BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Since the Hulk Hogan era of the 1980s, pro-wrestling, led by Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment --formerly the World Wrestling Federation -- has been synonymous with mega-entertainment. Rowdy fans have filled arenas across the country to see Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock toss their steroid-pumped opponents around the ring. [CLIP FROM WRESTLING PLAYS] [ROWDY CROWD OF FANS]
ANNOUNCER: Wait a minute! Is, is The Undertaker turning his back on his-- on his tag partner?! [SOUND OF A BLOW] [CROWD ROARS] [MORE BLOWS, MORE ROARS]
BOB GARFIELD:TV wrestling shows like UPN's Smackdown! and TNN's Monday Night Raw seemed to have a chokehold on primetime but in recent months it appears pro wrestling is losing some of its appeal. Smackdown! ratings have plummeted, and arena audiences are also hitting the mat. Reporter Paul Farhi chronicled the decline in a recent article for the Washington Post. Paul, welcome back to OTM.
PAUL FARHI: Hi, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Start by please giving me a little bit of background. Professional wrestling has been around since the beginnings of TV, and it seems to me it moved along at a steady pace for decades. There were a certain number of people who were attracted to it with the spectacle and a much larger percentage of the TV audience who just rolled their eyes. But then something turned. When and how and why?
PAUL FARHI: Well, I think what happened was Vince McMahon happened. Vince McMahon was the first one really to say let's get rid of this pretext of whether it's real or not. He came right out and said it's fake! Now wrestling embraced what it had always been before but added these great moments of theatrical drama -- these stories, the soap opera that it became.
BOB GARFIELD: And it flourished for a decade but seems to have hit the wall. What's going on?
PAUL FARHI:It seems to be losing the most important viewers and fans of all -- that is, 14 year old boys, and if you lose 14 year old boys, eventually you, you lose 24 year old boys and 34 year old boys. It's something like smoking -- if you don't hook 'em by the age of 14, you lose the customer. And that seems to be what's happening now. Wrestling is just uncool. Maybe the stories have gotten stale. They've bene hurt by the absence of The Rock who's making movies now and doing quite well at it and the petering out I guess of Stone Cold Steve Austin who was the big figure of the 1990s.
BOB GARFIELD:I'm curious to know where the 14 year old boys have gone. I gather they're not renting Merchant Ivory movies and, you know, watching them over popcorn and orange soda.
PAUL FARHI: Fourteen year old boys have gone where the other networks have lured them -- to shows like Fear Factor and Dog Eat Dog. Fourteen year old boys like the gross; they like the violent, they like the sexual and the whole reality genre has taken away a lot of that audience.
BOB GARFIELD:In your story in the Post you said that there have been scenes of wrestlers urinating on one another or at least simulating that and eating their own vomit-- has it really gotten that bad?
PAUL FARHI: Yes, it has gotten that bad. It's always been bad, but there's a certain desperation I guess you'd say that's creeping into it.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about Tough Enough [sp?] the MTV program -- how does that fit into this whole eco-system?
PAUL FARHI: I think Tough Enough is ultimately the most important piece of the puzzle for the WWE. Tough Enough is a show in which wouldbe wrestling superstars try out for the sport and attempt to make the big time. It's about taking some of the elements of the realty shows that have taken away wrestling's audience and trying to reclaim them with a kind of show that might actually lead people to watch the main event.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Paul, as always, thanks very much.
PAUL FARHI: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Farhi is a reporter for the Style Section of the Washington Post.