FBI memos show Bureau disregarding videotape of Mel Phillips sexually assaulting a ring boy

How the '90s DOJ inquiry into WWE shifted from child sexual abuse to steroid distribution is murky, but newly unredacted FBI memos give us a hint as to where it went wrong.

Content warning: This article, by necessity, contains descriptions of child sexual abuse and law enforcement inaction in a subsequent investigation of those allegations. If you believe that you may find such descriptions triggering other otherwise upsetting, then you should proceed only with the utmost caution. If you feel the need to talk someone, then visit RAINN.org for information on their 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline, which includes telephone and web-based chat options.

There’s a common misconception about the nature of the federal investigation of Titan Sports (d/b/a the WWF)—now WWE—that led to Vince McMahon’s criminal trial on conspiracy and steroid distribution charges in July 1994. If you asked the average longtime hardcore fan how it came about, they’d likely say it was a byproduct of Dr. George T. Zahorian III’s conviction for distributing anabolic steroids for non-medical use while working for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. In actuality, the grand jury was impaneled in the immediate aftermath of Phil Mushnick’s New York Post columns from early 1992 about the sexual abuse of "ring boys," the mostly underage boys who helped with ring assembly and other grunt work. When Mushnick called for a federal investigation of Titan and investigator Anthony Valenti of the federal prosecutor’s office in the Eastern District of New York phoned him the next day, the topic was child sexual abuse. A grand jury was impaneled within days, though the news of its existence wouldn’t break until Alex Marvez pinned down the story in the July 15, 1992 edition of the Miami Herald. The short item penned by the future AEW announcer specified that “allegations of sexual abuse of minors and the illegal transportation of minors across state lines” were the focus of the investigation.

How that focus shifted, though, has always been a bit of a mystery, especially in light of what charges the feds eventually tried to pursue. What was, on paper, the Department of Justice’s strongest count against Vince McMahon—for distributing steroids to Hulk Hogan as opposed to more nebulous charges of conspiring with Zahorian—fell apart in embarrassing fashion on the sixth day of trial testimony. Emily Feinberg, McMahon’s former personal assistant turned paramour, testified about a package of steroids that he received on October 24, 1989, only to split the contents with Hogan by having his driver, Jim Stuart, courier them to the Nassau Coliseum. The problem with this scenario was that the closest date where the WWF ran a the Nassau Coliseum was October 20. The prosecution had missed the obvious discrepancy the whole time.

Now, in 2021, newly unredacted FBI memos from the investigation into what’s now WWE give further insight into how badly the feds bungled the case. In an echo of the recent Inspector General report on the FBI’s mishandling of the crimes of USA Gymnastics physician/serial child molester Dr. Larry Nassar, the Bureau did not seem to take the sexual abuse allegations against ring announcer/ring crew chief Mel Phillips very seriously. Specifically, not only did the FBI admit that they were seeking Phillips’ cooperation against McMahon, but they also disregarded a videotape that showed Phillips, who died in 2012, doing exactly what multiple victims accused him of doing.

The opening portion of Robin Pogrebin’s story about the WWF, NBC News, and the Department of Justice in the September 13, 1993 issue of the New York Observer. (Image source: Federal court records.)
The opening portion of Robin Pogrebin’s story about the WWF, NBC News, and the Department of Justice in the September 13, 1993 issue of the New York Observer. (Image source: Federal court records.)

That there was a potentially incriminating videotape of Phillips in the possession of investigators was not a secret, but it’s not something that’s remotely well-known. Its existence was first revealed publicly in a story that merited front page status in the September 13, 1993 issue—it hit newsstands on September 8—of the New York Observer, an influential weekly broadsheet that’s widely considered one of the inspirations for the editorial voice of Gawker.com. Written by Robin Pogrebin, now at the New York Times, the piece centers on the allegation that Anthony Valenti and NBC News producer Len Tepper “may have jointly committed legal or ethical violations” while the latter was working on a feature about the ring boy abuse scandal. (It was earmarked for the newly-launched Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, which eventually morphed into Dateline Wednesday.) On the page, the story reads as slanted towards Titan, if just because the topic at hand is repeatedly compared to the disastrous, fabricated Dateline feature about exploding GM trucks that had aired 10 months earlier.

“[Tepper] spent hours on the telephone attempting to obtain a videotape that he suspected showed Mr. Phillips. the former ring announcer, cavorting with some ringboys,” wrote Pogrebin. “The tape belonged to John Maloof, a former W.W.F. employee who eventually agreed to send it to NBC, having been convinced by Mr. Tepper that airing it would help bring Mr. Phillips the discipline he deserved.” Maloof, however, would get cold feet, telling Pogrebin he felt that Tepper’s goal had gone beyond nailing Phillips because “he's got this hatred it seems like, for Vince McMahon.” He stopped the Federal Express shipment of the tape, and claimed that Tepper repeatedly engaged in “beggin,” “yelling,” and “pleading” for the tape in subsequent phone calls. Pogrebin, without citing the allegation, then added that “Tepper allegedly advised the shipping clerk for Federal Express that Government agents would be called in to get the package,” with Valenti showing up hours later.

Days later, in the issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter cover dated September 20, Dave Meltzer wrote that Pogrebin’s article in the other Observer was “believed to have been the product of a public relations agency working for Titan Sports.” He added that the story was aggregated with blurbs in both the New York Daily News and USA Today, referring to the latter as“a newspaper that for years has come under heavy criticism for its seemingly biased coverage whenever issues involving Titan Sports have come to light.” Both blurbs focused on the WWF alleging collusion between Tepper and Valenti while also carrying strong denials from NBC spokeswoman Beth Comstock. Though Meltzer felt that the WWF’s public relations efforts had failed, Tepper’s ring boys segment would never see the light of day.

A letter sent from Titan Sports’ Elizabeth DiFabio to one of their private investigators.at Fairfax about John Maloof. (Image source; Federal court records.)
A letter sent from Titan Sports’ Elizabeth DiFabio to one of their private investigators.at Fairfax about John Maloof. (Image source; Federal court records.)

