Professional Wrestling

June 1, 2008

Conflicting Images of WWE's The Great Khali from U.S. and Indian Cultural Perspectives

Awhile back, former C3 manager Parmesh Shahani sent me a link to an interesting post about World Wrestling Entertainment professional wrestler The Great Khali. Khali, from India, was brought into the WWE because of his abnormal size and was put into the "monster" role that pro wrestling has long cultivated, the scary and intimidating behemoth that other wrestlers fear because of their brute strength.

Khali was put into a variety of big matches and even had a run as the heavyweight champion of Smackdown , but this was all complicated by the fact that--even though Khali was an attention-getter with his abnormal size--his size were a detriment in the athleticism of his wrestling performances. In fact, dedicated wrestling fans in the U.S. regularly dreaded his matches, because of the feeling that he had less wrestling ability than almost any other wrestler on the roster.

Many wrestling fans have long resented the fact that less talented performers are brought in and often given big "pushes" as marquee wrestlers because of the visual impressiveness of their size, especially when they take up main event spots that lead to lower-quality pay-per-view wrestling matches and cause more talented athletes to be positioned lower on the card. It's the tension between trying to create dynamics to attract less involved fans and satisfying the most dedicated ones.

But this post, from EditIndia, emphasizes that there are often multiple audiences watching products, especially for a bland as global as the WWE, which has found increasing success in pushing its franchise into media markets across the globe.

Continue reading "Conflicting Images of WWE's The Great Khali from U.S. and Indian Cultural Perspectives" »

May 21, 2008

Masculine Discourse Surrounding Modern Television

One of my greatest frustrations from Console-ing Passions was that my workshop was scheduled directly against some of the panels most directly relevant to my interests. Now, this is not meant as an attack on the conference planners; I'm keenly aware that there's just no way to avoid this when you're launching a media studies and fandom conference, but it was hard knowing that, next door, there were four interesting research presentations occurring while I was boring audiences with all my blabbing.

Ironically, while I was talking about soap opera audiences outside the target demographic and the ways in which those audiences are devalued in the commodification of audiences, Elana Levine was in the next room, talking about how the masculinization of television in recent years has further devalued more "ephemeral" programming, such as U.S. soaps. Elana was kind enough to forward her research my way, and I found her approach--to look at the increasingly masculine rhetoric surrounding the removal of the television from the domestic and the increasing focus on the technology of television as we move into a flat-panel, digital world--a fresh way to understand how television has begun to overcome many of the cultural biases that have long existed against the products that are broadcast on television and provided through cable.

Foremost, I find it interesting that Elana's compelling argument that television has become increasingly masculinized in rhetoric through emphasis on technology and the escape of domestic spaces exists alongside the growing trend for primetime television to adopt many of the storytelling tactics of daytime soaps. For instance, I was talking with Ivan Askwith about some of the rhetoric surrounding Lost, marveling at the existence of such a large ensemble cast and purporting that there's never been such a large ensemble cast on television. That is, of course, except for the soap operas that have been an hour in length since the mid-1970s and which have featured hundreds, even thousands, of characters in several decades on the air, many of which still have the potential to come and go fluently from the show.

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April 24, 2008

Outside the Target Demographic: Surplus Audiences in Wrestling and Soaps (3 of 3)

Perhaps even more frustrated, then, are soap opera fans. Soap opera producers sell the 18-49 female demographic more broadly, and the 18-34 female demographic in particular, to advertisers. Further, since soap operas primarily only exist as a daily television show, there are few economic forces counterbalancing the pervading "logic" of the target demographic, thus leading "the powers that be" (or "the idiots in charge," as soap opera fans more often refer to them) to constantly try to develop stories, and feature characters most prominently, that they believe will play well to the target demo. Since soap opera ratings have been falling steadily for the past 15-20 years, soaps have responded by trying to even more expressly target the target demo. However, the problem with that logic is that it directly defies the transgenerational nature of the narrative itself.

I have found anecdotally that almost all longtime soap opera fans began their relationship with the text of these shows through relationships with other fans. Often, this has been a transgenerational relationship. A grandmother, a mother, an uncle, or a babysitter watched soaps regularly, and the fan grew up with these same soap operas on. Thus, it is the longtime characters that have remained the glue holding them to the show, and it is the relationships built around the show--or the memories of these relationships, for loved ones who have passed away--that keeps them watching today. For more on this appeal, see Lee Harrington and Denise Brothers-McPhail's latest project on aging in soaps, as well as some of the work from Barbara Irwin and Mary Cassata at Project Daytime.

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Outside the Target Demographic: Surplus Audiences in Wrestling and Soaps (2 of 3)

In the case of pro wrestling, the WWE's popular television shows--Monday Night Raw, ECW, and Friday Night Smackdown target a young adult male and teenage audience.

Advertisers expect this audience, and the shows position their texts to presumably appeal to heterosexual U.S. young men in particular, despite the fact that some estimates have WWE audiences at 30 percent to 40 percent female, the average age of the WWE's fan base is older than the target demographic, and WWE's international popularity often helps bolster flagging enthusiasm in this country.

This economic marginalization can lead to great creativity among pro wrestling fans excluded from the debate--see scholarship, for instance, about how Latino-American children interpret the WWE narrative from Ellen Seiter, Sue Clerc and Catherine Salmon's work on pro wrestling slash, and Brian Pronger's writing about pro wrestling from the standpoint of a gay spectator.

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Outside the Target Demographic: Surplus Audiences in Wrestling and Soaps (1 of 3)

I came to the Gender and Fan Studies/Culture dialogue on LiveJournal and Henry Jenkins' blog from both ends of the producer/consumer scholarship binaries often posed in the discussion. On the one hand, I work for a group called the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, which converses with media corporations to look at the intersection between media producers and audiences. On the other, my primary areas of research interest have come from studying the ways in which fans reappropriate media texts in their own performances and discussions, often in ways that run counter to the interests, or at least irrelevant of the interests, of bottom-line driven corporate endeavors.

I also felt some kinship to both sides of the gender divisions being discussed in the debate. On the one hand, my work on professional wrestling occupies a place between sports fandom and media fandom--two worlds that have strangely been separated in academic discourse, as Kimberly Schimmel, Lee Harrington, and Denise Bielby have researched recently. Pro wrestling has often been criticized as "hypermasculine," while my other research interest--soap operas--has often been derided and ghettoized in popular culture in many ways because of its rich history of primarily female authorship, a feminine narrative perspective, and a largely female fan base. For me--as a lifelong fan of both professional wrestling and soaps--I saw great connections between the two, connections I have written about as dealing with the immersiveness of the narrative worlds of both texts.

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April 17, 2008

MIT Art Work-Out: John Bell and the Celtics' Lucky

In addition to my presentation on the history of professional wrestling in the U.S. as part of the Art Work-Out Lecture Series event on "The Theater of Sport," I was joined at the event by John Bell, a professor here at MIT who is also known as a puppeteer, as well as an historian of puppet theater. He is author of such books as Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History and the forthcoming American Puppet Modernism.

I had heard about John's work, but I had never gotten the chance to meet him. John introduced and interviewed Damon Lee Blust, famed for his impressive dunks at Boston basketball games in recent years in his role as Lucky, mascot of the Celtics. Lucky is the only "human mascot," with no large outfit, allowing him to perform more athletic feats.

Turns out, building off my talk about pro wrestling as "sports entertainment," and prepared completely independent from my presentation, John and Damon talked about the work of a mascot also as sports entertainment.

