March 3, 2008
Telling Stories Across Multiple Media Platforms: An Interview with WWE's J.R. (V of V)

This is the final 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: WWE has been increasingly working to expand its mobile services.  Where do you feel this might take the product in the future, and how will mobile fit in to the future of pro wrestling, in your mind?

Jim Ross: I think WWE Mobile is on the same path that the Internet created for our company. I think it's a new horizon. It's a new way of getting your message out. Telephones are becoming all-purpose, and now iPhones provide computers in your phones. Phones are not just something to talk to someone with today; they are now information sources. As the technology continues to evolve, the WWE is smart to be on the front end.

The business arrangement they have with WWE Mobile lets the product be globally accessible at any time. If you can get your hand on your phone, you can be in touch with the WWE. I was amazed with all I could do in an airport with my BlackBerry, seeing that I could be in New York City and read the newspaper in Oklahoma City through the Internet on my phone. That's the wave of the future. Through this traveling information source you keep in your pocket, you can keep up with everything going on with the WWE through your phone.

Through our mobile alerts and exclusive content on WWE Mobile, you can keep up with WWE news constantly. That gives the WWE Mobile customer even more exclusive material at their disposal than they could get through our Web site. In return, it's good cross-promotion to put that exclusive content back into the next week's episode of Monday Night RAW. You can see that the WWE promotes their magazine,, mobile, PPVs, and all their other outlets through their shows. Years ago, when I got into the business, we had one hour a week to get our consumer. 95 percent of our revenue came from live events. Now, the WWE has multiple platforms to create revenue from, and it's all a function of new storytelling techniques and new uses of technology. The same thing is happening in sports like the NFL, like with the old football players I mentioned before. The Butkus generation wasn't privy to all the licensing and merchandising that today's players are. Now, you've got video games, jerseys, and so on. I saw that Adrian Peterson has the sixth-best selling NFL jersey in the entire league, and he plays a team that wouldn't consider a large market team, in Minnesota. But those jerseys are now available in sporting good stores across the country and on the Internet.

Sam Ford: How much work does the on-air talent have to do in preparation for WWE video games?

Jim Ross: Most of the preparation time for our video games comes on the producer's side. Right now, the WWE works with THQ on our games. They interface with us on what their ideas for the next game is. When it gets to me, I sit down in a sound studio and go over my lines. By that point, the storylines have already been created for the game and approved. Copy is written accordingly for the video games. I am brought in to do hundreds of lines. This isn't commentating for something like a golf game, in that our lines require more of a fever pitch and more of a sense of urgency. The wrestlers usually get all their lines knocked out in one setting, whereas the commentators have to do theirs in multiple settings. Physically, your voice just cannot maintain its consistency to do all the lines at once. My limit is about three hours a session. What this means is that it necessitates multiple three-hour sessions in spring and early summer so the game can be produced and in stores by October or so for the holiday season.

Sam Ford: Some have speculated that pro wrestling fans are less affluent and thus will not take advantage of HD in the same ways that other television and sports fans might.  What is your response to that line of thinking, and what do you feel HD means for the WWE product?

Jim Ross: The people who make comments like this aren't as aware of the psychographics of the WWE as they think they are. I feel that it's very easy to stereotype the wrestling fan when you are uneducated on who those fans are. I've seen people contribute Britney Spears' issues to her being from the South. While I agree she does have issues she needs to get her arms around and correct, I don't know that any of those issues come from the fact that she's from Louisiana. I don't think that folks south of the Mason-Dixon line have the franchise on dysfunctional.

I realize that I have an above-average income, and I know a lot of college-educated folks who talk about what they watched on RAW and what they get a kick out of. You have a Master's degree and write about your wrestling fandom. People assume that those are the exceptions. I believe that those people are misguided, and it's what has caused some to think that wrestling fans won't be able to make use of high-definition. I think it's the same thing as digital cable, in that high-definition is just an evolution of television. We are in a television society; we are a television community. As technology moves along, we find more and more people with digital cable and satellite dishes now. That perception of pro wrestling fans that they are uneducated and missing teeth and that their personal hygiene isn't good is incorrect. Do we have fans that aren't college educated, that are blue-collar, and things of that nature? Absolutely! But we draw from a cross-section of people. Those who are making assumptions about WWE fans probably haven't been to a WWE event in their lifetime or perhaps a wrestling event since they were a kid. I go to these events every week, in a different city every Monday night, and I see people there with their families. You can go into the parking facilities to look at the cars, and you'll see that not everyone there is driving a pickup truck. It's silly to think that, and the stereotypes are just must ado about nothing.