Documents obtained by Mushnick and the Post in discovery would show that Maloof had sent a copy of the tape to Titan’s private investigators at Fairfax Consultants (later renamed DSFX) at some point in 1992 in exchange for autographs for his son. This just further suggested that the video was of particular interest. Over two years later, in November and December 1995 in the New York Post (by Mushnick and Jack Newfield) and The Village Voice (an in-depth feature by William Bastone), it would be reported that Pogrebin’s Observer story was planted by Marty Bergman, the brother of legendary 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman and secret fiancee of McMahon defense lawyer Laura Brevetti. Though full of redactions of the names of living persons, among other things, Bergman’s own FBI file, which I also obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, appears to line up pretty closely with the 1995 reporting, especially Bastone’s.

(That Bergman FBI file also includes the revelation that a different grand jury was impaneled to investigate the allegations that he obstructed justice with regards to the McMahon trial; the Bureau’s investigation lasted well into 1998 before being closed. The FBI did not, however, release the 51 page Declination of Prosecution Memorandum explaining why the case was closed without further action.)

For Titan’s part, attorney Jerry McDevitt gave their side of the Maloof affair in a sworn affidavit accompanying a pleading in the Mushnick lawsuit where he attempted to block a motion to compel production of the tape. “When Mr. Mushnick originally generated the stories about pedophilia, Mr. Maloof contacted Titan to indicate that he knew Mr. Phillips and expressed the view that Mr. Phillips had never done anything wrong to him or in his presence,” he wrote. (McDevitt’s description of the tape was that it “depicts Mr. Mel Phillips in a wrestling ring with several younger males.”) The rest largely lines up with Pogrebin’s New York Observer story, with McDevitt also adding that:

  • “At all times relevant hereto, Mr. Maloof was unequivocal in expressing his desire that Tepper not be given acopy of the videotape in question.”

  • “My concern then and now is that Mr. Mushnick would have made a copy of the tape and provided it to Mr. Tepper, against Mr. Maloof's desires and in order to further harm my clients.”

What exactly was on the tape, then? As I reported last year at Business Insider, a memo in the version of the WWF’s FBI file that I had at the time indicated that the videotape being shot in a public place—the ring before a WWF show—and “contain[ing] no obvious sexual activity” allowed for “too many alternate explanations” from Phillips. That memo was heavily redacted, though, so I filed a new Freedom of Information Act request asking for the reprocessing of it and all other memos that appeared to reference the child sexual abuse side of the federal investigation. That request paid off, just not necessarily in the ways I expected.

The FBI’s description of the “Maloof tape,” which lines up closely with what multiple former ring boys accused Mel Phillips of doing to them. (Image source: FBI memo released under FOIA.)
The FBI’s description of the “Maloof tape,” which lines up closely with what multiple former ring boys accused Mel Phillips of doing to them. (Image source: FBI memo released under FOIA.)

“A review of the [redacted] tape by NYO shows PHILLIPS lying with [redacted] foot in crotch area for extended period of time,” reads the September 30, 1993 memo accompanying the Maloof tape to the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. “All victims have stated that PHILLIP [sic] plays with their feet for extended periods of time between 1/2 hour to 2 hours in duration. NY has subpoenaed PHILLIPS to Grand Jury but was told by prosecutors he will take the 5th Amendment. NY would like to indict PHILLIPS on Sexual Abuse charges if video is consistent with BSU Sexual Abuse Guidelines.”

That gives a much different impression than the versions of the relevant memos that were previously available, if just because what’s described lines up exactly with how multiple victims described their abuse at Phillips’ hands. Tom Cole’s complaint against Titan, for example, which was accompanied by a sworn Cole affidavit attesting to its honesty, alleged that Phillips "would frequently caress plaintiff's feet and would rub them against [Phillips'] own genital area." As I reported last year in the Business Insider feature, another ring boy told Cole’s lawyer in 1992 that “when [Phillips] was wrestling with us…grabbing our toes, he would put us in between his legs up near his groin area.” In 2016, HuffPost reported that another ring boy had sued the WWF and Phillips over similar abuse in 1999; his complaint alleged that “Mel Phillips would often take [Plaintiff] aside and play a ‘game’ with him” where “Phillips would then rub Plaintiff’s feet and toes against his crotch and would pull Plaintiff’s toes apart until Plaintiff screamed.” In other words, this appeared to be part of the ring announcer’s modus operandi. (In addition, the same FBI memo notes that “the NY investigation has identified ten victims of PHILLIPS.” about twice as many as had gone public.)

The memos don’t state whether or not the FBI knew that what the tape showed was exactly what Phillips was being accused of. But it was also far from a secret that this was what was being alleged, and Cole had testified before the grand jury several times by then. Though his previously un-filed complaint would not become public record until filed by Titan as an exhibit in December 1993, the scrutiny of the Maloof tape occurred before Cole became reluctant to share the full details of his abuse in interviews. More specifically, he gave those explicit details in a February 1994 New York Daily News article. (Regardless, it would seem to strain credulity to suggest that the grand jury didn’t subpoena obtain the relevant documents from Cole, Mushnick, or Titan.)

An excerpt from the memo outlining the Behavioral Science Unit’s findings about the contents of the “Maloof tape.” (Image source: FBI memo released under FOIA.)

This is all complicated by the reprocessed version of the memo that contains the Behavioral Science Unit’s assessment of the Maloof tape. Most curiously, it doesn’t at all acknowledge anything that the previous memo said about what the tape showed Phillips doing, much less that it fit his known M.O. It also reads terribly in general in 2021, noting that “Most problematic is the fact that no alleged ‘victims’ are willing to admit to or describe the sexual nature of their activity with PHILLIPS.” (As of this writing, the FBI’s press office has not responded to an email requesting comment on the handling of the Maloof tape.)

The implication of the line about “alleged ‘victims’” is seemingly that none of the ten victims who the FBI interviewed had accused Phillips of anything beyond playing with their feet. Anything along those lines, intentional or otherwise, has the ring of WWE’s attempted reframing of what happened much more than it does what you’d expect from law enforcement officers investigating child sexual abuse. “Cole claimed Mel Phillips had a foot fetish and played with his feet,” WWE attorney Jerry McDevitt wrote to myself and various representatives of Business Insider last year, contrasting such behavior with “anything approximating conventional forms of sexual abuse such as rape, sodomy, etc.” (As noted earlier, Cole’s complaint sent to Titan on March 13, 1992 was explicit in detailing that Phillips did much more than “play with his feet,” as was his New York Daily News interview published 23 months later on February 13, 1994.)