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MIT Art Work-Out: Pro Wrestling--Sport as Theater

Earlier this week, I was honored to be invited to take part in the Art Work-Out Lecture Series sponsored by the MIT Visual Arts Program, in conjunction with the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation (DAPER), for an event called "The Theater of Sport."

The lecture was offered as part of Wendy Jacob's Introduction to Visual Arts class and Andrea Frank's Introduction to Photography and Related Media class. Thanks to Jennifer Tren, Sofia Ponte, and Kate James for their work in setting this up. (By the way, you can still see Kate's insights on the world of professional wrestling archived from her participation in my Spring 2007 course on U.S. pro wrestling here at MIT on our class blog.)

My portion of the Art Work-Out event was entitled "Pro Wrestling--Sport as Theater." This talk was based on a lecture I gave for the MIT List Visual Arts Center back in May 2007, entitled "America's Fascination with Pro Wrestling."

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April 6, 2008

PCA/ACA: Bryce McNeil and Shane Toepfer on Wrestling Morality and Fandom

There may be no session I was more disappointed in missing than Bryce McNeil's presentation on Wednesday afternoon with fellow Georgia State University scholar Shane Toepfer, entitled "'He's a Rattlesnake but He's One Tough S.O.B.': Establishing the Fluidity of Professional Wrestling Character Types." My interest in the subject's no secret: one only has to look at the course I taught on the subject last spring. (See more on the course from the class blog, the OpenCourseWare site for the class here at MIT, and Emily Sweeney's Boston Globe article on the class.)

Bryce and I first started corresponding based on his Master's thesis work on pro wrestling, looking at the rhetoric of WWE owner Vince McMahon in situations in which his company was in some form of public controversy. He ended up coming up here and spending some time with my class last spring, and we keep up, especially as we both have a continued research interest in the world of pro wrestling.

Bryce was nice enough to give me a copy of his and Shane's remarks, and we had corresponded a few times as they planned the paper. In short, their central proposition is that it has been a mistake to look at pro wrestling as "good vs. evil," but it is likewise a mistake to throw the "face/heel" dichotomy in pro wrestling out completely as well. Rather than wrestling characters "being" babyfaces or heels, in a static way, it's easier to understand actions as face or heel actions, thus acknowledging a greater degree of moral ambiguity not only in today's pro wrestling but arguably that has always existed.

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March 21, 2008

SCMS: Vast Narratives and Immersive Story Worlds

For a couple of weeks now, I've been planning to include some notes here on the Consortium's blog about a few of the sessions I had the opportunity to attend at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago. The event was a great opportunity to see many friends and colleagues, and it gave me a chance to learn more about the current state of a variety of research projects, as well as hear about some new projects and meet some interesting new faces as well. In the following series of posts over the next few days, I wanted to transform some of my random notes about the conference into a recap of sorts.

I'll start with the first session of the conference, which came at noon on Thursday. I had the fortunate opportunity to present first. I know many people probably feel that isn't so fortunate in timing, especially since most of the people I know weren't even arriving at the conference until Thursday, but I was excited about the opportunity to get the stress of my own presentation out of the way so that I could concentrate instead on enjoying other panels. Despite the early start time, though, the panel was standing room only, and I have the interesting work of some of my fellow panelists to thank for that.

My presentation was about a concept I've written on here on the blog from time-to-time: vast narratives and "immersive story worlds," a concept I have drawn on beginning with my Master's thesis work here at MIT.

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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.

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

This is the third 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: In addition to your work on, you also run your own blog, J.R. What are the differences between writing on the WWE's official site and writing on your own site?

Jim Ross: What I write on is a little different than what I wrote on my own blog on That's done intentionally. I look at it as apples and oranges because there's a major difference in what I write on those two venues. I write my column every week for, and they tell me that it does well and that people enjoy reading it. I believe that's because I infuse that column with humor and entertainment.

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March 2, 2008

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

This is the second 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., what do you feel are the biggest changes in marketing and producing professional wrestling in the Internet era?

Jim Ross: I think one of the biggest changes would probably be the timeliness with which information is provided. When I was a kid, before cable television was invented, we got our one hour wrestling show in our area, and that was it. We got one hour a week on our local show.

Continue reading "Telling Stories Across Multiple Media Platforms: An Interview with WWE's J.R. (III of V)" »

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

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.

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

Over the next five entries, I'm presenting the transcript of a recent question and answer session I conducted with World Wrestling Entertainment Monday Night RAW commentator and professional wrestling icon Jim Ross, known affectionately to wrestling fans as "Good 'Ol J.R."

J.R. has been a fixture in the wrestling world for decades now, growing up in the territory era and serving as a referee, an announcer, and a pivotal part of the organizations of Leroy McGuirk and later Bill Watts in the center of the country. J.R. worked for several years for Ted Turner's now defunct World Championship Wrestling and has been a key part of the WWE, as both an on-air personality and a pivotal behind-the-scenes force, since he joined the company in 1993.

When I taught a class on American professional wrestling last spring, the WWE partnered with me to officially sponsor the class, which included sending J.R. our way to visit with the class on two different sessions, as well as participate in a public question and answer event that has later been made available as a podcast. That podcast is available here.

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February 9, 2008

WWE's Departure from The CW a Situation Worth Watching

Significant news broke this week for the CW Network and World Wrestling Entertainment, as the WWE announced on its Web site Friday that, at the end of the current television season, Friday Night Smackdown will no longer air on the CW Network.

The move raises significant questions for what will happen to one of the two major WWE wrestling brands, but it also gives us a chance to consider what programming with a strong base like the WWE's might be able to seek out as alternatives. The WWE has proven in the past few years to be willing to experiment and change the nature of its programming, from its launch of defunct brand ECW as its "C-show" on Sci Fi (a move that was controversial in itself, especially due to tensions between wrestling fans and sci fi fans over its placement on the network) to its use of the Internet for distribution of shows in the past when they were moved off the network (see here).

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January 23, 2008


I've followed the story for a long time, but as of this Monday night, World Wrestling Entertainment has converted its programming over to HD.

WWE RAW on the USA Network, ECW on Sci Fi, and Friday Night Smackdown on The CW will all now be aired with high-definition feeds, as well as WWE pay-per-view events, starting with Sunday's Royal Rumble. The CW had been looking to upgrade Smackdown for a while, in its effort to transition all its programming to HD. Meanwhile, both USA and Sci Fi are using the transition amidst their creation of dedicated HD channels.

WWE provides an FAQ section on HD, as well as a story on their site detailing some of the last minute struggles for the production team to get prepared for the first HD broadcast of WWE television.

Continue reading "WWE in HD" »

January 9, 2008

Tying Live Events into a Transmedia Narrative

As many of you who follow our blog or our other writings or conferences regularly know, the Consortium has always been interested in transmedia storytelling, and I have often posited that professional wrestling is a narrative that has always been ripe for crossing multiple media formats. World Wrestling Entertainment has built a model around it.

At first, television and other revenue streams were meant as ancillary content and even more as a way to build for the real meat of the business, which was the touring live event show. Over time, however, the television show, pay-per-views, DVDs, and other media products have become the primary focus, while live events that aren't televised have fallen low on the list of priorities.

The question for a long time now has been what to do about that, how to make coming to a non-televised WWE event worthwhile. After all, very little usually happens at them, and the idea is more of a touring show that you only get to see live on occasion. A lot of fans otherwise engaged in the product, though, are happy to stay home when WWE comes to town, as they know nothing important in the narrative will happen if the cameras aren't rolling.

