May 19, 2007
Wrestling Fans Can't Benefit from HD?: Cultural Biases and WWE to HD

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.


On May 29, 2007 at 12:51 PM, Mike W said:

I'm ready for the HD-era, as soon as DirecTV offers a reasonably-priced TiVo/HD Receiver combo.

I believe it was someone from WWE who said, in reference to going HD, that it's foolishly expensive to make the jump too early, and a damning indictment to do so too late. When Sunday circulars show that HDTV sets are still several thousand dollars, but at the same time, some sets are creeping down towards $400 and $500, I think they're on the right path in making the switch soon.

Of course, HD is complicated due to the need for a new set, a new cable box (and a higher cable bill for adding HD channels!), and that doesn't even begin to describe how to inform the consumer about 480/720/1080i or p, component, DVI, or HDMI connections, refresh rates, LCD versus plasma versus DLP, and so on.

HD's problem, in my opinion, is not a cost issue (and thus not a class issue); the barrier to entry to the HD era is the difficulty in an uninformed consumer making the right choices in the technology they purchase (so they don't, say, buy an LCD tv and Playstation 3, then hook it up via RCA cables and then complain about a lack of difference).


I have an HD box that doubles as a DVR from Comcast, and it's not bad at all. As for your point about cheaper HD sets, exactly. I think the idea that WWE fans can't afford an HD set is defeated by the point that you can get them so cheaply. Sure, some WWE fans can't afford HD, and some probably do not care about that anyway, but the core fans who get the PPVs, etc., and spend hundreds or thousands watching WWE every month would probably love to see it in high-definition.

Our country has certainly not done a good job of informing the consumer about a variety of television changes. Take, for instance, the digital deadline for the end of analog television signals. The average American certainly didn't know about that.

On June 14, 2007 at 12:47 AM, Sean Novak said:

As far as professional wrestling and bias, although i would agree that this is offensive, I think it is even more offensive the level of racial/ethnic stereotypes that have gotten and still get promoted via this format.


Sean, I wouldn't argue with you that pro wrestling's use of stereotypes can sometimes be troubling. I think there are ways that wrestling plays with stereotypes that can be interesting and even transgressive, but there are also ways in which wrestling often capitalizes on stereotypes in ways that wrestling fans are quite opposed to.

See more on these issues here.