I grew up watching the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), on cable television with my brothers. For some reason, my brothers and I were hooked when we first started watching. Whether it was the athleticism, the humorous promos, the crazy fans, the cheesy violence, the Divas, or personalities such as The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, and “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, we continued to tune in every week for more no matter how corny the material might have been sometimes. Much to the dismay of our mother, it became a tradition even when Vince McMahon, WWE’s CEO, decided to permanently change his product. Vince McMahon and WWE have successfully transitioned to a new era of professional wrestling on network television by effectively and efficiently changing its primary target audience which stemmed from changing its television parental rating from TV-14 to TV-PG.
Vincent Kennedy McMahon is the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment and son of the company’s founder. World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) also used to run on cable television but McMahon and WWE ran them out of business. Nowadays, WWE acts as the premier monopoly among its competition with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA) being the only other wrestling corporation on television. In fact, WWE has had television shows aired on networks such as USA, Spike TV, Syfy, MTV, UPN, The CW, and even E! Moreover, Vince McMahon has some slack to work with if he feels major changes to his product are necessary. That was his mindset when he changed the programming of his aired shows from a TV-14 parental guidelines rating to a TV-PG rating in 2008 (Hampp, 27).
In Kerrick’s “The Jargon of Professional Wrestling,” the claim is made that the primary goal in professional wrestling is to make money because it is a business, not a sport (Kerrick, 142). There is much truth behind this statement which is why I agree completely. This article explains the logistics behind professional wrestling and illustrates why Vince McMahon would decide to change its target audience; for the potential profit. Professional wrestling is not technically a sport and cannot be depended on to make a profit solely through the competitive nature of two wrestlers, or as the article labels them, “workers,” going out and “doing a good job” (Kerrick, 142-143). Ideas are being thrown around backstage and there is constant pressure on providing fresh material and to remain relevant and entertaining. WWE fully understood how the wrestling business worked when they changed the parental ratings of their shows.
My brothers and I, along with millions of other young adults, initially became interested in WWE during the brand’s “Attitude Era” which was when the show had a TV-14 rating. This was a time period within the company when it focused on crude humor, obscenity, and the use of blood in matches to appeal to worldwide audiences. Carter’s article known as “‘Sports Entertainment’ or Hokum, Pure and Simple?” commented on the effectiveness of professional wrestling in the “Attitude Era” by declaring, “There’s lots of stage blood for TV closeups… and enough sexual imagery and racial stereotyping to gag a maggot” (Carter, 69). It proved to be extremely successful as proven in Burke’s article, “Wrestling Audiences: An Ethnographic Study of Television Viewers,” which proves that young adults between the ages of 18-23 tend to treat professional wrestling on television as part of their lifestyle. They become attached which is exactly what Vince McMahon and his staff aimed at doing with the obscenity he included in his weekly television shows.
However, Vince McMahon realized he can retain popularity and success without some of the classless content his shows were sometimes airing on a weekly basis. More specifically, the occasional graphic violence, which greatly diminished after the rating change, was negatively viewed by a large percentage of people. This violent content was challenged and discussed in “The Raw Nature of Televised Professional Wrestling: Is the Violence a Cause for Concern?” which concluded that “…wrestling presented violence in amounts and contexts linked with increased risk of harm to viewers” (Tamborini, Skalski, Lachlan, Westerman, Davis, & Smith, 202).
WWE’s successful product has only grown more since changing from an adult-targeted program to a more family-friendly program (Hampp, 27). Yes, older fans like myself may roll their eyes and groan when they watch an episode of Monday Night RAW nowadays but WWE now effectively appeals to millions of children around the world. Vince McMahon saw this opportunity years ago and now he and his family are benefitting from it despite removing blood, hits to the head with foreign objects, and most forms of obscenity. WWE’s staff also must have realized that change is a necessity in a business like professional wrestling because of how important it is to keep the product new and exciting. The WWE creative team even does a respectable job by incorporating the change into storylines such as stirring up a wrestler (and the fans) by inflicting a decision solely because it is “best for business.”
In conclusion, WWE has always and probably will always be relevant and appealing to mass amounts of people. They have effectively been able to change its target audience without losing overall popularity in their product. The “WWE Universe,” which is what WWE now labels its fan base, seems to be rapidly growing more than ever before. Vince McMahon was able to take WWE and successfully move on from the content it used to produce and is now effectively appealing to a new target audience. Sadly, we will never see the “Attitude Era” again asides from small glimpses here and there due to the parental rating change from TV-14 to TV-PG. But, in the professional wrestling business, to retain success, eras must come and go.
Hampp, A. (2010). “WWE.” Advertising Age. 81(41), 27.
Burke, B. (2001). “Wrestling Audiences: An Ethnographic Study of Television Viewers.” North Dakota Journal of Speech & Theatre. 145-17.
Kerrick, G. E. (1980). “The Jargon of Professional Wrestling.” American Speech. 55(2), 142.
Carter, R. G. (2001). “‘Sports Entertainment’ or Hokum, Pure and Simple?” Television Quarterly. 32(2/3), 66-72.
Tamborini, R., Skalski, P., Lachlan, K., Westerman, D., Davis, J., & Smith, S. L. (2005). “The Raw Nature of Televised Professional Wrestling: Is the Violence a Cause for Concern?” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 49(2), 202-220.