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November 13, 2007

WWE Grapples with CNN Documentary: Smacking Down the News

Journalism is fundamentally altered in an age of convergence culture. This isn't particularly new news for my colleagues over at the Center for Future Civic Media here at MIT in the Program in Comparative Media Studies. Nor is it new news for many of the people I spent time with back at Western Kentucky University when I was a journalism student in the School of Journalism and Broadcasting.

It's not even new news for the folks in the trenches of rural weekly journalism, described as the cockroaches of the journalism world by my editor at The Ohio County Times-News.

But I was reminded how talking back to the official journalists is possible in new ways in a new media environment, as was evidenced by a recent controversy between the WWE and CNN.

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October 7, 2007

Wendy's Watermark: Experiment or Error?

You know we are in a phase of experimental marketing when audiences start debating whether or not something was meant to be an advertisement, or whether it was just an error.

The debate, of course, can be good or bad: when an ad runs consecutively, back-to-back, I've often found that it annoys consumers, at least from anecdotal evidence of hearing others talk when it happens, or conversations I've seen take place online. But I saw a new one a little while back.

I was reminded of it when I was going back to watch parts of a wrestling show from the end of August. It was Friday Night Smackdown, World Wrestling Entertainment's show on the CW Network, for Aug. 31. When the show first came on, I noticed something peculiar every time there was a black screen: a Wendy's watermark.

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October 2, 2007

Wrestling Fans Dissect "Save_us.222"

The Consortium is always interested in ARG-esque promotions for content, as regular readers of the blog and some of our other work know, and I am always keeping a close eye on the world of professional wrestling. That's why a recent WWE campaign caught my eye in particular. It has the fans talking and speculating about the potential impending return of one of the biggest wrestling stars of the last decade, "Y2J" Chris Jericho, or perhaps the impending return of "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels, who was injured earlier this year.

Jericho, who took a sabbatical from wrestling in 2005, has not returned to the ring since. But a short clip that aired during World Wrestling Entertainment, starting a couple of weeks ago, has gotten people talking about his potential return. The video, available here and in various versions, features streaming numbers and letters, Matrix-style, with the only major repeated text being flashes of a message: "Save_us.222."

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August 23, 2007

WWE Going to HD on The CW?

More news has surfaced regarding the move of professional wrestling to high-definition, something that has interested me and that I've written about here a few times in the past few months.

World Wrestling Entertainment has been among the top rated shows on the three channels that its three brands air: USA Network, the Sci Fi Channel, and The CW Network. The company has been toying with a transfer to high-definition for some time, but this culminated with the decision by the CW Network to move to broadcasting in all HD.

At first, it looked as if wrestling would be left out of the picture. As Richard Lawler writes, the CW announced that all its other shows would be going HD at the launch of the new TV season, aside from its Friday evening wrestling programming.

However, word is circulating now that WWE will make the transition to high-definition in January.

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July 30, 2007

Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (V of V)


Pro wrestling is an appropriate avenue for researching broader themes in American culture because wrestling allows its fans a close involvement in writing and defining the text. Through the instant feedback available in wrestling shows, fans can directly influence the pacing of a show and can rewrite its meaning. Those viewing televised wrestling can mediate its meaning through their own interpretation of wrestling's often ambiguous messages and through their viewing patterns, around which the shows are written. Promoters and performers alter their fictional characters to change the character's meaning, similar to how musicians such as Prince, Pat Boone, and David Bowie "redefine" themselves for a new generation.

Meanwhile, fans alter fictional characters through their perceptions and interpretations, similar to the ways that another liminal star, Elvis Presley, has been appropriated to represent a variety of American values. As Doss (1999: 259) concludes in her study of Elvis, "Elvis, after all, is an American emblem, and debates and conflicts over who Elvis is and what he means are comparable to the debates and conflicts over what America is and what America means." Rodman (1996: 1) writes that Elvis surfaces "in ways that defy common-sense notions of how dead stars are supposed to behave," popping up not only in for-profit creations but in very personal ways in fans' lives--such as my editor at the Ohio County Times-News newspaper in Hartford, Ky., who jokingly refers to his former "Skinny Elvis" days and his current "Fat Elvis" days, in which Elvis' personal trajectory becomes a metaphor for my editor's own aging and physical change.

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Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (IV of V)

Gender/Masculinity: Brains vs. Brawn

The criticism of wrestling's narrow definition of manhood and its vilifying of any opposing views of what constitutes manliness has been covered by many critics (i.e., Lincoln 1989, Berger 1990). The critical concern about the effects of such confining representations of masculinity has been waged most broadly by Jhally and Katz (2002), who indict WWE as purveyors of damaging stereotypes and narrow codes of masculine behavior. Jhally and Katz attempt to connect wrestling's definition of gender roles with broad social problems relating to domestic violence. Jenkins (2005: 306-307) refutes these arguments by claiming that by oversimplifying their subjects, such narrow readings of wrestling participate in the very "anti-intellectualism" for which these critics often condemn wrestling. He particularly attacks their unsubstantiated attempts to liken the ignoring of wrestling's ill effects to the ignoring of Adolf Hitler's rise in Germany.

Wrestling has become a battleground for an argument that involves methodology (whether an examination of wrestling content can have only one possible reading), mediation (a singular writing of wrestling shows by Vince McMahon and his writing team or a communal definition of the product mediated by writers, performers, and fans), and gender roles (wrestling as one definition of masculinity or wrestling as a battle among conflicting masculinities). While wrestling glorifies certain aspects of the traditional hero, its treatment of masculinity is more nuanced than a simplistic reading would find. For instance, Jhally and Katz, in their analysis, do not consider the context of scenes they analyze in the overall narrative or whether the person perpetrating a certain action is a hero or a villain. The contradictions in Foley's character and its affirming and denying of traditional masculine attributes are a fitting example for Jenkins' argument of a more layered reading of pro wrestling. A reading of a character such as Foley's in unambiguous terms ignores the importance of his many contradictions.

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Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (III of V)

The Star Image of Mick Foley

Mick Foley's character developed over the course of twenty years in pro wrestling. Following the definition provided by Ellis (1999: 539) of the star as "a performer in a particular medium whose figure enters into subsidiary forms of circulation, and then feeds back into future performances," Foley's star image emerges out of his various fictional personas and the public dissemination of information about his private life that is incorporated into his star image. The image in wrestling is the fictional character depicted on the screen. These fictional characters are usually either heroes or villains, although they may change freely between the two extremes. Pro wrestling thrives on the relationship between these heroes and villains to build toward eventual grudge matches that fans want to see. Wrestling heroes and villains are defined chiefly through their opposition, as a villain can become a hero by engaging in a feud with one even more villainous than he or she. Similarly, a hero can become a villain by coming into conflict with a hero more popular than he or she. In the case of a change, the star image usually only alters slightly, as wrestlers generally retain their same basic characters. The chief difference is their view of the fans, as the hero-turned-villain usually abandons his or her supporters, while the villain-turned-hero embraces the fans he or she once despised.

In pro wrestling, the wrestler is the commodity. As Birrell and Turowetz (1979: 220) point out, then, every appearance is an opportunity to sell his or her character identity. This commodification process likens wrestling to another form of public discourse, politics. For instance, as Roper (2004) analyzes, the selling of President George W. Bush's heroic persona during his "War on Terror" led to the cultivation of a protector-figure to respond to the terrorist attacks on America. Wrestling's connection to political life has often been articulated by former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura (2004), who admitted that his understanding of marketing himself as a pro wrestler greatly informed his successful campaign for the governorship in 1998.

