Mr. McMahon

The Wrasslin’ Essay: Does WWE’s Ratings Really Matter?

The Nielsen ratings have a different meaning today than it did during the "Monday Night War," writes David Gibb.

In spite of the self-proclaimed intelligentsia’s constant dismissal of professional wrestling as little more than As the World Turns for the NASCAR crowd, theatrical fight promotion has remained a consistent predictor of shifts in the television business since the 1950s. During the era of the DuMont Network, professional wrestling’s drawing ability predicted the value of sports broadcasts as a cornerstone of national television. With the emergence of cable in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the realignment of the wrestling business from thirty-plus regional territories into four (then three, then two) main companies forecasted the shift from local television providing everything from regional game shows to syndicated, independently-produced content to a model where affiliates were little more than prescribed national network broadcasts with some local news and weather. Now, as streaming technology is trickling down from early adaptors to the majority of households, wrestling stands at the forefront of television’s next big question: Do Nielsen ratings still have value?

During the “Monday Night War” between WWF and WCW (which nominally lasted from the September 4, 1995 launch of Nitro to its final episode on March 26, 2001, but more precisely represented the red hot time between Scott Hall’s WCW debut on May 27, 1996 and Mick Foley’s WWF title win on January 4, 1999), reporting Nielsen numbers became as much a part of wrestling journalism as awarding star ratings and complaining about booking decisions. During the same era, the major networks consistently touted the viewership earned by shows like Seinfeld, E.R., and Friends. In and out of the wrestling business, the numbers stood not only as measurements of audience but also the basis for bragging rights in the crucial below-the-belt measuring contest that is corporate America. In the capitalist system, bigger is better, and at some point, “highly-rated” became conflated with “good” and “important.”

At the same time that networks and wrestling companies alike were working desperately to pop ratings, comedian Jon Stewart took the reigns of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, a rapidly growing network thanks largely to South Park, which hit same sweet spot of lowbrow late-90s culture that Raw and Nitro were targeting. Thanks to the smart writing of Stewart’s team and the serendipitous unpopularity of President George W. Bush, The Daily Show grew into a strong, consistent presence in the ratings and made late-night political satire, long a hallmark of NBC and CBS’s talk shows into cable fodder. Stewart and his team, as much as Wolf Blitzer or Steve Austin, became avatars for the shift of ratings away from network shows and towards cable entertainment.

As soon as Vince McMahon purchased WCW in the spring of 2001, ratings took on an entirely different meaning in the wrestling business. Rather than representing head-to-head performance in an apples-to-apples business rivalry, Nielsen numbers simply became data used to set price points for advertising and measure growth or reduction in business. Depending on your perspective, ratings are now either the best publically available measurement of how well a program is building and maintaining its audience, or, as “The Road Dogg” Brian Armstrong suggested back in November, “Neilson [sic] is archaic measuring device [sic] I feel!”

While Road Dogg’s words made him a target for ridicule as a fact-blind company man or shill in many of the wrestling industry’s top publications, including the Wrestling Observer and the Pro Wrestling Torch, he was more accurately an imperfect messenger for an important point in the entertainment business: given shifts in technology and culture, Nielsen ratings just don’t mean what they used to. Unfortunately, those in the television establishment once again appear to be behind wrestling in the way they approach their business model.

A fine example of this was on display in Frank Pallotta and Mark Mooney’s CNN Money article “Larry Wilmore Missed a Change to Boost his Sagging ‘Nightly Show,’” which was published Monday, in the aftermath of Wilmore hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Their main argument, that Wilmore (in the coaching tree of Stewart) needed to hit a home run as host in order to stay out of hot water with Comedy Central, relied heavily on Nielsen data as evidence. The article states “Wilmore has lost more than half of the audience that Colbert had accumulated for Comedy Central,” without taking into consideration that The Colbert Report left the air in late 2014, being replaced with The Nightly Show, just as streaming was becoming much more commonplace. That would be like saying that pay per views main evented by Roman Reigns have a much lower buyrate than those main evented by John Cena. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison because most of those who watch WWE Sunday night specials aren’t doing so by buying pay per views anymore.

If it’s fair to say that Wilmore is on the verge of failure because he can’t match Colbert and Stewart’s numbers, then it’s fair to say that Madison Bumgarner is on the verge of failure because he can’t match Christy Mathewson’s numbers. They’re playing the same game, but the rules and context have shifted so much that comparing them directly only serves to either confirm the classic bias that the present isn’t as good as the past or to pretend that it’s the talent that’s weakened, not the platform of cable TV.

If these number simply represent attrition due to a cultural shift away from traditional cable television and towards highly personalized on-demand viewing habits, then it is probably true that they are archaic as a measure of the health of the WWE, Comedy Central, or any other television entity. With that said, it’s also a clear, objective truth that a shrinking audience means fewer opportunities to make money. Any time you hear “historically low rating,” it probably means that in addition to losing viewers to streaming, you are also doing a poor job bringing in those who still clutch to traditional cable or satellite. Brian Armstrong obviously knew who signs his checks when he implied that ratings don’t correspond to the success for WWE, but he also publically raised a much larger issue that somebody in the television industry had to address.

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