In early 2001, there was a media conference of some kind—contemporaneous reports don’t say which—that featured both Barry Diller of USA Networks and Mel Karmazin of Viacom as guests. Diller had just lost the WWE (then WWF) television package to Karmazin about six months earlier, and that fact came up during the conference. “It’s amazing what [the WWF] has done for us,” said Karmazin. “It’s enabled us to rebrand TNN [later Spike TV and now The Paramount Network], and in January we were the fastest-growing cable channel. Our audience was up 129 percent.” Diller, for his part, was reeling from his network’s loss of programming that had, in some form, anchored USA for its entire existence. But while it was not necessarily a surprise that Diller was negative about the now-departed wrestling shows given the context, the volume and intensity of the venom he directed at the promotion was shocking given the near-quarter century history of wrestling on the network.
“That audience—12- to 19-year-old, pimply-faced, mean-spirited males—came, watched and went on to whatever godawful other pursuits,” said Diller. “USA Networks is doing just fine now.”
That Diller quote springs biliously to mind upon reading Marisa Guthrie’s Wednesday Hollywood Reporter article on WWE’s upcoming new domestic TV contracts. It’s the latest in a series on the new contracts, which are reportedly worth over $2 billion across five years on USA Network and Fox—considerably more than was being projected. Over the course of the series, a sense of how and why that deal came to be made has come into view. According to Guthrie, the Fox deal for SmackDown Live was consummated in a meeting immediately after USA’s exclusive option on the show expired. This was a meeting at which Fox owner/co-chairman Rupert Murdoch told WWE’s negotiating team, led by Paul “Triple H” Levesque and his wife, Stephanie McMahon, that USA is “embarrassed by your product” before promising that Fox would embrace it—with cross-promotion during major sporting events, the addition of a UFC-style weekly studio show, and and no hesitation or shame.
Diller hasn’t been part of USA in many years, but the spirit of his comments remained. Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer has regularly reported over the past dozen years or so that there was a real fear within USA of being seen as “the wrestling network,” fearing that this would be a negative for the brand. During WWE’s original run on USA Network through 2000, the promotion had as many as three weekly shows at a time on the network, plus occasional specials. But the 2005 deal that brought WWE back to USA from TNN/Spike TV was just for Monday Night Raw. SmackDown stayed on smaller broadcast networks, while secondary shows that mixed recaps with secondary original matches, Velocity and Sunday Night Heat, were not picked up at all and were ultimately moved to WWE.com in the United States. A hastily thrown together relaunch of the ECW brand in 2006 marked the beginning of WWE’s relationship with SyFy, a USA sister network; this eventually led to SmackDown migrating to the flagship as USA lost its non-WWE hit shows and needed ratings movers.
Whatever the network’s secret misgivings about its action-packed mainstay or WWE’s not-so-secret wish for the richest deal possible, the basic fact of it is that WWE programming has been one of the cornerstones of the USA Network for all but five years of the network’s existence, without ever really being talked about or treated as such. Case in point: WWE setting up the upcoming Nia Jax vs. Ronda Rousey match at the USA Network upfronts a few weeks ago. It was notable not just for the storyline progression, but because it was part of what was by far the biggest WWE presence ever at the event, despite the promotion producing some of the network’s biggest shows for decades. In that sense, Murdoch’s pitch was both savvy and right on target.
Guthrie also noted that Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch—Rupert’s son, who joined the meeting by phone—told McMahon afterwards that the deal “would herald the marriage of the Murdochs and the McMahons, rebel outsiders who had built media empires.” That’s one hell of a way to appeal to the (sizable) McMahon family ego. Nothing illustrates why better than how Stephanie’s father Vince publicly handled his battle with World Championship Wrestling, which ran from 1988 to 2001 as a division of Turner Broadcasting. The McMahon patriarch would routinely insist that the promotional war—actually spearheaded by WCW chief Eric Bischoff—was the byproduct of Ted Turner personally holding a grudge against McMahon for refusing an offer to buy what was then the WWF in the mid-’80s. As is generally the case with this sort of feud, the truth is notably less dramatic.
That offer most likely never existed in the first place and the grudge surely did not, but the McMahons had their story. Turner had no day to day influence on WCW, for starters. Vince’s yarn dates back to the only time WWF programming aired on a Turner network, a nine month stint on TBS during 1984 and 1985, when McMahon staged a hostile takeover of the Georgia-based promotion that had been on the station for years. That show flopped. Still, when WCW gained a strong foothold in the mid-’90s using tactics similar to those that McMahon used against its predecessor, Jim Crockett Promotions, during the 1980s, McMahon spent the first quarter of 1996 running weekly “Billionaire Ted” skits about the alleged vendetta.
It was a bit, but it wasn’t entirely for show: Even in private conversations, like one between McMahon and Bret Hart from November 1997 that was caught on the latter’s hot mic in the documentary Wrestling With Shadows, McMahon routinely referred to issues with WCW as being about “Ted Turner.”
And who was Ted Turner’s greatest rival? That would be Rupert Murdoch, with their rivalry stemming, hilariously, from some inane billionaire bullshit about a yacht race in 1983.
There’s one last grace note, here. Remember how, at least from appearances, it seems like WWE—long believed to have ridiculously low ad rates for its highly-rated programming—has made huge strides and passed the UFC on that front? The same UFC programming that, two years ago, was reportedly getting seven times what WWE was for a 30 second spot? The THR article confirms that WWE programming is indeed much more attractive to advertisers right now. “We could not sell UFC” at Fox, a source described as “a former staffer” told the magazine. “And wrestling is family friendly. If you have wrestling you can find cash. I think it’s a big win for Fox; it’s a great trade-off.”
Huge rights fees, various promises of increased mainstream credibility, and a few massive strokes of the ego, all on top of a prime time slot on one of the big four broadcast networks? No McMahon was ever going to be able to say no to that.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.