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Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (II of V)

A growing body of scholarship has formed to analyze professional wrestling; however, this preliminary collection of work into wrestling's close connection with American society, past and present, has only scratched the surface of an art form that provides an inexhaustible wealth of research material. Wrestling is a particularly apt way to study the culture of a particular time and place and an exaggerated visual text that provides many potential avenues to study the hero-making process in American culture. Pro wrestling is liminal, existing both as sport and drama, fact and fiction, all mediated through a web of complex relationships within the larger construct of the promoter, the media, the actors, and the fans. Furthermore, wrestling is a text that draws on a variety of dramatic conventions and a unique blending of "high" and "low" culture, reflecting what Levine (1988) identifies as a contemporary questioning of distinctions between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in American art.

Wrestling has been examined from a myriad of critical perspectives because of the rich possibilities its complicated narrative structure offers for various disciplines. Barthes (1972: 21) claims that pro wrestling is "a spectacle of excess" involving a symbolic show of suffering and justice through the hero's struggle with the rule-breaking villain. Goffman (1974) further identifies this spectacular element of wrestling's central narrative, the hero's appropriation of rule-breaking to retaliate against an opponent who has broken the agreement of a fair fight between the two. Goffman (1974: 418) claims wrestling's excitement comes through this breaking of the audience's perceived frame of fair play in sports.

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Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (I of V)

I am finishing up the final version of an essay about three years in the making, that I actually got accepted for publication in my final days as an undergraduate back at Western Kentucky University. After a few holdups here and there, the piece will be going into a collection edited by Cornel Sandvoss, Michael Real, and Alina Bernstein called Bodies of Discourse: Sport Stars, Globalization, and the Public Sphere. As I am tidying the essay up, I wanted to see if there were any relevant thoughts from C3 readers on the implications "real" characters like those in pro wrestling have on the meaning of masculinity in the modern media.

When professional wrestler Mick Foley won the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly WWF) World Heavyweight Title on Monday Night RAW at the end of 1998, he became a heroic character in the realm of pro wrestling, then at its height of popularity on cable television. Many considered Foley an unusual hero. His character blended masculine heroic qualities of tenacity, endurance, and hard work with characteristics not usually seen in the American hero: a need for communal acceptance, a desire for intellectual growth, and an unattractive aesthetic, with Foley's missing teeth, severed ear, unkempt hair, pear-shaped figure, and lack of the muscular definition usually expected in the wrestling hero.

Mick Foley is a paradox, as his character both embraces and defies elements of the traditional masculine hero. This redefinition of the heroic figure in wrestling, according to Dalbir Singh Sehmby (2000: 202), stems from wrestling's complex relationship among fans, promoters, the media, and Foley himself. Sammond (2005) writes that "whether professional wrestling is progressive, transgressive, or regressive (or all these at different moments) depends on how it serves the social goals of its producers, performers, audiences, and its critics." Because of wrestling's participatory nature, allowing fans to directly influence the product, wrestling heroes may perhaps be more indicative of the paradoxes in defining masculinity and American heroism than the heroes created through many other media products. The construction of Foley as hero reveals America's changing and conflicting values regarding its traditions and its definition of masculinity.

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July 12, 2007

Gender and Fan Studies (Round Six, Part Two): C. Lee Harrington and Sam Ford

See the first post in this series here.

Sam Ford: I know that a lot of the people following this debate might not be that interested in soaps in particular, but I am interested in the differences in discussing fan culture when it shifts from being a conversation primarily about fan fiction, which many of the back-and-forths have so far. How do we measure creativity in relation to fan communities? My understanding is that most people would agree that fan fiction only retains its full meaning and resonance within the community that it is produced in, and the social specificity of creative output is no different in the soap opera fan communities we have been discussing, but the output is often much different--criticism, debate, parody, discussion, continuity-maintenance, historical perspective...these are very creative processes that seem to be the prevalent forms of fan output for soap opera fandom.

To move toward your discussion of sports and media fans, I think the question you pose is one relevant to this series as a whole and one which various contributors have touched on in one way or another. Are we looking at the difference in male and female fan responses or in the responses of scholarship on fans, or can you really separate the two? As you imply in your question, there is some difficulty in separating the two, and perhaps the body of academic work on soap opera fandom, television fandom, fan fiction communities, sports fandom, and so on are shaped greatly by the gendered perspectives, and the respective genders, of those who have been most prevalent in those fields. It is important to realize this may be the case, while not making that the totalizing explanation for differences in sports fandom and sports fan studies, when compared to media fandom.

Continue reading "Gender and Fan Studies (Round Six, Part Two): C. Lee Harrington and Sam Ford" »

July 11, 2007

Gender and Fan Studies (Round Six, Part One): C. Lee Harrington and Sam Ford

This is the first of a two-part series being posted on Henry Jenkins' blog and discussed through a LiveJournal community site, the latest in the rounds of posts featuring a male and female fan studies scholar looking at issues of gender in relation to the study of fan communities. This round features my discussion with C. Lee Harrington, who has been a key scholar in the history of the study of soap opera fandom. Both parts will be posted here on the C3 blog as well.

C. Lee Harrington: Hi everyone. This has been an interesting set of discussions thus far -- Sam and I are happy to contribute. We'll follow the general norm by beginning with introductions. I've been engaged in audience/fan studies since the early 1990s, with most of my work co-authored with Denise Bielby.

Our interest in fan studies grew out of our long term soap opera-watching habit. I don't remember how long Denise has been watching, but I started watching soaps in the late 1970s and have been an enthusiastic follower ever since (mostly ABC soaps, with some years watching DOOL).

When I was in grad school at UCSB in the late 1980s (Denise is on the faculty there), we went to a General Hospital fan club luncheon, were fascinated by the entire experience, and decided to study the soap fan culture. Our book Soap Fans was published a few years after Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers and Camille Bacon- Smith's Enterprising Women, among other important work of the late 80s/early 90s, which heavily influenced the way I thought about audience/fans.

Continue reading "Gender and Fan Studies (Round Six, Part One): C. Lee Harrington and Sam Ford" »

June 24, 2006

ECW a Hit--But Controversy Continues on Sci Fi

World Wrestling Entertainment's version of Extreme Championship Wrestling has now aired its first two episodes on the Sci Fi Channel, to follow up on a post from a few weeks ago. A lot of people on both the wrestling side and the sci-fi side have questioned how a wrestling program could fit in on the network, including a sci-fi fan who responded to our previous entry here.

Ratings-wise, we've gotten our answer. ECW blows away anything else that airs regularly on Sci Fi in the ratings. Before ECW's debut, according to Dave Meltzer, the highest rated show on the network was Ghost Hunters, which regualrly draws about a 1.2 rating. In its first week, ECW drew a 2.8 rating, more than double the highest rated regular Sci Fi program. The second week, in opposition with the NBA finals, the show drew a 2.4, and Sci-Fi and NBC Universal are ecstatic.

But that doesn't mean that ECW is still a particularly good fit on Sci-Fi. The regular Sci Fi fans are resentful. Fans on both sides seem ignorant of any aesthetic value in the other side's entertainment. Wrestling fans have no interest in what they perceive as any "sci-fi" influence creeping onto their show, and the sentiments of the fan who posted here, saying that Sci Fi is a refuge from terrible programming like wrestling, sums up how many sci-fi fans feel about wrestling.

