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Take That, You Wimps

With network executives pinned to the mat by critics, try going a few rounds with the WWF stars.

September 24, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

It's customary around this time of year for journalists who cover television to sit at the knee of network executives, listening to them dispense wisdom about prevailing programming trends and who will be victorious as the new prime-time season's scheduling shenanigans get underway.

Bor-ring!

As the great philosopher Batman once said, "Criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot," and the same description currently applies to TV executives. Most choose their words carefully these days for fear of offending someone, from advocacy groups pushing one cause or another to headline-seeking politicians to penny-pinching corporate bosses, who lately do a fair impersonation of the great and powerful Oz, pulling strings and moving levers behind the scenes.

With that in mind, to preview the new TV season we decided to engage a group that has demonstrated a firm grasp on what a segment of the public wants to see and has few compunctions about offending, well, just about anybody.

This refers, of course, to the self-proclaimed "superstars" of the World Wrestling Federation. More than 20 million viewers tune in the WWF on cable or broadcast television each week, with 7.3 million people--most of them men between 18 and 34 or teenage boys--watching UPN's "WWF Smackdown!" on Thursday nights last season, easily the top-rated program on that network.

The WWF regularly tops all fare on cable, garners millions in pay-per-view events and sells out arenas across the country. The Rock, one of its stalwarts, spoke at the Republican National Convention, and the federation has launched a voter registration drive with the same sort of vigor its characters exhibit springing across the ring.

Proving that UPN, which helped arrange the session, really does have a sense of humor (some of its sitcoms notwithstanding), the discussion with nine members of the WWF touring company took place at the posh Le Meridien Hotel in Beverly Hills. They were subsequently treated to lunch at the Grill, dining next to would-be super-agents and Hollywood executives.

The group included tag-team champs Edge and Christian; reigning women's champion Lita, known for her arsenal of "moonsaults" and "hurracanranas"; Terri, who doesn't wrestle full time, inflicting mayhem outside the ring as a "manager" of the combatants; acrobatic tag-team the Hardy Boyz, also known as Matt and Jeff; former women's champions the Kat and Ivory, whose most impressive feats may involve staying in their skimpy outfits as they leap around; and veteran Jerry "The King" Lawler, whose career highlights include his bouts with the late Andy Kaufman in the early 1980s.

This is clearly not the wrestling that middle-aged men remember from the 1950s and '60s, except perhaps for the moves one uses to avoid being pinned and the popularity of folding chairs as a weapon. Under impresario Vince McMahon, the WWF has embraced the fakery--or at least, the scripted nature of the mayhem--which prompted head slaps from irate behemoths when questioned in the past.

Dressed up for the new millennium, wrestling is now big business, and its artists have no problem defending the product they offer.

"What it boils down to is people who watch television want to be entertained, and somehow, the World Wrestling Federation has found a formula to be the most entertaining show on television," says Lawler, who once ran for mayor of Memphis and delivers a pretty pointed stump speech, even wearing tights.

"I guess the way they do that [is to be] a hybrid of all forms of popular entertainment. There's beautiful women on the show, good-looking young guys, there's a soap-opera aspect, where you can get involved in the people's characters and their lives and what they're doing. There's the athletic part of it, the wrestling itself, [and] it's like watching a fireworks show or going to a rock concert. Everything people like is in there."

Though the idea sounded flippant at first, talking with these WWF stars about what fuels their success and how they address fans and critics may shed more light on what currently drives popular culture than those annual forums of network entertainment chiefs, the latest held last week in Beverly Hills and moderated by Larry King.

*

Ask any WWF superstar ("wrestler" is considered somewhat pejorative) what the audience wants, and they repeatedly turn to a familiar theme: escapism.

"What it all boils down to is it's an escape from everyday life--an escape from your boss, from work, from the kids who are picking on you at school, for two or three hours a night," explains Edge, an imposing 6-foot-4 native of Canada who, once he starts talking, could pass for a large grad student in political science.

"We don't pull the wool over anyone's eyes," he continues. "It's definitely entertainment. Where people get confused is there's so much athleticism involved. The tables are real. The chairs are real. . . . There's a huge physical aspect involved."

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