With sex, violence, wrestling grabs hold

TV: Once the WWF pinned down what its audience wanted, it body-slammed society's taboos and won big.

April 05, 1999|By Jim Varsallone | Jim Varsallone,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

A pimp, a porn star, a Playboy cover model.

Millions of children are watching these characters every Monday night when they tune in to World Wrestling Federation professional wrestling on the USA cable network.

The sport of Hulk Hogan, Jesse "The Body" Ventura and Andre the Giant has become one of the most watched spectacles on television. And it has battled its way up the ratings ladder by featuring the kind of sexual and violent story lines one might expect from Paul Verhoeven and Brian De Palma.

Gone are the days when the lines were clearly drawn between the good and the bad guys in the ring. Today, attitude reigns supreme -- and the nastier the attitude, the more suggestive the scenario, the better the draw.

Consider some of the characters strutting their stuff in recently televised segments:

A group of Japanese wrestlers known as Kaientai attempted to chop the private parts of wrestler Val Venis after he slept with the wife of Kaientai's manager, Yamaguchisan.

Sable, a woman wrestler, exposed her painted chest during a pay-per-view show and will soon appear on the cover of Playboy.

"The WWF is as close to porno as it can get away with on broadcast television," said Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer newsletter.

"In the past, pro wrestling has been more directed toward kids with cartoon character types," said Steve Ciacciarelli, editor of Wrestling World magazine. "The idea of clean-cut good against bad is totally gone.

"The WWF has reintroduced rebellious behavior. They defy authority in almost every scenario. In the past, parents really only had to worry if it would encourage violent behavior. Now, you still have the violence to worry about, along with sexual content and also anti-social behavior."

The new emphasis is good for business.

The WWF has sold out 21 of its last 22 house shows, according to the Wrestling Observer. It also boasted increases in attendance (71.7 percent), pay-per-view buy rates (67 percent) and TV ratings (48.9 percent) compared to last year.

On Monday nights, WWF has the No. 1 show on cable television, according to weekly television rankings. Among teen-agers, its ratings top those of "Monday Night Football." More than a million teens watch WWF Mondays; less than half that number watch rival World Championship Wrestling's (WCW) "Monday Nitro," which airs from 8 p.m. to 11: 05 p.m. on TNT. The more sexually explicit overtones have raised the concerns of parents and other observers.

The WWF ad that appeared during the Super Bowl prompted criticism from the American Family Association, a TV watchdog group that told the Federal Communications Commission the commercial fell within the agency's definition of indecency and should not have run in the early evening.

"I saw the WWF's commercial during the Super Bowl, and I was not happy with the sex," said Dr. Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist in Washington and a member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Many children were watching, and that was over the top."

Blurred message

Dr. Michael Brannon, a forensic-clinical psychologist in Plantation, Fla., and a former wrestler, said the sport has changed considerably since he was a part of it in the 1980s and early '90s.

"When I was involved in pro wrestling, there was a clear delineation between good and evil," said Brannon, who was known as Dr. Red Roberts in those days. "And even though the bad beats the good at the onset, eventually the storyline has the good guy winning in the end. It's a nice message for kids to hang in there, persevere ... There is a moral tale.

"Today they are shooting moons, giving the finger, cursing. And those are the good guys."

In the 1980s, Hulk-a-mania -- with good-guy superhero Hulk Hogan leading the way -- brought the WWF to mainstream television, MTV and NBC. Hogan battled the forces of evil, encouraged children to say their prayers and eat their vitamins.

Today, cool and cocky garners points with the audience.

Just ask Rocky Maivia. In 1996, when he was a rookie, the WWF branded him a good guy. Maivia always came to the ring with a smile and a bright-colored costume.

"I tried to do everything to please the fans -- shake hands, sign autographs -- and what did it get me?" asked Maivia, also known as Dwayne Johnson, a former University of Miami football player.

"Fans would hold up signs, `Die Rocky Die!' "

So Maivia changed. Within two years, he became The Rock and started mouthing off aggressively: "The Rock will lay the smack down on you."

His popularity has soared.

But Maivia acknowledges some of the wrestling acts are not suitable for children.

"I definitely say parents go ahead and monitor what your kids are watching ... `Monday Night Raw' can be very racy and sexual," he said.

`Responsible broadcasters'

The Monday night programming, which airs from 9 p.m. to 11: 05 p.m., carries a TV-14 rating, noted Jim Byrne, spokesman/vice president of marketing for the WWF.

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