So, let's establish this: neither Sci Fi programming nor pro wrestling is inherently bad, but trying to mix the two could be. The wrestling fans don't particularly care what network a show comes on, as long as it's true to what it's supposed to be: wrestling. But Sci Fi marketing people, according to Dave Meltzer, made suggestions that Martians and vampires appear on the ECW show in the arena and that ECW wrestlers should go into other dimensions. Well, you can imagine how regular ECW fans, and even WWE fans, felt about a suggestion like that. The WWE made fun of the very idea on the initial ECW episode, with a wrestler named The Zombie coming down to the ring, only to get caned by The Sandman, an old ECW regular. From WWE's perspective, Sci Fi probably was not their top choice (I'm sure that would have been USA), but they knew they wanted to launch an ECW show, and their exclusivity deal with NBC Universal dictated that it could only be on one of the conglomerate's networks...Sci Fi was the only network that displayed a strong interest.

While the sci-fi community has been vocally upset about the wrestling influence, wrestling fans were incensed by these suggestions and happy that the Sci Fi Channel got their answer with the caning. It was a joint statement by WWE and Sci Fi to wrestling fans that ECW would not be mired by such silly gimmicks. Consessions to the sci-fi sentiment, at least in the network's eyes, include a set of vampire cultish wrestlers in ECW, as well as pushing Paul Heyman's character as a cultish leader of ECW.

The only thing at this point that's hurting ECW with the wrestling fanbase are the hardcore ECW fans who can't see the new version of ECW as being true to the original, which WWE purchased the rights to. The first episode, while doing "extremely" well in the ratings, was considered a disappointment aesthetically by most fans and many with the company. But the following week introduced some new characters and started to reveal the direction the show will be going. And wrestling fans must realize that ECW can't be a reunion show and remain a vibrant weekly television program, so there has to be a new version that draws in the wider WWE fan base, in addition to the hardcore fans.

USA Network and Sci Fi are working hard to make the two wrestling shows cross-promote each other, but both networks have come to realize something about wrestling fans: they feel little loyalty to the network, so that WWE fans are most likely to tune in when their show comes on and tune back out as soon as the show is over. The only value WWE adds to the network, then, is increasing the ratings of the network substantially, especially since wrestling draws lower advertising rates than many other shows, despite its high ratings, because of the unfair stereotypes against its fanbase. For USA, this means that it more consistently wins its war to top the weekly cable ratings because WWE inflates its numbers. For Sci Fi, this means that they have a show that, ratings-wise, is their biggest hit. And, with ECW and Monday Night RAW cross-promoting each other, the two networks are at least giving wrestling fans more to tune into and trying to keep those flagship shows high.

So, at this point, that appears to be the impasse. If Sci Fi fans will support or at least ignore ECW's presence, it will be a boon to the network's numbers. Conversely, if Sci Fi stays out of ECW's programming, wrestling fans care little what network their show airs on. And it's a win-win...unless the fan communities have to come into contact again; then it turns into another battle royal.

By the way, my suspicions about Stephen Colbert reading this site are nothing more than conspiracy theories, but I've got proof that Warren Ellis does.

June 22, 2006

Online Newspaper for DC Comics Series

Within the comic book medium, both DC and Marvel have proven their expertise in stretching narratives across various comic series. Occasionally, a storyline or a catastrophe is so great that it encompasses all of the fictional universes of a certain comic company, so that all characters and all monthly comic series are affected by a current event. And, for readers to get the full story, they would have to buy all the comic books that company produces in that time span, even if they are regular collectors of many of those series.

However, comic books have often used crossing media platforms simply for adaptation instead of transmedia storytelling (the difference being that transmedia requires each story to build on the other rather than simply telling the same essential story in multiple media forms). Comics have branched into film, cartoons, video games, and various other venues, but have often not utilized the storytelling potential this transmedia empire allows.

A new initiative from DC Comics proves what transmedia storytelling within the superhero genre is capable of, however. DC has launched an intriguing new comic series called 52, a weekly series produced by four of DC's best writers. The series focuses on what happened in the DC Universe that week, including the aftermath of many of the events that happen in the other comic series.

The storytelling extends to an online project, a digital version of The Daily Planet, the newspaper of fictional Metropolis. This daily newspaper mimics news sites in providing stock trackers, online ads, and other features, all utilizing companies that are part of the DC Universe. And there are several options, including a variety of news stories, updated on a regular basis.

The idea of providing a digital newspaper to cover the events happening in a fictional universe, especially as one as outlandish as the comic book genre, is a project that could extend to almost any transmedia storytelling format as an easy way to provide additional and meaningful content. For any fictional universe that is big enough to provide enough material for constant news updates, this type of project seems not only feasible but as providing meaningful extensions for fans.

This would be a more difficult fit for weekly series to pull off, but other daily series could do this as well because their fictional universe is updated often enough to make this type of product valuable. The areas I follow--such as soap operas and pro wrestling--are other potential extensions for this type of product. The WWE already has as an online newspaper of sorts in its main Web site, complemented by its magazine, which provides news on a regular basis about the WWE universe, often blending fiction and reality. WWE on-air commentator Michael Cole--a former news correspondent--has been named editor of the online news content and is working to give it a more authentic, news-oriented feel.

However, soaps have not yet branched into this area, although it's a natural extension. Most shows already have their newspaper as part of the fictional universe, so that Oakdale's City Times or The Intruder could easily become an online daily extension for As the World Turns, with AP-style reports on events that happen in Oakdale, on the show. Sure, Jack and Carly's divorce wouldn't be in the news, but it would be a fascinating way to provide background for the show and cover shocking events--murders and the like--when they happen.

I, for one, hope that the entertainment world takes notice of The Daily Planet and that the site is given enough meaningful content to realize its potential.

Thanks to Dr. Henry Jenkins for passing this along.

June 8, 2006

L. Brent Bozell Keeps Popping Back Up

I am an unwavering advocate for free speech, even if it's speech I don't agree with, but L. Brent Bozell's constant campaigns sure do make me want to pull my hair out. Now, he's taking credit for the current move to drastically increase indecency fines that's making it's way through Congress.

He has led such efforts as the Parents Television Council, a group who watches for material that offends its members' sensibilities in all broadcast programming. I first became acquainted with Mr. Bozell as a high school wrestling fan in the late 1990s when his group declared war on Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), calling sponsors and pressuring them to pull ads from WWE programming.

Eventually, Bozell began to claim an amazing success, but his "successes" included both advertisers who never had even advertised with WWE and even companies still running ads with the company. He was eventually forced to make a formal apology, after legal proceedings between the PTC and the WWE. Through the efforts of anti-PTC wrestling fan communities online, I became acquainted with the group's tactics. By the way, one of the greatest critiques of Bozell and his background is available in Foley is Good...and the Real World is Faker than Wrestling.

Only later did I realize that Bozell was the bane of many other fan communities as well. On the other hand, his grassroots marketing is amazing, and he's generated quite a fan community of his own. And he's helped create all sorts of unholy alliances among censors on all points of the political spectrum, so that's pretty impressive.

Somehow, he always pops back up as a pundit, quoted in stories about important policy debates, as was the case with Jim Abrams' AP story this week.

But, I guess in a world where the senate is spending our time and money debating how much to fine shows for offending some general idea of what is "public sensibility," it comes as no surprise that Bozell has this much cultural cache. But these censoring moves does nothing but inhibit creativity and make network executives much less likely to try out interesting material, especially if they have a potential $325,000 fine waiting for them instead of $32,500.

In the meantime, I'm thinking about trying to convince my local congressmen to find a way to start fining journalists every time they cite Bozell as a credible source. After all, your children are reading.

