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COVER STORY

The Ultimate Grudge Match

Thirty-five million viewers. Two wrestling impresarios. One steel cage. (OK, we made that last part up.) But Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff are going toe to toe inside and outside the TV ring.

November 15, 1998|PAUL LIEBERMAN | Paul Lieberman is a Times staff writer

- SEE CORRECTION APPENDED

In its bid to capture what World Wrestling Federation folks call "the future of America's eyeballs"--young males 12 to 34--here's what Vince McMahon is up against this particular Monday night: "Monday Night Football," a baseball playoff game, Ally McBeal's miniskirts and, of course, that other wrestling show, the one on the TNT network of "Billionaire Ted" Turner.

So McMahon has a flunky buy him a Corvette convertible and then he personally drives the thing into Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, cameras rolling, to start off his live telecast on the USA Network. He picks a Corvette to make his entrance because, "if you're going to destroy a car, make it worth destroying."

If viewers don't immediately grasp what will happen to the Corvette, they get a strong hint when the WWF's star, the defiant Stone Cold Steve Austin, makes his entrance in a . . . cement mixer. And by the time the surly, scheming "Mr. McMahon" starts fuming to his wrestler, "I will fire your ass!" even the most limp brain muscle in front of the tube understands the righteousness of Stone Cold turning such a lovely car into a concrete patio.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 29, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrestling czar--A Nov. 15 Calendar article incorrectly reported the disposition of a New York case in which Vince McMahon, the head of the World Wrestling Federation, faced federal steroid conspiracy and possession charges. McMahon was acquitted on all counts in 1994.

If it seems like a waste of a Corvette, don't worry. The overnight ratings will show that the stunt did exactly what it was supposed to for McMahon's "Monday Night Raw" show. The 'Vette is hardly done, either--McMahon has the wreckage towed to WWF headquarters in tamford, Conn., so it can someday become decoration for the new WWF hotel-casino in Vegas, or for a WWF-themed restaurant opening next year, or for . . . did we mention that the man wants to take on "60 Minutes"?

Now fast-forward two weeks to another Monday--same time, different place--and stand beside Eric Bischoff, Turner's wrestling chief, as he ponders how to make chicken salad out of a crisis that beset his World Championship Wrestling's pay-per-view the night before. Here you had all these kids and young males (those same "future of America's eyeballs") pooling their cash for the PPV only to have the satellite feed shut down--on some outlets--right before the Match, the one that had been teased and promoted and built up for a month, the bout featuring the WCW's star of stars, the Terminator-like Goldberg.

Tonight, someone will have to apologize on the WCW's live show, "Monday Nitro," and make amends to all those Goldberg fans who didn't get to see him emerge from a wall of pyrotechnics, stick out his tongue, then beat the bejesus out of Diamond Dallas Page. Of course, you'd never, never, never actually replay a PPV main event like that for free, for everyone, the night after others paid $29.95 for it . . . unless, perhaps, such a breach might just ruin the night for a certain rival wrestling show. "You know we wouldn't do something that looks like some manipulative ratings ploy, now would we?" Bischoff asks. Then he takes off his Rolex, dons his leather jacket and prepares to go before a sold-out arena in Phoenix to assume his on-screen persona--of a smirking, scheming wrestling czar.

A ratings ploy? No, we wouldn't expect that at all. Certainly not from a wrestling outfit planning its own restaurant down the street from Mr. McMahon's casino . . . and did we mention the WCW stock car?

A Weighty TV Audience

In its own strange way, wrestling today offers perhaps the most honest competition on television.

A sideshow staple of the medium from its earliest days, when Gorgeous George pranced around in tights, wrestling has survived boom years and busts--and some premature obituaries--to move center stage like never before. The numbers are eye-popping: Six of the top eight cable ratings go to wrestling segments one week, seven of the top 10 the next. Sorry, Larry King--the Rugrats come close, not you.

Between TNT, TBS and USA, there's a dozen hours of new wrestling programming shown nationwide each week, drawing 35 million viewers. But the hot action is Monday night, when nearly 10 million Americans tune in to McMahon's two hours on USA, or Bischoff's three on TNT.

What you have, then, are virtually identical programs going head to head, with big dollars at stake, may the best man win. In that sense, it's not entirely unlike the competition among network morning shows, midday soaps or the evening news. But you don't see Susan Lucci--as her same character--suddenly abscond to a rival soap. And it's probably been a while since Brokaw's producer gleefully offered Rather's the finger during litigation.

What prompted the gesture among wrestling honchos? An argument over intellectual property.

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