Viewers of the USA Network were glued to their televisions one Monday evening last fall. Unfolding CNN-style on their screens was live coverage of a huge, angry man breaking into the house of a rival and threatening to harm him and his screaming wife. The furious homeowner produced a handgun and waved it wildly at his attacker, when suddenly the picture went blank, leaving viewers wondering whether someone might have been shot.
A chance discovery by a TV news team? One of those new "Cops"-style crime shows? No, just another broadcast of the World Wrestling Federation's Monday prime-time telecast.
Welcome to professional wrestling circa 1997, where a ratings war and competition from other, more violent sports have turned the cartoonish, good vs. evil format of the 1980s into a darker, edgier world of antiheroes and anarchy.
Monday night televised wrestling, which pits the WWF's "Raw is War" on the USA Network opposite World Championship Wrestling's "Monday Nitro" on TNT, means programs full of mayhem, blood, foul language, gang-style violence, scantily clad women, and, yes, maybe even gunplay -- all screened during TV's "family hour." "Monday Nitro" -- so far the tamer of the two shows -- broadcasts live from the Baltimore Arena tonight.
Why the change? It's just good business, say those running the rival wrestling organizations. The kids of the '80s who grew up rooting for All-American good guys like Hulk Hogan, they say, are now jaded twentysomethings who worship Marilyn Manson, Howard Stern and Dennis Rodman. They're looking for something more real, more dangerous, the kind of entertainment they can now find in fringe "sports" like Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
"I think the taste of the American public changes from time to time and I think we attempt to reflect what that change is and give the public what they want," says WWF chairman Vince McMahon. "If their tastes change, so too will the direction of our company."
Said Mike Weber, WCW's director of marketing: "For the first time in a long time at our shows, you'll see much more of an early 20s group of people. . . . They really have to have something to keep them interested, and I think that's what we're accomplishing on 'Nitro' because you never know what's going to happen."
Competition for these fans has made Monday night a nearly no-holds-barred battleground for the rival wrestling groups. "Raw War" and "Monday Nitro," which usually air against each other at 8 p.m. -- "Nitro" is airing earlier during the NBA playoffs -- vie to outdo each other in unpredictability and excitement.
During the past six months, both shows have upped the ante, with more brutal and realistic violence, women getting involved in bouts and, of course, the gun incident.
Not coincidentally, that "Raw Is War" broadcast last November marked the WWF's debut in the 8 p.m. time slot.
The gun incident, which played up the rivalry between WWF superstar "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and rival Brian Pillman (neither man was injured), was admittedly intended as a ratings booster, says McMahon. But even he thought it may have gone too far.
"I dare say on that given night we went over the edge a bit," McMahon says.
The WWF and USA Network were flooded with complaints after the broadcast, and both later issued apologies. It was, however, what every wrestling fan was talking about the next day.
'New World Order'
Despite such antics, the WWF's "Raw is War" has lost the Monday ratings battle to WCW's "Monday Nitro" every week for nearly a year. Part of the reason is "Nitro's" popular storyline featuring a gang of antihero wrestlers known as the "New World Order."
In a post-modern twist, the WCW heavily promotes the New World Order while posing them as outlaws threatening to take over the organization. The gang's members -- which include former good guy Hulk Hogan and, more recently, the NBA's Rodman -- don't actually wrestle very often. Instead, they storm the ring and attack other wrestlers with baseball bats and pipes, then spray-paint the letters "NWO" on their prone bodies. The black NWO T-shirt has become one of wrestling's hottest pieces of merchandise.
Hogan's metamorphosis from babyface to heel is symbolic of wrestling's new order. The blond muscleman, who for years was depicted as a patriotic superhero and instructed his "little Hulksters" to "train, say their prayers and take their vitamins," now tells the fans to "stick it."
The change was calculated: Hogan's popularity had waned, as fans apparently tired of his ultimate good guy persona.
"I like Hulk Hogan since he's turned bad," Kenny Kirby, a 28-year-old Hagerstown resident, said at a WCW show at the Baltimore Arena in March. "He was too good to be true before. Now he's more human."
For its part, the WWF has tried to sway viewers with greater degrees of sex, violence and crude language.