Complicating matters even further? A January 27, 1993 memo, also newly reprocessed, made it clear that the FBI’s intent in trying to deal with Phillips was to compel him to testify against McMahon and Titan. “New York hopes to surprise Phillips at his residence and obtain his cooperation in the investigation without WWF attorney involvement,” it reads. (When they went to Phillips’ home to serve his subpoena a week later, he wasn’t there.) Even though Phillips was, in theory, a target of the investigation, the memos, in their totality, suggest that the plan was to charge him solely to get him to take a deal and turn on McMahon.

In addition, as I was working on this story, I received the response to my FOIA request about Phillips that I had filed with the Executive Office of the U.S. Attorney in 2017. Despite Phillips, again, seemingly being a target of the investigation—and the FBI records’ suggestion that the U.S. Attorney’s office was leading the child abuse side of the probe, not the Bureau—they claimed to have just 84 pages about Phillips, with only 35 being releasable.

Those 35 pages were a transcript of the Larry King Live episode about the 1992 scandals, just with all of the notes that someone wrote in the margins having been redacted. (For comparison, a separate FOIA request to the EOUSA, about Jim Stuart, Vince McMahon’s former driver, yielded 246 pages—out of 282 found—consisting of mundane internal Titan Sports errata and records from Stuart’s lawsuit against the company.) Though it could just be garden variety FOIA obstruction, it doesn’t exactly help the perception that the DOJ punted on the child sexual abuse side of their investigations into the future WWE.

We may very well never know the full extent of where the investigation into Mel Phillips went wrong. In light of the now more complete memos about John Maloof’s videotape, though, we can say that crucial, seemingly “smoking gun” evidence was ignored, albeit with the reason for that remaining murky. Even the most charitable read, though, suggests that those working on the case didn’t see what was repeatedly described by Phillips’ victims as sexual abuse as actually being sexual abuse.

Here’s to hoping that we’ve at least gotten past that kind of thinking.

What's the truth about the WWF's 8 ½ month run on TBS?

Was it a hit, like Vince McMahon says? A flop drawing tons of viewer complaints, like everyone else says? Or somewhere in between?

Vince McMahon hosts the infamous “Black Saturday” edition of World Championship Wrestling on Superstation WTBS that aired on July 14, 1984. (Image source: WWE Network screenshot.)
Vince McMahon hosts the infamous “Black Saturday” edition of World Championship Wrestling on Superstation WTBS that aired on July 14, 1984. (Image source: WWE Network screenshot.)

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There are few pieces of wrestling lore more enduring than that of “Black Saturday,” the ascended fan nickname for the evening when Vince McMahon’s takeover of Georgia Championship Wrestling hit Superstation WTBS in 1984. As the story is usually told, the switch from the wildly popular southern style studio show to a WWF compilation show drew countless angry phone calls from viewers who demanded the return of “Gordon Solie wrestling,” with the Nielsen ratings backing up that it wasn’t what that audience wanted. Meanwhile, the WWF/Vince McMahon version, once Vince started opening up about it during the mid-’90s Monday Night War, was that it was a hit and the relationship fell apart when he turned down Ted Turner’s offers to buy the WWF.

Like most fans of wrestling history, I generally kind of assumed that the former was true. After all, 1984 WWF wrestling was a terrible replacement for any souther rasslin’ promotion, even the declining version of the Georgia office that had suffered greatly since Jim Barnett was forced out of the company by Ole Anderson. Besides, McMahon’s version, as told, felt like a bunch of hogwash designed to further the projection of his obsession with Ted Turner…onto Ted Turner. However, the other day, while digging through the ever-growing collection of periodicals sourced from microfilm that’s hosted by The Internet Archive, I spotted a very interesting article about the WWF/TBS split that ran in the April 25, 1985 issue of Electronic Media. And it reads like it might be the best contemporaneous accounting of what happened.

The short version, according to Richard Zacks’s reporting at the time, is this: A few months earlier, TBS “began demanding that the WWF stop supplying wrestling shows to other cable outlets, such as USA Network.” When the WWF balked, “TBS made the financial arrangements for ad­ vertising so undesirable that the federation opted to sell out to an­ other wrestling promoter, according to WWF.” (TBS declined to comment for the story.) More specifically, per the WWF’s Frank Tomeo, there was a dispute over whether the “promotional” time that GCW/the WWF was contractually allotted during its shows referred strictly to WWF promo spots (TBS’s view) or also functioned as time that the WWF could re-sell to advertisers (the WWF’s view).

And you know what? That TBS would have cried foul over the WWF’s massive swath of cable coverage sounds realistic enough. At the time, not only did the WWF have two weekly shows on Superstation WTBS, but it also had three weekly shows and regular arena show specials on USA Network, periodic specials on MTV, regular arena show specials on MSG Network, and all three of their syndicated shows airing on New York’s WOR (now WWOR), which was also available on cable as a superstation. You can totally see this being true because the WWF absolutely had its programming all over cable, with most of it being on TBS’s two key rivals, USA and WOR. On top of that, the “promotional time” dispute being why the partnership fell off the rails is corroborated by Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham’s reporting in Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, which leans heavily on interviews with Jim Barnett.

With TBS not commenting and the story clearly being tethered to reality, this version doesn’t lack credibility on its face, though it does omit something notable. That’s the claim that the GCW/TBS contract required the shows to be taped at the station’s legendary Techwood Drive studios. As the legend goes, Vince claimed he was doing by taping wraparound segments there and throwing to arena matches instead of shooting the matches in the studio. The way that things played out in public suggests that there’s truth to this, as for the WWF’s last month on TBS before the first WrestleMania and the sale of the time slots to Jim Crockett Promotions, the WWF taped at Techwood. With so much money riding on WrestleMania, the inference is obvious: McMahon humored Turner to hold onto the valuable time slots until his massive gamble of a closed circuit television spectacular paid off.

