It's an ongoing struggle for WWE to dispel the negative stereotypes that many in the general public attach to professional wrestling. That's one of the reasons that Vince McMahon insists on the "sports entertainment" descriptor, and for his company's occasional "Stand Up for WWE" campaigns.
The beliefs that pro graps is "fake" and its audience primarily undereducated & low income and the publicity each premature wrestler death brings to the industry's history of drug abuse & the hard nature of life in the business follow wrestling promotions. Potential broadcast partners and advertisers have long used those image issues as negotiating tactics or reasons to not be in the "rasslin' business".
Given that a company with deep pockets and numerous brand-diversifying efforts to its name like WWE still struggles with those associations, it must be doubly hard on smaller organizations trying to expand their reach into the entertainment world.
TNA famously struggled with this last year, as Viacom-owned Spike TV decided to move on from Impact Wrestling during the Summer and it took Dixie Carter and team a while to find a new partner, eventually landing at a channel with a much smaller viewership in Discovery's Destination America.
Spike has been in the pro wrestling news again lately due to their rumored talks with Ring of Honor (ROH). ROH is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting and their weekly show is syndicated in a number of markets, as well as streamed online. But a presence on the former home of WWE and TNA would be a big step up for them.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like there's much hope of seeing Jay Briscoe or reDRagon on national cable TV soon. And the full quote in The Boston Herald from Spike President Kevin Kay is even more damning that the snippet included in our Rumor Roundup today:
I think for Spike, the big question is, do we want to get into the professional wrestling business in any way? And I don't have the answer to that yet. I don't know that we're going to do anything there, but if we do something, it's probably not part of ‘Friday Night Lights Out.' We want to keep that for real sports.
The network is joining Mark Cuban's AXS Television with a combat sports-themed line-up to end the work week. AXS has partnered with New Japan Pro Wrestling to bring some of their most famous bouts to North American broadcast TV for the first time with English-language commentary. Kay's approach to TNA and now ROH makes it seem like he's not inclined to follow suit - with programming that follows either WWE's more theatrical or New Japan's more sports-based models.
While "fake" is seen as a detriment at Viacom, a company that is embracing all kinds of pro wrestling weirdness is helping a much smaller network carve out a niche. A Variety piece published last week plays up Robert Rodriguez's El Rey Network and the buzz surrounding its ability to reach the fast-growing Latino-American market. One of the pieces of programming highlighted by the Vice-Chairman of that channel, Scott Sassa, was the pro wrestling show, Lucha Underground:
The channel has some sizzle with marketers as an outlet with a target of English-speaking Latinos. Sassa acknowledges that El Rey's audience isn't as young as company execs would like. But they're working on it with shows like "Lucha Underground," an out-there mix of Mexican-style wrestling and folklore, produced by Mark Burnett.
Right now, it doesn't seem like anyone will topple WWE from their perch atop their corner of the entertainment industry. But if there's anything to be taken from the differing attitudes on display in the quotes from the heads of Spike and El Rey, it's that promoters and wrestling evangelists may be more successful in working with new partners to widen the audience among genre fans while reaching out to new, younger audiences as opposed to trying to change the minds of lapsed fans or older demographics.
Viacom may be burned out from years of trying to get advertisers to support Attitude Era storylines and the stars of the 80s and 90s. But El Rey and AXS are showing a willingness to try a different kind of wrestling product as part of their expansion plans.
Time will tell whether wrestling and its fans will reward the smaller players for their gamble, or prove the veterans right for their safe strategy.