that pro wrestling dominates cable ratings - with an injection of me - against - the - world attitude that's caught on with teams and young adults who prefer "extreme" sports such as freestyle snowboarding and street luge. And wrestlers such as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
On Monday nights, TNT and USA network go head to head with competing two hour blocks of prime-time wrestling, while TBS shows another three hours on Thursday nights.
USA shows two more hours on weekends.
Ratings have soared in the past six months, reaching as high as 5.9 for the USA networks recently when NBA playoffs pre-empted the shows.
For comparison, USA averaged a 2.6 in the first quarter of the year as cable's highest-rated network.
Wrestling's only real competition for ratings pre-eminence on cable these days seems to be "South Park," featuring those potty-mouthed pre-pubescence who share a certain bad attitude with wrestling.
Up and down
Story lines are carefully nurtured, building rivalries between wrestlers, groups, even with Bischoff and McMahon and their entire circuits.
The WWF hit a ratings spike last month when Austin, the embodiment of middle-finger- extended attitude, body-slammed McMahon before an arena of screaming fans.
The action routinely spills out of the ring, with managers, announcers and others sent flying at one time or another.
Pro wrestling fan James Kearney, who lectures on television and media for Loyola Marymount University's communication arts program, credits McMahon with several pioneering changes in the 1980s, when he took over the WWF from his father, Vince Sr.
"He understood the language of TV better than his father's generation," Kearney said. McMahon also understood his target demographics, and tailored his shows appropriately, Kearney said. Children have always been fans of wrestling, and their interest has only grown in recent years as programmers have increasingly ignored them in early-evening hours, because ads are so hard to sell for their shows.
In-your-face attitudes, cliff-hanger plots, in-house rival groups such as WCW's New World Order and the sexy sizzle of scantily clad female camp followers have inspired intense devotion from fans, Kearney says.
Kearney says the rivalries, real as they are, feed into their ongoing efforts to keep up with the times.
"They continue to update its theatricality," Kearney said.
"They do highlights that look like ESPN's 'SportsCenter.' They're clever, you've got to hand it to them."
McMahon writes new "works" or story lines constantly, tweaking the violence and rivalries and stunts to increase the interest while appeasing network concerns about excessive violence or sexuality.