Either way, though, the Electronic Media report’s narrative has clear value even in the event it isn’t true. Why? Because we’re clearly getting the official contemporaneous WWF version…and there’s zero mention of Turner aggressively trying to buy the company. That said, something else in the article also piqued my interest:

World Championship Wres­tling on Saturday night from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. (ET)—now expanded to 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.—drew a 5.3 rat­ ing (percentage of TV households) or 1.8 million homes in February— No. 2 in cable. The Best of World Champion­ ship Wrestling on Sundays from 5:35 p.m. to 6:35 p.m. drew a 5.1 rating, or 1.7 million homes—No. 3 in cable.

(To answer the question you’re surely going to ask: It wasn’t until late 1988 that Nielsen was consistently recording weekly cable ratings. Most cable networks were reporting monthly and/or quarterly figures until then.)

To me, the above viewership figures sounded a lot rosier than what we’d heard over the years, especially for the last month of recap shows before the brief move to Techwood. For example, in a retrospective in the April 21, 2003 issue of his Wrestling Observer Newsletter, said that Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling, which premiered the first Sunday of March 1985, averaged a 5.3, “outrat[ing] both the McMahon shows on the station” and making it the #1 show on cable across its 13 weeks run. But if the WWF show had been putting up a 5.3 in February, did this drubbing really happen?

So with all of this in mind, I went digging. Via past research, I had become aware that the entertainment trade magazines were not regularly covering cable ratings at the time, with most reports, whether in the trades or regular newspapers, being sourced from TBS press releases. (Since TBS generally dominated the top 10, it was in their interest to blast the numbers out as widely as possible.) I had a few articles I had saved previously, but with Newspapers.com’s collection always growing, the rise of the aforementioned Archive.org microfilm collection, and my discovery that I had access to ProQuest via the New York Public Library, there was clearly more work to be done. The key? Knowing that, in Nielsen data, the TBS wrestling shows were long referred to as “Championship Sports” and “Sunday Sports” to try to avoid the stigma that pro wrestling had with advertisers. Any article using the official data would be using those names, not their respective on-air titles of World Championship Wrestling and Best of World Championship Wrestling.

A quick side note before we get into the ratings data, though: Just how bad were the viewer complaints? Most theoretically authoritative sources, like The Death of WCW, have the figure as being overwhelmingly high, numbering over 1,000. The story about the switch in the Atlanta Constitution three days later, however, says that “at least 83 viewers from all over the country” called to complain. (Being that the calls were not just limited to those with Atlanta phone books, it seems likely that the calls were being fielded by operators at 800-257-1234, the number that took orders for the products sold in many of the direct response advertisements on TBS programming.) So…no, probably not 1,000+ people calling TBS demanding the return of their “Gordon Solie wrestling,” much less thousands.

With all of the above in mind, I tried my best to reconstruct as much ratings data as possible. One more quick note before we get to the data, though: We don’t have any kind of reliable total viewership figures until the late 1990s-early 2000s. The standard extrapolation in the television industry until recent years was to multiply the households figure by 2.4 viewers per home. That said, most viewers per home data we have from wrestling programming, however sporadic, suggests that the real average is closer to 1.6. The latter figure is probably closer to reality, but we don’t have a good way of knowing.


The earliest figure I can find is, is a 6.9 average rating for February 1983, which Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham included in Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, their book about the WWF’s promotional war with Crockett Promotions and later Turner Broadcasting’s WCW. In an anomaly for that era, we also have the rating for an individual 1983 episode of World Championship Wrestling, which Steve Beverly included in his Matwatch newsletter a few times. According to Beverly, the July 2, 1983 episode of WCW, where Mr. Wrestling II put up his mask against Larry Zbyszko’s $25,000 (with Pez Whatley and Tully Blanchard as their respective partners in an elimination match) drew a 6.8 rating (13.2 share) in 1,490,000 homes out of a universe of 22 million. (If we use the 25 million home universe given in the January 7, 1983 issue of Broadcasting, though, then you get an audience of 1,725,000 homes.) That 13.2 was the record high share (percentage of home able to get the channel that were watching TV as it aired) for a regular weekly wrestling show, one that may have never been beaten because of the expansion of the cable universe.

We don’t have any other data until March 1984. That month, World Championship Wrestling averaged a 6.0 rating and Best of World Championship Wrestling rated a 5.8, making them the respective #3 and #4 shows on cable. (Best of was tied with TBS’s Sunday afternoon movie.) WWF All-American Wrestling, meanwhile, averaged a 4.9, making it #6 on cable in a tie with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s Roy Rogers Theater. We don’t have numbers for April, but everyone dropped big in May (albeit largely maintaining their rankings), with WCW averaging a 4.6 (#3 on cable in 1,426,000 homes), Best of netting a 3.9 (#5 on cable), and All-American rating a 3.9 (#6 on cable).

The most obvious catalyst to point to for the TBS numbers dropping is that Tommy Rich left Georgia Championship Wrestling for Memphis in early March, but that doesn’t explain the drop for All-American. The May list was topped by TBS’s Academy Award Theater with a 5.0 rating, so at first glance, it seems like cable viewership may have just been down across the board compared to March. But since CBN’s reruns of The Monroes and Wagon Train topped the list with respective 6.9 and 6.8 ratings, it’s hard to tell. That’s especially so since those numbers mean different things on CBN than they did on TBS because the denominator for cable ratings is always the number of homes that get the network in question.

Since we don’t have numbers for June, we now jump to July, where the first full weekend on TBS featured GCW and the following three weekends consisted of WWF programming. On the back of Black Saturday, WCW rebounded three ticks to a 4.9 rating (#2 on cable), while Best of was back up half a point with a 4.4 (#5 on cable). Both easily beat TBS’s 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m (2.6 rating) and prime time (4.0 rating) averages. Elsewhere, though, no USA Network WWF shows placed, not All-American, not Tuesday Night Titans, which premiered on May 29th. (This puts them below the 3.6 average scored by TBS’s Saturday Afternoon Movie and Wide World of Animals that month.) In fact, every single show in the top 10 that month aired on Ted Turner’s Superstation.

