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October 14, 2005

Want to know the reason? Go to the Web site!

For those who have been following any of my postings on professional wrestling through this site, I thought this past few weeks' events have been particularly illuminating with the WWE's use of its Internet site as a storytelling tool.

The WWE's announcer for the past several years has been Jim Ross, an Oklahoman who has been in the wrestling business for many years. Rumors abounded these past few weeks that others in WWE management felt that J.R. was not the announcer for the demographic they were hoping to attract anymore and the company did enter in negotiations with the head announcer of the UFC to bring him into the pro wrestling world.

The UFC announcer decided not to take the offer, but WWE played on all this on last Monday's RAW when Vince McMahonVince McMahon's family publicly fired J.R. and humiliated him in the ring. Because of all the stories of J.R.'s being demoted in real life, there was a great fan backlash to the storyline on all the fan sites.

So far, the company has played off this in several ways. They have used the scenario to make the McMahons into greater villains, with usually straight matriarch Linda McMahon explaining why she kicked J.R. in the groin at the close of Monday's show in a Web exclusive, revealing plot lines that were not explicit on the TV programming. Then, the WWE's Web site featured an exclusive interview with J.R., where he heavily criticized the company for several of the things that Internet fans criticize it for: treatment of women as sexual objects, etc.

Then, the company muddied the waters by announcing that J.R. would be undergoing colon surgery, beginning new rumors that this was all a "work," or a storyline, to begin with and that the whole thing was concocted because J.R. needed surgery.

To further the confusion, the company posted several fan letters on the front page of their Web site denouncing the company for its treatment of J.R., including letters saying that the company was despicable and that several viewers would never watch the programming again.

Basically, by doing all this on the Web site, the company has taken a storyline that detested hardcore fans at the close of Monday's show and created a new and fascinating blurring of reality and fantasy that has fans hooked. This is the aspect of WWE programming that Henry Jenkins IV writes about in Steel Chair to the Head, what Sharon Mazer writes about in her ethnographic studies of online wrestling fans, and what Ben Wright, in his thesis at Wake Forest, called "hyperreality" in wrestling--that questionable line between reality and fantasy.

The company is starting to realize that, by using its Web site to create new ways of transmedia storytelling, the television product takes on new meanings and nuances for fans who consume the online entertainment as well.

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