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?
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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:
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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