The most obvious read of the numbers is, to me at least, that with the WWF cable programming being heavy on recaps and not original matches, enough viewers fled the USA shows for the TBS shows to impact both ratings. Reading into the TBS numbers alone is tricky, especially since the 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. average, a 2.6 rating, was flat year over year with the July 1983 average that theoretically included the aforementioned July 2nd show. (I say “theoretically” because these monthly averages didn’t always strictly honor the calendar month.) USA posted a 1.0 by that same all-day metric, good enough for second place, but was not measured in July 1983. If nothing else, we can draw one clear conclusion here: Black Saturday did not have an immediate negative impact on TBS’s ratings.

We don’t have August or September numbers, but WCW dropped big from July to October, going down almost a full point from 4.9 to 4.0, dropping the show to #7 on cable. Best of, however, only dropped a tick, from 4.4 to 4.3 (#4 on cable). As the WWF settled onto TBS, the promotion’s two shows on the network took on something resembling distinct personalities: WCW was closer to All-American, largely re-airing matches that had already been seen in syndication, while Best of had more house show matches, similar to its role for GCW. This difference could very well explain some of the shift from July to October, but something else could throw a wrench in that theory: Something referred to simply as “Pro Wrestling” on USA averaged a 5.2 rating, making it #1 on cable. Given the time slots they aired in and the balance of original content, it sounds like it’s probably a single airing of a house show or maybe the monthly average for TNT, and not All-American, but we can’t really know for sure.

Things get extra confusing in November, where we separately have ratings via Variety and homes via Green Bay Press-Gazette. Not only does that mean different ranking orders because of how cable ratings work, but the Variety list has three USA shows: “Tuesday Pro Wrestling” with a 5.2 (#2 on cable), “Sunday Pro Wrestling” (clearly All-American) rating a 4.3 (#5 on cable) in 1,200,000 million homes (#8 on cable), and TNT averaging a 4.1 (#7 on cable). With “Tuesday Pro Wrestling” clearly not being TNT, it can only be, by process of elimination, a singular broadcast of a WWF house show. One such show appears to have aired on November 6th, and there was no TNT that night, so it’s not like there’s much else that it can be. There’s only one Tuesday wrestling entry (1,500,000 homes) in the Press-Gazette household tally list, so…your guess is as good as mine as to if it’s TNT, a house show, or the average of all Tuesday night WWF programming for that month.

Meanwhile, on TBS, WCW was flat with October by averaging a 4.0 (#8 on cable) in 1,300,000 homes (#5 on cable). It was tied for households with Best of (3.9 rating for #9 on cable, down four ticks from October) and TBS's Saturday morning movie. (Best of rated a 3.9, tied for #10 on cable with CBN's The Monroes.) With no ratings available for December, the next point of comparison is January 1985, where things get really interesting. That month, WCW shot up a whopping 1.3 ratings points for an overall 32.5% increase to a 5.3 rating (#3 on cable, tied with TBS Sunday afternoon movie) with Best of rising seven ticks to a 4.6 (#6 on cable), a 17.9% increase overall. That’s the biggest upward swing we’ve seen so far, which is especially notable since TBS’s 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. average was a 2.2, down two ticks, putting at a deficit of 9% overall from November 1984 and 15% year over year.

The USA shows still did well, but not as well, with All-American up two ticks over November to a 4.5, (#8 on cable) and an unnamed Tuesday night show rating a 4.2 (#9 on cable, tied with TBS Prime Movies). (The latter is almost surely Prime Time Wrestling, which debuted on New Year’s Day, sending TNT elsewhere with an artifact title resembling a recursive acronym.)

I’m…honestly not sure what to make of this one? There’s nothing specific in January that I can think of that would cause the TBS numbers to shoot up like that, especially since we’re talking coverage area ratings and, as a result, an expanding universe wouldn’t cause such a shift. The WrestleMania build and the involvement of Mr. T didn’t start until February. The famous pro wrestling segment of ABC’s 20/20 wouldn’t air until February 21st. The only thing I can think of is that the Roddy Piper/Bob Orton-Lou Albano/Cyndi Lauper/David Wolff angle from the December 28th card at Madison Square Garden, but at least going by ProQuest and the like, it didn’t get much print media coverage, at least. WCW would hold steady in February, staying at a 5.3 (#2 on cable) in 1,800,000 homes, while Best of continued its rise, clocking in at a 5.1 (#3 on cable) in 1,700,000 homes, a 13.3% increase over January and a whopping 30.8% increase over November. (Prime Time was flat, but up to a #7 ranking.)

That brings us to March 1985. On top of being the first month where we can do year over year comparisons for the TBS shows and All-American, it’s also the final month of the WWF on TBS, the first month of Mid-South Wrestling on TBS, the only month of WCW being moved back to Techwood and renamed Georgia Championship Wrestling, and, of course, the month that ends with the first WrestleMania. We have to start with WCW/GCW dropping 18% from February to a 4.3 (#5 on cable) and a massive 26.7% year over year. Mid-South, debuting in time slot that wrestling fans weren’t used to (Sundays at 7:05 p.m. ET, with Best of at 5:35 and Wild World of Animals at 6:35), put up a strong 4.1 (#8 on cable), while Best of didn’t crack the top 10. On USA, All-American managed to take home first place with a 5.1, up just 4% year over year when a 4.9 put the show in a tie for #6, while Prime Time averaged a 4.7 (#3 on cable).

There are a few immediate takeaways here:

  • The move back to Techwood, bringing studio wrestling back to Saturdays at 6:05 p.m. ET, was a flop. There’s no other way to look at it. Granted, McMahon had an idea that his days were numbered on TBS and thus he needed to humor Ted Turner and company to make sure he stayed on their air through WrestleMania. (Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, seemingly sourcing Jim Barnett, dates a hostile meeting between McMahon and Turner over the “promotional time” dispute as occurring during the week of March 10th. Since that was the catalyst for Barnett brokering a deal for McMahon to sell the time slots to Jim Crockett Promotions for $1 million, even if McMahon clearly knew all month that his days on TBS were numbered, he didn’t know yet that he was cashing out until around the middle of the month.)

