In The WWF Vs. WCW Battle, Money Won (Of Course)
While eager to trumpet their own shows’ advertising prowess, both men were also quick to join the war of words that has become part of the USA-TNT battle. TNT now consistently beats USA in the ratings, but Rothschild pointed out that the WWF’s audience is younger than that of the WCW and, therefore, that it is more desirable to advertisers.
“Not to be disparaging, but we consider the WCW to be the old-age home,” he said. “Our wrestlers are youthful, energetic and much closer in age to our audience. We have the stars of today and tomorrow; they have our stars of yesterday.”
“We’ve beaten them in the ratings 35 straight weeks, and we deliver more young eyeballs than they do,” countered Uva.
The slugfest started quietly enough in the fall of 1995, as USA continued to enjoy a healthy 3.2 Nielsen Media Research rating with its weekly 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. wrestling telecast, putting it consistently among the highest-rated weekly programs on cable. But when TNT launched a 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-night show of its own, USA’s ratings almost immediately slipped to 2.6, running neck-and-neck with TNT’s new WCW Monday Nitro.
Then in late May of last year, TNT escalated the battle by expanding its program to two hours, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. During the next 21 weeks, TNT began to consistently beat USA with an average rating of 3.2. In response, on Nov. 4, USA moved its program to 8 p.m. in order to mitigate TNT’s 60-minute head start. But TNT’s ratings lead continued to widen, so, in February, USA extended its wrestling show to two hours, and it succeeded in shaving TNT’s ratings lead to slightly more than one-half of a rating point.
But at what cost? Despite robust ad sales, both cable networks have had to pour so much money into the competition that it’s unlikely that either one is spinning off any profit.
“We’ve lost a lot of money,” admitted Vince McMahon, who, as chairman of the WWF’s parent, TitanSports Inc., has controlled the WWF since 1980. “Our entire operation is driven by our Monday-night show. We’ve had to double the amount of programming, but the rights fee that USA is giving us hasn’t come close to doubling.”
Although Wayne Becker, USA’s vice president of sports programming, wouldn’t discuss whether the Turner competition has moved the show into the red, he did acknowledge that it has hurt the show’s profitability.
“But Turner can’t be running their show in the black,” he added. “The surprise was their level of commitment. To do a live show every week is phenomenally expensive.”
Indeed, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. has made a massive investment in TNT’s Monday Nitro. In addition to the high cost of producing a live show every week, it has lured away many of the WWF’s most recognizable stars, including Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, with multimillion-dollar, long-term contracts. In February, it launched an expensive marketing campaign highlighted by billboards and bus-shelter posters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, along with print ads in national trade and consumer publications.
And Turner is using its network clout to run cross-promotional spots on CNN Headline News, TBS Superstation and Cartoon Network, as well as getting the jump on USA by beginning its TNT show a few minutes before 8 p.m. and sometimes ending it as much as 16 minutes after 10 p.m.
McMahon, who used to supply WWF programming to TBS before Turner formed its competing organization, said the competition is all a result of his refusing to cave in to the Turner juggernaut.
“Ted Turner invited me to a Braves game and told me I’d be a fool not to sell my company to him,” said the longtime wrestling promoter, who has filed suit against TNT, Time Warner Inc. and Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner. “Never in the history of television has there been a more blatant example of predatory behavior. Turner is trying to destroy us by spending millions of dollars to steal our stars and put on an incredibly expensive program … They’re buying a rating, sure, but I can’t believe Time Warner’s board of directors will allow him to lose this kind of money indefinitely.”
Eric Bischoff, who runs the WCW as executive vice president, offered no apologies.
“The WWF was enjoying a monopoly on Monday night and, because it had no competition, they were able to get high ratings with a stagnant product,” he said. “We decided that if we were going to enter primetime, … we certainly didn’t do it with the intention of being No. 2. Because he’s getting his butt kicked, Vince McMahon will say we took from him, but, in fact, we’ve expanded the audience.”
TNT certainly has expanded the audience. During the first three Mondays in February, the two wrestling shows grabbed a combined 5.4 average rating.
“They’ve revived the whole genre,” said Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research for USA Networks.
Advertisers, meanwhile, are clearly the winners. They like the high ratings, the demographics and the loyal audience that both wrestling shows now enjoy, and they seem to be ignoring the fierce war of words flying from both sides. Even the WWF’s longtime sponsors seem nonplused over USA’s ratings falloff at least for the moment.
“It’s certainly something that we’re monitoring,” said Brian Satre, category manager for health care products at Blistex Inc., owner of Stri-Dex, an acne pad that has been associated with the WWF since 1995. “But we continue to believe that the WWF is an excellent vehicle for our core target of teen-agers.”
Advertisers on both wrestling programs like the shows’ demographics, as well as the promotability of the genre.
“Their demographics are just what we’re looking for – the six- to 11-year-old boy,” said George Burtch, director of marketing services at Milton Bradley, which sponsors the “Karate Fighters Survivor’s Series” on the WWF, named after its Karate Fighters action toy. “But the thing we really like about our sponsorship with them is that our message is integrated into the program. With people today flipping off commercials, you have to look beyond traditional advertising. The allure of wrestling is in the personalities of the wrestlers, and we’re able to tap into that.”
“What other event can offer an advertiser a 22-foot blimp with the sponsors logo flying around inside the arena?” asked Rothschild. “There may be 50 signage sponsors in the arena, but people remember who was on the blimp.”
Satre also praised the WWF for its “creative” ways in tying the advertiser message to an event.
And other wrestling advertisers said there was more to the programming than just numbers.
“We’re also looking for promotability, and we get that with our weekly ‘MCI Road Report,”‘ said Geoff Karch, vice president of national broadcast at buying service SFM Media, which represents MCI’s association with the WCW.
Karch said the campaign has effectively merged the wrestling and 800 Collect brands together in the minds of a loyal audience that is becoming increasingly loyal.
For now, both USA and TNT are holding fast to their commitment to Monday night. McMahon said he has pleaded with USA to move WWF wrestling to another evening in order for it to have the wrestling audience all to itself. But Becker is reluctant to move the show, partly because there’s no tolling what that would do to its ratings, and partly because he believes that in the end, McMahon’s experience and strong identification with wrestling among fans will ultimately even the playing field.
“The kind of resources that TNT is putting into their programming is a little intimidating, and the easy answer would be to abandon Monday nights,” said Becker. “But we have confidence in Vince. Most of their key story lines are built on former WWF talent, and those defections have stopped.”