June 5, 2006

Is the Sci Fi Brand Extreme? Wrestling Joins the Network

World Wrestling Entertainment is re-launching the cult favorite wrestling brand Extreme Championship Wrestling, a former competitor-of-sorts whose assets the WWE purchased after it went out of business in 2001, on the Sci Fi Network next week.

After a nostalgia DVD about ECW exceeded expectations and a reunion pay-per-view sold really well, the company has seen the profitability in bringing this brand back. In fact, the company's demise actually seems to have played into its mythic status, as the WWE content about ECW sold far more than ECW ever did. After all, low ratings on TNN was one of the contributing factors to the original demise of the company.

It remains to be seen how fans will react to this re-launching and if they will buy WWE's version of ECW as a valid descendant of the original. WWE has assigned the former owner of ECW, Paul Heyman, to oversee this incarnation, which may buy the project quite a bit of credibility with fans. One thing's for sure--the company has gained a surge in stock price after adding ECW to its already successful RAW brand on USA and Smackdown brand on what will soon be the CW Network.

However, one major question that fans have--how will ECW fit in with the Sci Fi Network? It was assigned there because WWE is only allowed to air its products on NBC-affiliated networks, and Sci Fi was the only network significantly interested. However, many Sci Fi fans are, shall we say, skeptical as to whether a pro wrestling show can really fit in with the mantra of the network, since wrestling ostensibly has only loose connections at best with science fiction (and The Undertaker won't even be in ECW!) But Sci Fi President Bonnie Hammer has worked with WWE in the past and feels confident that ECW will fit in well with Sci Fi.

The ECW weekly show will debut on Tuesday, June 13. Dave Meltzer reports that some rumors have circulated that the network may require ECW to have a science fiction storyline at any given time, a move that would likely anger hardcore ECW fans while doing nothing to appease the Sci Fi fans, since it would obviously not be a natural part of the wrestling product. However, Meltzer has found that the only current plans are to include a group of wrestlers that are vampirish, something that actually has a history in the WWE with The Brood.

USA Network will air a special on Wednesday night related to ECW, and the next reunion PPV is next Sunday, all leading up to the program's debut the following Tuesday. WWE has already moved one of its bigger RAW stars, Rob Van Dam, and arguably the greatest wrestler on Smackdown, Kurt Angle, to ECW full-time, in an attempt to bring a significant number of new fans to the ECW brand. But what will be the repercussions of airing the program on the Sci Fi Network? Will their be a backlash among hardcore Sci-Fi fans to the wrestling programming? How will hardcore ECW fans react to the reincarnation? And can ECW attract new fans on a full-time basis?

Since WWE only had the Sci Fi Network to choose from, it seems worth the risk to explore the selling power of the ECW name and to use the brand to create new stars and another alternative brand to its RAW and Smackdown shows. If the brand remains viable, it will be great for the wrestling business, with three WWE full rosters in addition to the TNA wrestling promotion airing on Spike TV and owned by Panda Energy.

But will it be successful? We'll begin to find out next week.

April 13, 2006

New Mobile Service will Further Storylines

World Wrestling Entertainment has started their own Mobile Alerts service that will send fans regular text messages of late-breaking news from the company, as well as polls and trivia. The news portion of WWE Mobile Alerts blends both legitimate updates--wrestlers who are suspended, hired, or fired, for instance--with the capability to use the service as a way to extend the storytelling world.

WWE is uniquely situated by being able to combine what many sports franchises are already doing in the realm of sports reporting--sending game score updates, for instance--with the WWE's fictional world because wrestling is one version of television entertainment that predicates on being a part of the "real world" in a way most other fiction shows don't.

The service costs $3.99 a month. We'll see in the next few months how many fans decide to plunk down the modest fee to be on the cutting edge of the WWE's storylines. If they get a hardcore fan base developed around Mobile Alerts, it could become an essential part of the storytelling device, similar to how the company is using its Web-only video programming to supplement the televised shows.

Does anybody know of similar instances where a "news reporting" mobile service is employed develop a fictional storyworld on a regular basis?

March 13, 2006

WWE Attempting to Expand Brand to "Cool Hunter" For Young Men

It's no surprise that the WWE wants to expand their brand. In the 1990s, it was the failed World Bodybuilding Federation that they tried to expand with, followed by the XFL at the turn of the millennium. The WWE has since realized that the "WWE" brand name is an important part of expansion of the product and has cut down on their expansion. They nixed a WWE Records idea and are expanding slowly on the WWE Films project, primarily with films that star wrestlers on their roster.

Now, the company is planning a WWE men's lifestyle magazine to complement their WWE RAW and WWE Smackdown monthly magazines they currently published. Since WWE courts the young adult male category and those who aspire to keep up with the trends in that category, even if they are older, the magazine may hit the core demographic in a powerful way. Since I have heard very little about the project so far, I'm not yet sure what this means. But it should be an interesting story to follow.

In the 27 February 2006 edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Dave Meltzer points out that the company must be careful with ventures
into building brand awareness if they don't have a strong enough economic impact on their main product--selling pro wrestling. "A few years back, the WWE did its own Super Bowl commercial with the same thing in mind. In hindsight, the results of those adds were that they added nothing to company business, nor did they end up building any noticeable long-term awareness for the companies that purchased them. In many cases, tests showed consumers would remember the best ads, but would have no memory of who the ads were for and the companies gained nothing from them. Tons of research done to prove what should have been obvious from the start."

So this brings up the very real question at the heart of what we're doing here at C3...How do you build brand awareness, be creative, reach out to the fans, expand your product, etc., yet in a way that doesn't waste away major capital with no economic upside. In the case of the men's lifestyle magazine, it will likely be all in the handling. As Dave points out, the product must expand well beyond their core product of pro wrestling but contain enough markers back to their product that it makes it acceptable to their core base. This may be where WWE learned their lesson with failures such as the XFL and are hoping to improve by making WWE Films about smaller budget with WWE stars making appearances in the movie. The key is to find ways of expanding the convince the current fan base to be willing to expand along with the company, even while bringing in new fans with these expanding ventures.

February 20, 2006

New Advertising Technology Allows Ordering Products Directly from TV Commercial

Dave Meltzer, who single-handedly writes the Wrestling Observer newsletter every week, had an interesting blurb in the 13 February 2006 issue. I waited a few days to post about it so that the Observer would have had plenty of time to circulate, but I haven't read about this anywhere else. According to Dave, World Wrestling Entertainment is preparing to "showcase a new digital prototype technology that may prove to strongly increase business, and when copied, strengthen the value of television advertising greatly."

This new technology will be tested in WWE On Demand content such as WWE 24/7 and special events PPVs. According to Meltzer, "it would allow people watching a TV commercial, whether it be for a PPV, DVD, or other house show, to click to an icon on the screen to make an immediate purchase" and will also give them exclusive footage free for using the technology.

This is exactly the kind of model that maximizes advertising impact and makes advertising cease to feel like an intrusive hindrance to the programming but instead a focused and useful tool brought to the viewer. If done correctly, if used sparingly enough, it could be a milestone in the media industry. It's exactly the kind of thing you can do online, but digital cable provides every opportunity to do the same.

Has anyone else heard of similar technology being implemented on digital cable or satellite or in any other media form? For those of you who follow the advertising industry more closely, how long do you think it would take a trend like this to catch on?

As a wrestling fan, I see this having maximum benefit for wrestling-related merchandise and also for new movie releases. If it would be possible to view a movie trailer and immediately be able to click an options to see local showtimes and buy tickets online through Fandango or a similar service, I think it could be an extremely useful tool. The same goes for selling books, movies, and TV shows on DVD.