  • Whatever the WWF-specific audience was on TBS, a lot of them didn’t want to see WWF wrestling outside of an arena setting.

  • Best of falling out of the top 10 for the first time in this whole exercise is a bit harder to explain, especially since it had become part of a pseudo wrestling block with Mid-South.

More broadly, though, now that we’ve gone through the end of the WWF run on TBS, it doesn’t really feel like they completely tanked the ratings. The missing months, particularly August and September 1984, make it tricky to try to plot a trend, but overall, it seems like the decline started under Ole Anderson’s Georgia Championship Wrestling, rebounded some in the immediate aftermath of Black Saturday, and then rebounded some as the WWF got stronger in early 1985. And it was enough of a strong WWF audience that the return to studio wrestling turned off the new breed of WWF fans, with the average dropping 17% across that final month on TBS. That said, according to the February household figures, TBS’s universe had grown a lot in less than two years, from about 21.9 million homes in July 1983 to about 34 million. This means that the March ratings for the flagship WCW/GCW show indicate that the show was being viewed in about as many homes as the July 2, 1983 show that set the record for the highest share achieved by a weekly wrestling show and drew a significantly higher coverage area rating than any month from 1984-1985.

The last months of 1985 that I can find proper ratings for, April and May—the rest that I found a top 10 for didn’t include the actual rating—show Crockett’s WCW dipping just below the WWF’s end point, rating a 4.3 both months. (It was #5 on cable in April and #1 on cable in May, so relative to the rest of cable, they were doing great, though Mid-South topped Crockett in April with a 5.1 rating for a #1 ranking in April. In May, Mid-South was ranked #4, behind WCW but ahead of All-American, which came in at #6.) So it’s not like Crockett immediately rebuilt the audience or anything like that. If anything, you can argue that the WWF did: The last big number before the dip for the final months of Ole Anderson’s GCW was the 6.0 rating for WCW in March 1984, which would mean that they averaged 1,758,000 households if we were to use the 29.3 million home universe given for Superstation WTBS in the February 27, 1984 issue of Broadcasting.

Of course, that brings up something else: What the hell does this all look like if we try to pin down a household figure for every month we have an actual rating for? Using the closest universe data available to a month where we didn’t have actual reporting of the household figure, either from months where we have WCW households or universe figures reported in trade magazines I could search on ProQuest, the picture gets a lot more clear:

All of the ratings and viewership data I could find for World Championship Wrestling on Superstation WTBS from 1983-1985. (Image source: David Bixenspan using the data linked and cited throughout this article.)
All of the ratings and viewership data I could find for World Championship Wrestling on Superstation WTBS from 1983-1985. (Image source: David Bixenspan using the data linked and cited throughout this article.)

When you adjust for the expansion of the Superstation’s footprint—about three million homes just during the WWF’s eight month run on the channel—then what we see here fills in a lot of gaps. Looking just at viewership, the sequence of events appears to go like this:

  • Numbers taper off greatly in the Spring of 1984 as Tommy Rich leaves and GCW gets increasingly stale, with the Road Warriors needing to turn babyface and never doing so.

  • The switch to the WWF gives WCW a small boost, but…

  • Viewership crashes in the fall after it’s become clear to the audience that the TBS shows are substantively the same as the shows on USA Network, on WWOR, and in syndication.

  • The rapid swelling of WTBS’s universe and the overall strengthening of the WWF causes near-record and record viewership in January and February 1985.

  • Switching to studio wrestling turns off more than 300,000 WWF fans.

Jim Crockett Promotions—still in the studio—replacing the WWF only makes matters slightly worse, presumably because the audience has shifted enough that a return to southern style rasslin’ wasn’t necessarily going to do the trick, at least right away. They’d rebuild, with the best data we have coming from the February 26, 1990 issue of Matwatch. There, Steve Beverly wrote that the February 18 episode of NWA Main Event netting a 4.4 rating made that mark “[the] highest for any TBS weekly wrestling show since December 1985.” If we use the 38 million home universe claimed in November 1985 as the denominator and go with 4.4 as the approximate rating, that puts the December average for what was presumably WCW—since it soundly beat Best of in November—at about 1,672,000 homes.

I’d love to have more data to work with. But from what we have here? It sure looks like the reality of the situation is much more complicated than the lore, much less the nonsense Vince McMahon version. Yes, the same-y WWF shows tanked the TBS wrestling ratings…for a little while. By the end of their run on the Superstation, the WWF had, more or less, actually rebuilt the audience, especially if you take out the anomalous WWF studio shows. Hell, in January and February, the WWF’s WCW was dead even with the 5.3 that Mid-South would average from March to May. which made it the top cable show across those 13 weeks.

Well, I sure learned something. Did you?

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Mainstream reporter privately claims WWE pitched them on writing an AEW/Domino's Pizza story

Same playbook as always.

Nick Gage takes a pizza cutter to the forehead of Chris Jericho during the now-infamous main event of the July 28, 2021 episode of AEW Dynamite on TNT. (Photo credit: AEW)

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On Thursday evening, Front Office Sports posted a story by Michael McCarthy asserting that Domino’s Pizza was considering pulling ads from AEW Dynamite over Nick Gage’s use of a pizza cutter as a weapon on Chris Jericho coinciding with a Domino’s ad as the show switched to picture-in-picture mode. (An industry insider stressed to Babyface v. Heel that the timing of the Domino’s commercial was a coincidence, as well as that no other advertisers have reached out to discuss concerns with AEW content.) This helped blow up an already viral story, albeit one that had been mostly laughed off as an amusing coincidence, in part because the Front Office Sports article itself had some curious red flags:

  • The second sub-headline claimed that Domino’s was “threatening to pull ads from AEW telecasts on TNT” even though their quote from a Domino’s spokesperson contained the much milder assertion that they “are assessing our advertising presence on [Dynamite] going forward.”

  • That statement from Domino’s begins with “We share the concerns expressed about this incident and the content of this TV-14 rated program” even though the article does not lay out any examples of anyone having concerns about it before Front Office Sports reached out to them. (An email sent to Domino’s on Thursday night asking for clarification on the wording of their statement has been left unanswered.)

