Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Pro-Wrestling's Great Television Audience (1978)

Here is a nice "TV Sports" column by Bob Gillespie from the Charleston Post & Courier in 1978 about the high ratings and impact of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and World Wide Wrestling during that era.

I laugh when I read today about how currently popular wrestling is. It's for sure a bigger business today, but it is no where near as popular today as it was years ago. Just witness the 52% share that wrestling got on WCBD-2 in Charleston. Les Thatcher has told us about similar shares his Mid-Altlantic wrestling show got in the mid-1970s on WLOS-13 in Asheville, NC. Jim Crockett Promotions programming was pullings amazing ratings and shares back then and had been for years. Similar stories could be found in other promotions across the country as well.

So kudos to Bob Gillespie for helping educate the unknowing general public about that in 1978.

Gillespie does a great job in getting his facts straight about Crockett Promotions at the time, something most sports writers or TV-writers covering wrestling would never bother with.

Some nice information here includes:

(1) Mentions of local promoter Henry Marcus and the local venue County Hall.
(2) The main promoter Jim Crockett Promotions and their local promoter in Roanoke VA Sandy Scott
(3) TV originating form the studios of WRAL in Raleigh, NC
(4) The barter relationship between the local TV stations and JCP
(5) A mention of Sandy Scott promoting Greenville SC before Roanoke
(6) The first TV stations to carry wrestling for Jim Crockett  - WDBJ-7 in Roanoke, VA and WFBC-4 in Greenville, SC.

Thanks to Carroll Hall for forwarding this article to me, and to Peggy Lathan for transcribing it for us. Here is the text of the article (emphasis within the text is mine.) Enjoy!

Wresting Audience Greatly Expanded by TV
By Bob Gillespie
Charleston, SC - September 23, 1978

For several months now, I’ve followed this TV sports column and I have yet to see anything written on what has to be one of the tube’s most successful enterprises in the realm of sports. I shall now try to correct this omission.

What am I talking about?  Football? Basketball? Women’s Field Hockey? Tournament-level Tiddlywinks?  “No” to all of the above.

Try professional wrestling.

Wrestling? you ask, looking down your cultured nose with disdain. That Roman gladiator spectacle of the masses, with costumed clowns flying through the air like so many comic book characters?  TV wrestling – a success story?  Surely I jest, you say. And you probably laugh.

GO AHEAD. LAUGH. That’s just what both the pro wrestling promoters and local television stations are doing, all the way to the proverbial bank.

The fact is, wrestling, especially on television, has been growing in popularity over the last few years – by leaps and bounds greater than any you’ll see in the ring.  And no one realizes – and appreciates – that fact more than Charleston area television management.

On any given Saturday, year round, the Charleston viewer can see wrestling twice in one day. That’s if he doesn’t have cable TV; if he does, add another show on Saturday and one on Sunday. And if you live far enough toward Savannah where you can pick up that city’s television, you can catch two more showings, or five programs per Saturday.

There’s a reason that pro wrestling is on so often:  it’s popular.

“The shows are rather popular in this area, I know that,” says WCIV-TV (Channel 4) program director Don Moody. “If we have to move the show (1 pm Saturdays) for a network thing, we really get the phone calls.”

PROGRAM DIRECTOR Jim Shumaker of WCBD-TV (Channel 2), whose station carries wrestling Saturday night at 11:45, is even more emphatic. “It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “It leads its time periods against all comers. People in this area are really hung up on this wrestling.”

How hung up?  In the last important ratings book, which was back in May, wrestling at midnight Saturday was pulling a 52 percent share of the audience,” Shumaker said.  By comparison, Saturday Night Live on NBC (Channel 4) gets 32 percent, while Channel 5 (WCSC-TV) carrying Blockbuster Theatre takes a 21 percent share.

Channel 2 isn’t the only beneficiary of wrestling either. When Channel 4 runs wrestling at 1 pm, it gathers in 46 percent share of the audience at that time, as opposed to 31 percent for Soul Train (Channel 5) and 19 percent for American Bandstand (Channel 2). “They’re obviously doing something right,” added Shumaker.

“They” in this case is an outfit called Jim Crockett Promotions out of Charlotte, NC who provide their Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling in the Carolinas-Virginia area. Crockett not only handles the live events at local arenas, such as Charleston’s County Hall operations on Friday night, but also produces the television shows, filming the weekly at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC.

THE MOST IRONIC THING about the whole operation is the deal between Mid-Atlantic Wrestling and the local television stations. The stations get a program with a high rating – virtually for free.

“Crockett supplies us with the taped program,” Shumaker said.  “We give them two one-minute- forty-second commercials for promotion of their local wrestling matches. We get the program, which leads its time slot, plus 10 minutes of commercial time to sell. And they’re easy to sell, too.”

Why give away a program, when stations that run movies or even network programs against wrestling – and still lose out – are paying big bucks for those time-fillers?  Henry Marcus, who promotes wrestling for the Crockett operation in this area from his Columbia base, has an answer.

“It’s simple,” said Marcus, who started wrestling promotion in 1934. “Television is great, whether you’re selling wrestling or toothpaste. It’s the greatest advertising device man has ever invented. When you have 75 million people watch the Ali-Spinks fight, you can’t beat it.”

The Crockett TV blitz started “about 18 years ago under Jim Crockett, Sr., the father of the Jim Crockett who runs the operation now,” said Canadian native Sandy Scott, himself a former popular wrestler who now promotes the Mid-Atlantic product in Roanoke, VA, after covering the Greenville area the last three years. “The first station was Channel 7 in Roanoke in 1950 or so, and the second was WFBC in Greenville.”

SCOTT, LIKE MOST people involved in TV wrestling, is at something of a loss to explain its popularity. “I don’t know for sure, but it’s tremendous. Of course, we feel we offer the top wrestling talent, and the best will always hold the audience.”

“Wrestling did well without television, but TV has expanded the number of people we reach,” he added.  “Folks in smaller towns see it now.”

The only thing that may be holding pro wrestling back now is the item referred to at the beginning of this piece: its image. Sportswriters and some sports fans deride pro wrestling, question its status as a legitimate sport.  That’s actually putting it mildly: wrestling is often called a fake, a circus, a joke and the like.

I’m not getting into the merits of such arguments.  I like my skin in one piece, thank you. As one local television sportscaster put it, “I used to call wrestling a phony, but I learned you don’t do that in a crowded bar.”  But the arguments against wrestling still exist.

If the arguments don’t seem likely to change, though, the image may be doing so. “The wrestling programs on TV draw all spectrums,” Channel 2’s Shumaker noted. “We sell it locally, but our national salesmen say the general feeling among the big sponsors is that wrestling appeals to the ‘blue collar and beer’ crowd.”

“That’s not necessarily so. It seems to be drawing more young people, but it gets men, women and children, all ages. They seem to be expanding the market.”

For sure.  Said Marcus, “Our TV survey man in Charlotte estimates that on any Saturday, some 1.1 million people are watching wrestling on stations in the Carolinas and Virginia.”  “Blue collars and beer” or not, that’s a heap of potential customers for the TV sponsors.

So whether you love wrestling, hate wrestling or just don’t care, you’ll keep on seeing it on the tube for a long time. “We tend to take it for granted that it’s going to capture its time slot,” Shumaker said.  “I guess you’d have to call it a success story.”

And television is not inclined to give up success stories.

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