Considering my continued interesting in pro wrestling and its fan community, and the class I just wrapped up teaching on American pro wrestling here at MIT that WWE had some official involvement with (class blog here), I was interested in Stephanie Robbins' piece in TelevisionWeek back on Thursday regarding WWE's plans to start taping all its weekly shows in high-definition sometime next year.
Robbins writes that investors were told that the company had delayed the switch because of a variety of technical issues but that, now that CW has become increasingly serious about high-definition programming and USA is switching to the format by the end of the year, the WWE has decided to make sure its product stays up-to-date.
What caught my attention, though, was the comments from Bruce Leichtman of Leichtman Research, one of those people who seem to creep into many TVWeek stories on HD. Leichtman was attributed as saying that the programming might not immediately benefit WWE fans and that, while many initial offerings appeal to an upscale audience, the WWE "has more of a downscale appeal." This was not a direct quote to Leicthman, but I'm assuming it isn't too far off the mark.
I'm sure WWE wasn't particularly happy with that comment, and something tells me that a significant number of fans won't appreciate the insinuation as well. I have cited some of Leichtman's research before on HD households, but I wonder what quantitative or qualitative research assumptions that quote was based on, or whether it was based on the longstanding stereotype of wrestling fans that, no matter how often it is disproved by the business realities of the WWE, still remains the prevalent viewpoint of the industry.
In the same story, WWE's Gary Davis was paraphrased as emphasizing that "fans include doctors, lawyers and accountants as well as construction workers. Research cited by WWE indicates typical viewers are actually more likely to purchase an HDTV than the average U.S. adult."
I am hoping more will come to light as to whether Leicthman was speaking off-the-cuff based on his prejudices or whether he has some data to back up what he says. Wrestling has often drawn pretty terribly among advertisers because of this same notion of a blue-collar and poor crowd of fans, yet wrestling draws consistently high numbers in PPV, VOD, DVD, and a variety of other factors. Of course, when the Westminster Dog Show or the U.S. Open comes around, wrestling gets pulled because advertisers still conceive of it as drawing a low-class audience. But thus are the preconceived notions of cultural taste...
I'd agree with Davis here, in that wrestling might draw particularly well among blue-collar households, minorities, the lower educated, etc., but it is also consistently one of the most popular shows on cable television and flagship programs of the three networks it airs on (CW, USA, and Sci Fi, when it comes to ratings). In my own observations, there are scores of high-income wrestling families. Further, because wrestling draws on a sports mentality, I would think that viewers would be especially interested in seeing it in high-definition.
The problem is not that "HD would not benefit the poor, uneducated wrestling fans" but rather problems about the performance realities, as I wrote about last September. Because wrestling is all about protecting the illusion and creating an atmosphere for "the willing suspension of disbelief," there has been some fear that the HD picture would be hard to work around in performance. WWE has already been testing to overcome those problems through new camera angles and a variety of other possibilities, though, so it will be interesting to see WWE continue to develop their strategy regarding HD.
In the meantime, I'm curious to see if any more comes to light regarding Leicthman's comments about the wrestling fan community.