  • The original version of the article ended with the unsourced claim that “[AEW’s] bloody matches have turned off some fans and critics, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” something that is not supported by the available business metrics, like Nielsen ratings.

  • A stealth edit to the article—as in a change made without an update notice—added the following immediately below the original ending: “Wednesday’s broadcast drew in 1.108 million viewers, the fourth-most in AEW history and the third week in a row that averaged more than a million viewers.” This is something that more or less contradicts the previous paragraph.

In general, the whole thing just felt strange, especially when you factor in WWE’s past attempts to brand AEW (and previously WCW) as excessively violent, their long history of of planting stories, and the like. On Friday, Dave Meltzer strongly implied in the newest Wrestling Observer Newsletter (subscribers-only link) that WWE had planted the story, with Rich Kraetsch and Joe Lanza’s Voices of Wrestling Twitter account outright saying that WWE had tried to do so. (A spokesperson for WarnerMedia, asked Friday afternoon about the larger controversy and simmering rumors about WWE involvement, respectfully declined comment.)

There does appear to be something to this: According to a screenshot shared with Babyface v. Heel, a reporter from a mainstream publication, in reaching out about the story, explicitly said that WWE had contacted them about writing a article on the Domino’s/AEW situation. (As a condition of being able to get the screenshot in the first place, I did agree to withhold identifying information about the reporter who sent the message, who does not specialize in professional wrestling coverage.) This comes in spite of the usual insistence on Thursday’s WWE investor call that AEW is not their competition, using the company’s default line that everything is their competition.

WWE and AEW did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on this; Michael McCarthy has similarly not yet responded to to a request for comment sent via Twitter direct message. (This article will be updated if any of them get back to me, though I’m not holding my breath on McCarthy doing so after how he responded the last time I reached out to him.)

According to Brandon Thurston/Wrestlenomics, the Gage-Jericho match was the second-most watched quarter hour of this past Wednesday’s edition of Dynamite. Per the Nielsen ratings data, the segment averaged 1,179,000 viewers aged two years or older, with 633,000 of them being in the key adults aged 18-49 demographic. AEW’s return to touring has stimulated their viewership in a big way, with the last three weeks posting numbers not seen since Dynamite’s first few weeks in October 2019.

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Even the press release for the Vince McMahon steroid trial miniseries is hagiographic bullshit

And not just in the more obvious ways...

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On Monday, WWE announced that, in a partnership with horror studio Blumhouse TV for some reason, they will be producing The United States of America Vs. Vince McMahon, a scripted miniseries centered on McMahon’s 1994 criminal trial and acquittal on conspiracy and steroid distribution charges. Even before you get into the specifics of the press release, it feels like a very McMahon kind of ridiculous. After all, it’s a fictionalized version of the event that solidified Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s victim complex, to the point of surrogates like Bruce Prichard even claiming that the Department of Justice was paying off tabloid TV shows to gather evidence. If this doesn’t languish in development hell, you know it’s going to be more than a bit extra just from the elevator pitch.

But we don’t just have precedent and assumptions about the concept. We have the press release from Monday, which is basically a hagiography on its own.

The show will delve into WWE during the 1990s, at the time Rupert Murdoch had purchased the New York Post to further his massive infiltration into the U.S. media landscape. For years, infamous Post writer Phil Mushnick regularly hammered WWE Chairman & CEO Vince McMahon in his column. Headlines like “Legislators Give WWE A Free Pass On ‘Roids” and “McMahon Skips Through the Cemetery” eventually captured the attention of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York – the nation’s most prestigious federal prosecutor’s office with a conviction rate of over 96 percent.

Oof, there’s already a lot here.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp did not own the New York Post when Phil Mushnick was writing the stories that got the attention of the United States Department of Justice, having purchased it from Peter Kalikow, the man they had sold it to five years earlier, at the end of March 1993. WWE knows this: In December 1993, when attempting to get a stay on their defamation lawsuit against Mushnick and the Post, attorney Jerry McDevitt noted that federal investigator Anthony Valenti first left a message for Mushnick on March 19, 1992—the written record of it was even attached as an exhibit—about his article on the WWF that ran the previous day. That piece, which was featured on the front page of the sports section, is the one where Mushnick dropped the bomb that "two weeks ago, during pour-his-heart-out phone calls, [Vince McMahon] told West Coast-based journalist Dave Meltzer, then me, that he had let [accused child molester] Mel] Phillips go four years ago because Phillips' relationship with kids seemed peculiar and unnatural” and that “McMahon said he re-hired Phillips with the caveat that Phillips steer clear from kids." According to the aforementioned McDevitt affidavit, the WWF got their first grand jury subpoena on April 2, 1992, exactly two weeks after Valenti called Mushnick.

Meanwhile, while I can’t find any record of a Mushnick column titled “McMahon Skips Through the Cemetery,” that language is used in in a 2005 column that appears to be the other one referenced in the 2021 WWE press release, titled “Wrestle With This — Hypocritical Legislators Give WWE A Free Pass On ‘Roids.” (Well, it should say that: 16 years later, the version on the New York Post website still has a typo in the headline that classifies the legislators in question as “hypocritial.”) Yes, it appears that WWE took one article from over a decade after Vince McMahon’s acquittal, framed it as being from approximately 1992, and split it into two separate articles. (While also deleting the part of the “Legislators” headline that gave a contextual hint as to when the article was published.) Though I could be missing something, it still wouldn’t be from the time period in question, as a document prepared as part of the Mushnick litigation laid out every WWF-related piece that the columnist wrote before being sued in 1993, and none of them had the aforementioned headlines.

Seriously, don’t listen to anything Bruce says here.

But wait! There’s still more in this paragraph, somehow. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York had nothing to do with the McMahon case. In reality, as noted in the aforementioned affidavit as well as numerous news stories you can look up yourself, the case was initiated by and eventually tried by prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York. I’m not even going to bother with the conviction rate part, although it seems at least broadly accurate, but barring a genuine mistake, which seems unlikely, this feels like an attempt to shift the narrative by making McMahon’s opposition the more prestigious and well-known federal prosecutor’s office in the Southern District. (In what may or may not be a coincidence, the Southern District is the one that’s been investigating Donald Trump a whole lot.)