Of course, there are plenty of advertisers that this technology wouldn't effect, especially those that provide goods more along the lines of commodities, but those are the types of products that can be utilized in product placement, so the combination of this type of technology with an increase in effective product placement could move advertising toward a model much more reflective of the needs and wants of the consumer, again where everyone could potentially win.

February 6, 2006

WWE recruiting performers from Web site

World Wrestling Entertainment has found an interesting new way to start searching for its talent pool online. Wrestling companies have often been criticized for not taking into account a knowledge of professional wrestling in hiring practices, as wrestling promoters often hire writers from television or Hollywood, sportscasters for local markets, and wrestlers with "the look," whether or not the talent has a deep and abiding passion for 'rasslin' or not.

What usually results? The hardcore fan base knows when someone is hired for cosmetic reasons versus actual ones, and the best performers turn out almost always to be the one with the deepest passion for the product. What does that mean? It means that the best potential wrestling announcers would probably be those kids who grew up watching wrestling and turned the sound down to pretend they were calling matches. The best wrestlers are the guys who grew up watching the competitors from years past. And the best writers are ones who actually know the history of professional wrestling. In short, the best talent pool out there is the fans. That's not to say that sportscasters, Hollywood writers, and college athletes aren't good in these positions--they already have a track record of being very talented. But it almost always makes a difference if they are also lifelong fans.

WWE is taking advantage of this through the main page on its Web site, at least as far as in-ring talent is concerned. The main page has a "Tryouts" button, which links to a page listing WWE tryouts and requesting that fans who believe they have what it takes to fill out an online application and show up to the scheduled tryouts. The questionnaire emphasizes having experience in professional wrestling and "why you should be a WWE superstar." For me, I see this as a step in the right direction and exactly the kind of thing that the entertainment industry should be encouraging. Who knows a product better than the fans? And, contrary to popular belief, the fan base of pro wrestling includes not just kids and couch potatoes but a lot of motivated and talented people who could easily make the transition from "audience" to "performer"--which, in pro wrestling, can sometimes be a nebulous dividing line, anyway.

December 29, 2005

Mainstream Tastes Limit Transmedia Opportunities

Reading through the year-end double issue of Entertainment Weekly, I began to think about the limits that mainstream coverage of the entertainment industry put on success in the industry. As you know, my main areas of interest are soap opera and professional wrestling, and it probably doesn't surprise you that this year-in-review recap include nothing from either of these places, despite their prominence on television.

Despite still being a dominant force in daytime television, even with the increasing competition for the daytime viewer and the change in composition of the daytime viewing audience, soap operas are completely ignored in the "Best of 2005," as a genre.

And pro wrestling is ignored in glaring ways. For instance, in their listing of the biggest entertainment stories of 2005, EW identifies the success of Chris Rock's Everybody Hates Chris for UPN, implying that it's the only major hit of interest in UPN's history and rejoicing in its capturing of the young demographic. Yet, WWE's Smackdown had previously aired in that same timeslot for years and was highly successful and remains almost as successful on Friday nights, despite Friday being a death day.

Considering the EW focus on sitcoms, that wouldn't be that surprising. But in its listing of the great entertainers of 2005 who died, 82 people are listed, yet the list doesn't include the death of Eddie Guerrero, one of the WWE's biggest stars, who died in his prime at 38 years old.

On the other hand, released its list of the Top 10 Most Euologized Persons of 2005, which found Guerrero trailing only Rosa Parks and Luther Vandross. The online funeral guestbook registered over 5,500 comments made on Eddie's page as of the end of the year.

Considering many of the ideas people now celebrate as complex television came from soap opera, and considering how much of an innovator WWE has been in transmedia storytelling and many other aspects of media convergence, it just makes me wonder how many other extremely popular and profitable areas of popular culture are ignored by most mainstream journalists, considering the two areas I study in particular were both completely shunned....

I believe a major part of it is that the fan communities surrounding these "fringe" entertainments, from the perspective of mainstream journalism, is chiefly misunderstood, even when the industry in general could still learn so much from these cultural producers and their fans.

December 9, 2005

Mick Foley Enters the Blogosphere

What power is the world of weblogs having on society as a whole?

Just a few days ago, I posted an entry on the commentary from the Wall Street Journal in which Lee Gomez questions whether a few blogs will become powerful, leaving the rest to float in ubiquity. As Kurt Squire has responded, I think this viewpoint has some validity.

Blogs aren't just making new names more powerful though--they are also giving a new space for already established names to enter. Case in point would be all of the journalists who are now taking to blogging...or bestselling author/pro wrestler Mick Foley.

Those who know Foley's career know that he isn't much into new technology--he speaks at college campuses about the lost art of writing by hand and prides himself on handwritten manuscripts.

Foley's entry into blogging is no different. He is currently blogging on World Wrestling Entertainment's trip to Afghanistan to entertain the troops, but swears he will only blog under two conditions--that someone else types his entries up and that he is never considered part of the blogosphere.

However, he says that the temptation to have a weblog had just become too much.

Is this going to be a trend that enters all spaces of mass media? For Foley, the blog becomes incredibly interesting, as his television character Mick Foley and the real person Mick Foley becomes very complex in this space, where he is blogging about his life. Which Mick Foley is this? What is the distinction? Can we claim to be seeing the backstage of the character, or should we consider the blog a performance as well?

Interesting questions, not just for academic concerns but for understanding how fans comprehend materials and why they are driven toward them. The celebrity blog is a space that remains quite a mystery in many ways.

And, to my friend Mick Foley, although he'll probably never read this since he claims not to use the Web--welcome to the sphere, fellow "Web log writer!"

Theft of signal?

The world of professional wrestling is full of hyperbole, so, when I heard a while back that former WCW World Champion and WWE superstar Diamond Dallas Page was going to sue Jay-Z for stealing the DDP hand signal that Page apparently copyrighted (a symbol of excellence since 1996, DDP's Web site claims), I didn't think much of it.

That is, until fellow C3 member Alec Austin sent me a link to a story from the New York Daily News about the lawsuit.

What to say? The issues that we are discussing always open up concerns for copyright infringement, but I haven't heard much about theft of hand gesture in the past. There are so few signals one can make with the hand that one would think that nothing is being done that hasn't been done before. But, if a hand signal has been copyrighted, hmm...

Any legal eagles out there who might be able to give some context to this? For the rest of us normal folk who have no clue how this might play out and what the precedents are, what is the implication on art and media if this case has some validity? Constant fear of doing anything because no one knows for sure what might be done before?

One person has a definite opinion, one that's pretty harsh in its stance against DDP and questioning the true origin of the hand guesture. Check out Nick Mamatas' response to the issue.

Perhaps even more interesting is the way the blogosphere is reporting the news--half frame the story that DDP is suing rapper Jay-Z (bloggers from the wrestling world or former wrestling fans), while the other half write that Jay-Z is being sued by a wrestler (hip-hop bloggers, no doubt).

December 6, 2005

Moon Pies, RCs, and iPods

Product placement often seems to be most easily integrated into comedy, and the WWE often finds a way to put product placement in its programming very blatantly but in a way that makes fans laugh instead of gag.

On last night's RAW, a trial was held to determine whether RAW General Manager Eric Bischoff would get to keep his job or would have to be fired.

WWE Owner Vince McMahon acted as judge and was biased against Bischoff, his long-time enemy. For instance, when one witness for Bischoff finished talking, McMahon admitted he hadn't heard any of it.