There are many people in America who don't have an HD TV, for sure, but, years ago, it cost several hundred dollars to buy a pocket calculator. Now, they cost four or five dollars. The same thing has happened with computers. You now get a nice computer set up in your house for 10 or 20 percent of what they cost when they first came out. I know that, when I was a kid, I remember going over to the house of the first family in our area out in the country who had a color television, and we watched Bonanza. As the cost went down and they became affordable, everyone eventually got one.

Another aspect of this that many don't understand when looking at the wrestling fan base is that it isn't just a gross income that matters. Pro wrestling draws really well across the country, and cost of living differs drastically depending on where you live. If you are just looking at someone's gross income, then you aren't looking at the whole picture very clearly. It's important to factor in the cost of goods, the cost of living, gasoline, houses and mortgaging, and so on. The WWE can go to New York City and sell the Garden out for the Royal Rumble in 5 minutes or something. We can go to LA and between LA and Anaheim from a Saturday to Monday period, which is essentially the same market, we can gross about a million bucks combined. On the other hand, we will go to Phoenix and be close to sold out there, and then I look at our advances coming up in Louisiana in a few weeks, where they are reeling from a hurricane. It may not be Greenwich, Connecticut, there in terms of gross income, but the largest arena in that market is more than likely going to be sold out for that event, and the same will be true when our show goes to Omaha or Lafayette or Las Vegas.

Sam Ford: What do you think the future will be for magazines and books for the WWE?

Jim Ross: If you look at a WWE magazine today and all the spinoffs of it, they do a really good job of not just doing the monthly magazines but the special themed editions as well. The magazine is now so much slicker, and this goes along with the way the society has shifted. Look at People or Maxim, or Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, and almost all those publications might have one long story, but they will primarily be full of quick reads that appeal to short attention spans. I believe our magazine has done a really nice job of adjusting its format to what it seems the consumer is now buying on the newsstand. I'm sure there are other magazines, perhaps with an older demographic, that sell longer stories, and a whole lot more words than pictures, but the WWE has done a great job in adding more artwork, more photos, shorter features, and upgrading the look of the magazine. It is really one of the most significant upgrades in the mass media market that WWE has featured in a long time. It's amazing how good our magazine looks now compared to how it was many years ago. Part of that has to do with hiring good people. And, with the Internet now taking over the reporting function, it has become more of a lifestyle magazine. Now, we can do things like spend time with Shawn Michaels and see what a superstar does on his or her days off, what their hobbies are, and things of that nature.

As far as books are concerned, I think our publishing department is like anyone else's publishing department, in that we are always challenged to come up with compelling titles and compelling subject matter. I believe that most of those books for us have been autobiographic or biographical in nature. The key to that is one word: honesty. In the full disclosure world we live in, you either have to be willing to play all your cards or else be willing to say there's more you could say about a subject but that you're not going to talk about it because of X, Y, and Z, rather than ignoring it.

The publishing department is in the same ball game as anyone else, and that's providing compelling titles and subject matter. People are coming to biographies because they want to find new information or see a new perspective on events. A lot of wrestlers just aren't in the mindset that they want to provide that type of honesty right now, which is why many want to wait until they're done with their career. I can understand that, especially if you are planning to continue to work with people in the business, that it may be hard to write about these subjects.

The first major tell-all biography was Jim Bouton's Ball Four, where he wrote about some of baseball's "secrets" that really weren't secrets but rather things people didn't talk about. I know that I've read a lot of books about old newspaper guys, for instance, who knew where every skeleton was buried and what kind of cocktail a guy drinks or his various infidelities, but those were never printed. Today, we're in a situation where Web sites and television shows are all developed for that express purpose, to say who is drinking, who is in rehab, who is having affairs, who is experiencing hard times, and people buy that content. That makes providing that type of new perspective more challenging.

Not all biographies are created equal. I've ready many, many books about John Wayne, and some of them are extremely revealing and informative, while others are just fluff. For the best books, I think you have to have the right authors dealing with the right subject and with everyone comfortable and willing to peel the onion.

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