UPDATE: WWE fixed this part on Tuesday to say Eastern District, but I missed it at first. It’s still in other copies of the press release that aren’t on WWE.com.

Whew. Alright, new paragraph!

In 1994, the U.S. government indicted McMahon for allegedly supplying anabolic steroids to WWE talent. McMahon, with his liberty at stake, two school-aged children at home and with WWE on the brink of bankruptcy, refused to take a plea deal. Ultimately, McMahon stood trial and was acquitted unanimously by a jury of his peers and went on to build a multi-billion-dollar global sports entertainment empire.

McMahon was indicted on November 18, 1993, with both the DOJ and WWF sending out press releases that day. That part feels like a genuine error since there’s no reason to lie about it. That said, it’s hard to see the statement that Vince had “two school-aged children at home” at the time of the indictment as anything other than twisting the truth for sympathy. Stephanie was still in high school, yes, having just turned 17, but Shane was two months away from turning 24 and had graduated from Boston University earlier in 1993. Either way, Vince couldn’t have taken his two “school-aged children” into account when rejecting a plea bargain offer because, at best, he only had one “school-aged” child when he was indicted. (And there’s an argument that the common usage of “school-aged” means he had none.)

Between this potential miniseries and the Netflix documentary series that’s definitely happening, as well as this much propaganda being in such a basic press release, we’re in for a golden era of McMahon propaganda. I’m just surprised that the press release didn’t mention Phil Mushnick comparing Vince to Hannibal Lecter. They love doing that.

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'WWE is the new Marvel' report MIGHT have a big hint at its sourcing

Key word: "Might." This may just be a fun thing to speculate about, but word choices can be revealing at times, can't they?

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Unfortunately necessary disclaimer: Nobody should ever take this as anything more than “huh, this is all very interesting.” It should be obvious that this post is full of opinion and speculation.

On Tuesday, citing sources, Michael McCarthy of the sports business news website Front Office Sports reported that WWE is gearing up to make itself “the next Marvel” in terms of exploiting its intellectual property outside of its core business. “The strategy is to become the next Marvel, with content driven by characters like Roman Reigns and Undertaker,” he wrote, also pointing to WWE restocking its front office with experienced media executives like Nick Khan, Connor Schell, and Steve Koonin. The short article closes with a quote from one of the sources referred to in the article.

“At first glance, WWE’s a wrestling company,” the source told McCarthy. “But it’s really a media/content company with a treasure trove of IP that appeals to young demos.” The story came just before WWE fired half a dozen wrestlers on Wednesday, with some of the names—mainly tenured main event-level star Braun Strowman, valuable veteran presence Ruby Riott, and newly re-pushed Aleister Black—coming as major shocks. So shocking that it reignited widespread speculation that WWE is gearing up to sell the company by clearing expensive contracts off the books to make them more appealing to a Comcast, Disney, or Amazon-level entertainment juggernaut. A juggernaut who would do for WWE what Disney did for Marvel.

Well, about that…

Exactly one week ago (last Wednesday, May 26th), Amazon announced that they were acquiring legendary movie studio MGM for $8.4 billion. In the official press release, which was widely aggregated by mainstream media, Mike Hopkins, Senior Vice President of Prime Video and Amazon Studios, was quoted about the value of the MGM film library:

“MGM has a vast catalog with more than 4,000 films—12 Angry Men, Basic Instinct, Creed, James Bond, Legally Blonde, Moonstruck, Poltergeist, Raging Bull, Robocop, Rocky, Silence of the Lambs, Stargate, Thelma & Louise, Tomb Raider, The Magnificent SevenThe Pink Panther, The Thomas Crown Affair, and many other icons—as well as 17,000 TV shows—including Fargo, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Vikings—that have collectively won more than 180 Academy Awards and 100 Emmys,” said Mike Hopkins, Senior Vice President of Prime Video and Amazon Studios. “The real financial value behind this deal is the treasure trove of IP in the deep catalog that we plan to reimagine and develop together with MGM’s talented team. It’s very exciting and provides so many opportunities for high-quality storytelling.”

Wait a second, let’s rewind…

“The real financial value behind this deal is the treasure trove of IP in the deep catalog that we plan to reimagine and develop together with MGM’s talented team.”

Remind me, what was it that the source told Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy?

“At first glance, WWE’s a wrestling company. But it’s really a media/content company with a treasure trove of IP that appeals to young demos,” the source told FOS.


That said: Look, I’m realistic. It’s not like Hopkins is the first person to to use the phrase “treasure trove of IP.” A time-limited Google search set to only look for results before last week shows it being used from time to time in articles about technology patents and entertainment giants’ mergers and acquisitions, though the vast majority of results are from before 2021. (It’s also imperfect: Various web design quirks result in hits for the Hopkins MGM quote even when time-limiting the search.) So I did the journalistic thing and reached out to both Hopkins and McCarthy. As of this writing, Hopkins has not replied to an email requesting comment. McCarthy, however took a different tact.

When I first messaged McCarthy—he was following me on Twitter—it was strictly to ask if speculating as to if Hopkins was his source would cause him any undue burden. After all, it wasn’t worth one semi-conspiratorial blog to blow up the guy’s source or anything like that. His response was to say he had no idea what I was talking about, ask if we know each other (again: he was following me), and then, when I explained the basis for the speculation, tell me he still didn’t know what he was talking about. When I asked if I should take that more formally as a “no comment,” he responded by saying—again, to someone he was already following on Twitter—“That’s an I don’t give a damn because you haven’t identified who you are, who you work for and why you’re asking.” Then he unfollowed me. When I pointed out that I had wrongly assumed familiarity for the aforementioned reasons, he chalked the exchange up to a “misunderstanding,” then stopped replying after I asked why he was so hostile given the tone of my initial approach.

Again, this could all be a big zero that’s fun to speculate about and little more. If nothing else, though, McCarthy’s…let’s just say “unconventional” response has a certain resemblance to smoke, even if it doesn’t look much like fire.

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