Instead, he revealed he'd been listening to his new iPod, which he showed to the audience, and then said that Ashlee Simpson music really sucks.

Later, "prosecutor" Mick Foley opened his old-school Batman lunchbox during a recess and pulled out an RC Cola and a Moon Pie, an homage to the stereotype of the south but embraced by the fan favorite in a way that got a chuckle out of the fans.

When product placement ends up being part of the most entertaining parts of a show, you know a company has found a potential landmine in profit while still retaining a show's integrity for its loyal fan base.

November 18, 2005

Eddie Guerrero fans

In a letter published in the Star Tribune Tuesday, I wrote about the death of pro wrestling superstar Eddie Guerrero.

Since Eddie died in Minneapolis, the local paper has given a lot of coverage, including both the story of his death and a short followup on the grieving of Eddie's fan base and his fellow performers.

I was compelled to write in because I saw the hardcore wrestling fan community grieving in a way that most entertainers would not be mourned.

As a wrestling fan myself, I was amazed at the number of people I heard from who I hadn't talked to in months or even years. Newspaper reporters, university professors, several professionals from different walks of life, some pro wrestlers, and a lot of my childhood friends all called or e-mailed to participate in a process of collective grieving.

This is not quite unlike what the WWE is doing itself. Through its Monday night show and its Friday night show, as well as myriad reflections from fellow performers.

Fan communities, especially in a niche market like the WWE's, can share powerful feelings, as the WWE fans are doing right now.

For grown and sometimes (hyper)masculine men like the WWE performers to cry on television and show their vulnerability and their sorrow demonstrates the power of the connection between wrestling fans and performers.

Most of my friends, myself included, shed a few tears along with them, grieving the loss of possibly the best performer in pro wrestling today.

The WWE has already been flooded with over 100,000 e-mails that will be compiled in a book and given to Eddie's wife as a memorial from his fans. They have invited feedback here.

And, in Eddie's online funeral guestbook, there are currently almost 5,000 signatures on his online funeral guest book from all over the United States, Canada, Central America, and around the world, including India, Portugal, South Korea, France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and many other countries.

I think this past week was a powerful demonstration as to why I believe WWE is a primary place to look for a company that creates lovemarks through its performers and develops emotional ties that have a real impact on people's lives.

WWE Unlimited

A couple of weeks ago, I had a letter published in TelevisionWeek, the Halloween edition. The letter was based on a TV Week article by James Hibberd on the WWE's new online service that shows viewers what is happening while the live televised show is on its commercial break .

Several advertising agency types claim that the tactic is costing advertisers viewers, as people tune into the Web site instead of staying in their seat and watching the commercials.

My take is that the opposite is happening and that tactics like this is as close as you'll get to saving the 30-second spot in the long run.

By providing content during commercial breaks, the WWE is, in effect, encouraging fans who have TiVo and similar capabilities not to record the show and watch it later sans commercials but to watch it in real time and find out what's happening during the commercial breaks.

In my opinion, that actually keeps fans in the room and with the commercials on instead of flipping channels or TiVoing the content.

You can find out more about WWE Unlimited here.

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.

October 4, 2005

Internet video programming

Well, you all may have noticed that I trumped USA Today by about a week, posting about WWE moving two of its shows to exclusive Web-only content.

WWE has been a revolutionary Internet provider for a while. At first, it established a relationship with AOL and was one of their hottest "in-house" sites, with WWE chats from time to time even crashing the server and with a lot of downloads of themes, photos, etc.

Later, became one of the most innovative Web sites. Vince McMahon's son Shane works with global expansion and new media, and he has pushed to take content and put it on the Web. The great move here is that the first hour of Smackdown mentioned in the article that got 500,000 views and the Velocity and HeatTV shows were not featuring a lot of big name stars. But, because there is an interest in Web programming, there is a good chance that moving them to the Internet could eventually make them MORE popular than they were.

On TV, these shows were the "B" shows. Now, they are the flagship shows of the Internet, giving fans a chance to see some of the smaller stars in wrestling matches that don't make it to the big show. The company is aggressively promoting its Internet now in a way that would fall right into the business practices suggested by the Pokemon movement, to make other flows of information coincide with and complement the main narrative.

By providing articles that give context to the main show, exclusive programming that complements the main show, etc., the WWE's Web site begins to function much like the Web site for Dawson's Creek did....It allows viewers the chance to choose what information they want to consume and to become lost in the fictional universe of the characters.

September 27, 2005

Smackdown to Friday nights!

Another in a series of WWE related posts, but this one deals with the WWE's other program (they are considered separate divisions), Smackdown on the broadcast network UPN.

WWE started airing Smackdown on Thursday nights on UPN in 1999, and it has been consistently the most popular or second most popular show on the network, which has struggled at points to survive. WWE usually finished fourth and occaisionally third for the evening in its timeslot amongst the six networks, which is fairly successful considering UPN's penetration and the stiff Thursday lineup.

However, UPN decided to change its lineup around and dedicate its Thursday lineup to a comedy block, thus moving its longest-term most popular show to Friday nights from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m., what most people would consider a death sentence. The WWE was not happy about it, and wrestling fans thought it showed a lack of disrespect from UPN.

However, becuase Smackdown only draws in $30,000 per 30-second ad since advertisers have a stereotyped view of who the wrestling audience is, the network wanted to have the chance to bring in larger ad revenue for Thursday nights. So, they created a new lineup based around the Chris Rock show, Everybody Hates Chris.

What most people believed was a dumb move, moving their most popular long-term show to Friday nights, has proven to be brilliant so far. Barring several big pre-emptions due to baseball playoffs in Boston, New York, and a few other key big market cities, the Friday version of Smackdown is drawing identical ratings of the Thursday version. So, UPN is now faring very well with Friday programming, while the Thursday lineup has been more successful than anyone could imagine.

Anyway, I just thought it was an interesting demonstration that the Friday night death slot may not always be so, especially since they are moving a programming in that has such a dedicated following. It looks like what many media critics were criticizing UPN for turned out to be a stroke of genius.

Here is the press release.


I have several examples I'm going to post today of some interesting things relating to branding and promotion. The first comes with the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment)'s switch from Spike TV to USA. For those who don't know, which may be all of you, WWE was on USA network from the early 1980s on and grew up with the cable industry in a lot of ways.

Five years ago, Viacom gave the WWE a better deal, so they switched their show to TNN, once The Nashville Network and then The National Network.

Eventually, the executives decided that, with RAW as their highest-rated show, they should focus their whole network around the young male demographic, so they created Spike TV.

The WWE's deal was recently up, though, and they had soured somewhat on Spike, so they are now returning "home" to USA.

This Monday's live RAW broadcast was the final one on Spike TV. WWE has been promoting next week's homecoming show for several weeks but have not mentioned that it would be on the USA Network. This being the last, week, though, WWE decided to formally announce that they were moving to USA.

Vince McMahon, the WWE's owner, came out at the beginning of the program and said that the WWE and Spike TV had been good tag team partners and had grown up together and thanked them for their time together but that it was time to go home. At that point, Spike TV cut RAW's audio feed.

An infuriated McMahon had his announcers go off on Spike TV in subtle jabs throughout the night, slipping in several references to USA, with Spike trying to mute the audio at every chance it got.

Starting next week, Spike TV will counter USA's RAW with UFC and another wrestling group called TNA. But I thought Monday night's show was a surreal battle between content producers and the network and shows the power Spike TV believed even mentioning the other network would have.

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