CABLE TV: THE SPORTS SECTION: FOR TURNER & USA NETS, IT'S SLAM, BAM, THANK YOU FANS: WRESTLING MAKES FOR GREAT THEATER, BIG CABLE PROFITS

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When ted turner first put wrestling on cable TV in the early '70s, some competitors wore masks. Perhaps they didn't want anyone to know what they did for a living.

Today, professional wrestlers go to sales meetings in suits and ties, attracting legions of fans including families and clean-cut kids. Professional wrestling has successfully moved from trash sport to big-time entertainment.

TENFOLD JUMP

"Since 1994, our revenues for wrestling have increased by ten times," says Joe Uva, president of Turner Entertainment sales and marketing; Turner is owner of the top-rated wrestling programs on cable TV.

In terms of audience and ad growth, "what [is] happening with wrestling is the same kind of thing that happened with Nascar," Mr. Uva says.

Helen Katz, media research manager, DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, calculates $55.3 million was spent last year by advertisers on cable TV wrestling.

The biggest fight of all may be outside the ring: Turner and USA Networks are involved in a Monday night death match pitting World Championship Wrestling against the World Wrestling Federation in a no-holds-barred battle for viewers and advertising dollars.

Wrestling's image began to shift in the 1980s, when stars like Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper attained a kind of camp-hero status among kids as the spread of cable exposed them to ever-wider audiences.

Then, in 1988, Turner purchased a major wrestling promotion company and gave it a complete overhaul, renaming it World Championship Wrestling.

Simultaneously, the original teen-age viewers grew into free-spending young adults, new audiences began tuning in and the process only continues to accelerate.

Turner, building on the success of its "TNT Monday Nitro" card, this year launched yet another prime-time series, this one on TBS, named "Thursday Thunder."

"It was the highest-rated original series premiere in basic-cable history," claims Mr. Uva, adding that it hit an impressive 4.2 rating within the Turner universe.

ATHLETIC? HARDLY

Another major change for the industry is that no one on the inside -- from performers to programmers to sponsors -- even tries to maintain the fiction that professional wrestling is in any way authentic athletic competition.

While the full body slam is still a staple, much of the fake blood of the early days is long gone and, in the words of one programming executive, "the only way anyone gets hurt is by accident."

Veteran broadcast buyer Doug Seay, senior VP at Hal Riney & Partners, New York, puts it this way: "When you buy wrestling, everyone has a reasonable expectation that it is phony. In many ways, it foreshadowed a whole trend of sports as entertainment and news as entertainment [but at least] it is more honest in its blatant self-promotion."

PULLS HUGE NUMBERS

It can also be, he adds, a good buy.

"For some targets, it delivers huge numbers incredibly efficiently and that makes it a great vehicle."

He suggests it is a particularly good fit for some cars and trucks, the auto aftermarket, soft drinks, snack foods and movies.

Turner's wrestling sponsor list is all over the map, Mr. Uva says, from "telecommunications to candies, snack foods, fragrances, games, movies and electronics."

Among wrestling's larger advertisers are MCI Communications Corp., M&M/Mars, Aiwa America, Pfizer Inc., Warner-Lambert Co.'s Burst gum and Valvoline.

"We sell it as a whole marketing platform," he says, including not just TV spots but in-arena-sponsorships, events and a wide range of promotional opportunities.

ON THE ROAD

A recent example was last month's "WCW Spring Breakout" traveling road show co-sponsored by Burst. The tour hit several campuses before ending up in Panama City, Fla., just as hordes of college students descended for their annual spring break pilgrimage.

At USA Networks, which goes head-to-head with Turner in the wrestling market, their WWF properties are sold "as part of a bigger entertainment landscape. Some people may still think of it sport but it is really entertainment with a storyline," said Bonnie Hammer, USA Networks' VP-original productions and programming.

Still, not everyone is on board yet. Executives at USA and Turner concede that some advertisers still have lingering concerns about both viewer demographics and violent content. That arises largely from a misperception of what wrestling is now, as opposed to the old days, Mr. Uva says.

SURPRISING DEMO

"Our demographic profile is not what one might expect," he says. There is a high concentration of men, but many are in the $30,000-$40,000-plus income bracket.

"We overindex against the people who you would assume are too upscale for this," he says.

Mr Seay agrees: "The perception of the audience doesn't match the reality. You think it is the woodsman from `Deliverance' who watches wrestling but it is far more universal."

He also has few qualms about content. "I wouldn't put clients in `Jerry Springer' but I do put them in wrestling. . .One man's stigma is another man's opportunity."

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