This is the first part of an interview I conducted with World Wrestling Entertainment icon Jim Ross. For background on the interview, please see the first part in this series. For J.R.'s appearance here at MIT, listen to the podcast here.
Sam Ford: J.R., you have been involved with a variety of projects for WWE 24/7 On Demand. Can you tell us a little about the motivation behind that initiative?
Jim Ross: I have a theory that you really can't navigate the future if you don't understand the past. I think that from just a corporate standpoint and a young sports entertainer standpoint, it's really a great option for them to see how the business was and how it has evolved.
I also think that, from a consumer's standpoint, younger fans are curious to know what wrestling was like on television, in some cases before they were born. At the same time, you've got people my age who grew up in the 60s as kids watching the weekly one-hour wrestling show on one of their local television affiliates that enjoy reminiscing and going back to that time.
The interesting thing about those old wrestling shows is that, by and large, because wrestling has never had a season, most of those shows only aired once. Even if you were a resident of an area whose local show is featured on 24/7, you may have forgotten an episode, missed an episode, or you may have been disengaged in a product at that time. Perhaps you discovered girls or high school sports and may not have been watching as regularly at some point.
Also, because those shows only aired in their region, some of those programs are brand new as it relates to much of the audience. It's not like watching a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show or an old episode of I Love Lucy because everyone had seen those shows. They had their run on television and then they had another run in syndication. These wrestling shows never ran nationally and were never re-run. If you lived in Kentucky and watched the local show there, you never saw the local show in Oklahoma.
So, 24/7 has several positive features and benefits. It's new to a lot of the audience. It brings back memories. It is kind of like watching a vintage football game on ESPN Classic. Some football fanatics may have already seen that game, but they enjoyed it so much they'll watch it again. You may have a whole new set of viewers who heard about that game, and then they're new fans of that product. Some of the movies that air on Turner Classic Movies have been around for years, but I would suggest to you that there are film studies students and new fans who are watching those old classics for the first time. I think it has one of the most exciting upsides and potential of all the WWE platforms.
Sam Ford: What value do you think archived footage has for the WWE brand?
Jim Ross: I think anything you can do to educate today's fan base about the heritage of the product is positive. I think that no one else but the WWE is going to do anything significant to create an awareness of the heritage and history of pro wrestling on television. We own most of the libraries now, and we have a platform for those shows to air.
I think it's extremely important for our young fans to see where the product came from and how it's evolved, and for them to see some of the great stars of yesteryear and how the in-ring styles have changed.
Bottom line, archived footage helps fans become more knowledgeable as fans and gives them a way to be more deeply rooted in the product. I think 24/7 in that respect is really important for today's audience. If nothing else, it's more content that WWE can encourage the viewers to watch. With that, the better off the WWE will be today. In the body of those old shows, they will have promotion for current events as well. You may watch in March and see these old shows on WWE 24/7 but also see Wrestlemania promotion or information about new WWE DVDs that are out.
Sam Ford: What are some of the most successful ways you feel the company has repackaged archived content at this point, and what other ways do you imagine content from the 24/7 library could be repackaged and redistributed?
Jim Ross: I think the WWE has done a really creative job in packaging and repackaging existing footage. I think that it's akin to NFL Films and how they have used their archived footage to, for example, show Dick Butkus, who could be featured as one of the greatest players of the 60s, one of the greatest Chicago Bears, one of football's toughest players, one of football's hardest hitters, one of the best linebackers, or all the other ways you could fold Butkus back in. Even though a lot of it is the same footage, that footage can be tied together in different ways.
The WWE has the same opportunity to promote its archived footage and characters from wrestling history with the greatest heroes, the strongest wrestlers, the greatest villains, the most flamboyant performers, the most charismatic superstars, the greatest talkers, the greatest brawlers, or the greatest scientific wrestlers. There is an endless array of headings with which our archived footage can be repurposed.
I think the only boundaries that exist are the ones on the creativity in how we package archived content together. In February, where we celebrate Black History Month as a nation, the WWE had some content highlighting African-American wrestlers, so there are a lot of established traditions that can be exploited on WWE 24/7 that go along with the culture. We had a promotion in November that I hosted about football players who had migrated into wrestling because November was Thanksgiving, with a history of traditional football rivalries and big games. The company felt that November was known for food, family, and football, so we looked at several famous wrestlers who, prior to getting into wrestling, were football players, whether it be Ernie Ladd, Brian Pillman, Wahoo McDaniel, or "Dr. Death" Steve Williams. Really, the only limit to what we can do with our archives is our own creativity.
Sam Ford: In what ways do you think the WWE might best create links between archived content and the current product?
Jim Ross: I think the WWE Hall of Fame has the potential to be a brand for the company. I can see the WWE Hall of Fame facility launching at some point, with a museum much like the NFL has in Canton, Ohio, or basketball has in Springfield, Mass., or baseball has in Cooperstown, New York. I can imagine that facility being a popular tourist attraction for fans to go and look at souvenirs, archived footage, and things of that nature.
I've always believed that the WWE Hall of Fame can be just as viable as an NFL Hall of Fame. I have three friends who have all won the Heisman Trophy, and, when you talk to them, you find out all the things the Heisman organization does in branding the trophy winners through merchandise like sweats, through autographed jerseys and footballs, and through appearances. Every winter, when they meet to honor the new inductee, they take that opportunity for all the former Heisman guys to assemble in one place and spend some time being productive and authenticating footballs and helmets.
I own an autographed football by every living Heisman winner and a helmet by every living Heisman winner. In the same way that I collect sports memorabilia, I think WWE fans would be interested in the same type of branded merchandise. Certainly, WWE 24/7 provides a platform for all those Hall of Famers to be recreated for a young audience who may not be aware of these guys who were stars in the 1960s or 1970s. When you realize that many of our viewers are in the 12-17 or the 18-34 demographic, one just has to do the math to know a lot of the fans in those two primary demographics were not alive when these performers were in their heyday. We can give them the chance to know who these wrestlers are and see why they became Hall of Famers. For the company, in the process, it might motivate the consumer/fan to invest in a Hall of Fame branded merchandise, DVDs, more reasons to watch 24/7, and so on.
In the next part of this five-part series, J.R. and I discuss the impact of the Internet on how pro wrestling tells its stories. Thoughts? E-mail me at email@example.com.