Cable executives said last week that they were confident
wrestling events would remain programming mainstays, despite the controversy surrounding
the accidental death of a wrestler during a May 23 event on pay-per-view.
As law-enforcement authorities in Kansas City, Mo.,
continued to investigate the death of World Wrestling Federation grappler Owen Hart -- a
34-year-old Canadian known to fans as "Blue Blazer" -- they reported no evidence
of foul play or negligence in the incident.
During the WWF event at Kemper Arena, Hart was being
lowered into the ring when he plunged 50 feet to his death after a safety harness cable
snapped. The fatal plunge was not shown live on the telecast.
"It looks like the quick-release mechanism was
activated accidentally by Mr. Hart, or perhaps caught in his clothing or rigging,"
Kansas City Police Department spokesman Floyd Mitchell said last week. "We are
currently awaiting results of a test to make a better judgment as to how the release was
Immediately after the incident, there was intense
discussion and disagreement among WWF officials about canceling the rest of the event,
sources said. The WWF apparently got word of Hart's death before the event ended. But
a decision was made to complete the show.
Hart's bereaved family members raised questions in
interviews last week about the safety procedures at the ill-fated event.
After the incident, USA Network and Turner Network
Television went ahead with their usual Monday-night lineups of WWFRaw/War Zone
and World Championship Wrestling's Nitro, respectively.
USA's Monday telecast, which drew a 7.1 Nielsen
rating, was at times a teary tribute to Hart. The show interspersed personal tributes from
other WWF wrestlers with action in the ring.
The WWF also released a statement saying that Hart was
someone who "loved this business and lived to entertain both inside and outside of
the ring. He was a consummate performer and a legendary prankster."
The WCW said in a statement, "We are shocked and
saddened by this terrible tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with Bret Hart and the
entire Hart family." Bret "Hitman" Hart, a WCW performer, is Owen
Hart's brother. WCW's Monday telecast registered a 3.8 rating.
It was unclear at press time how well the PPV event
performed. Some cable operators said the event was tracking ahead of previous In Your
House shows. WWF officials would not reveal buy-rates.
The WWF cancelled previously scheduled PPV replays of the
The accident prompted some critics to question whether WWF
chairman Vince McMahon had gone too far with the spectacular stunts featured in his
programs. The organization previously came under fire for allegedly exposing overly
violent and sexual themes to children.
One of McMahon's sharpest critics is Bret Hart, who
left the WWF in 1997. His problems with McMahon were explored in a 1998 documentary by
Canadian filmmaker Paul Jay, Hitman Hart, Wrestling with Shadows.
According to Jay, Bret Hart's animosity towards
McMahon stemmed partly from the enormous pressure the wrestler felt to perform while
injured. For instance, 10 years ago, Hart broke his sternum and ribs in a match. After
that incident, according to Jay, McMahon cut his pay to $200 per week and rushed him back
into the ring.
Injuries are fairly common in professional wrestling, Jay
explained, because while the combatants are not trying to hurt each other, the
choreography generally requires some level of contact in order to make the action seem
But Hart's death marked the first time someone died
inside the ring in the United States or in Canada since 1969, according to Wade Keller,
publisher of Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly, a nationally distributed newsletter.
McMahon limited his comments in television appearances to
expressing shock and sadness, and he vowed to get to the bottom of what went wrong. He
could not be reached for further comment last week.
Through a WCW spokesman, Bret Hart declined comment.
For whatever reasons, pro wrestling has become a cultural
phenomenon and a key revenue generator for cable programmers and operators.
USA's and TNT's wrestling shows consistently
dominate the top 10 basic-cable programs in terms of Nielsen Media Research ratings. On
May 10, USA's WWF Raw and WWF War Zone garnered an 8.1 rating -- the
single largest audience for a regularly scheduled entertainment program in basic-cable
Riding that trend, low-rated broadcast network United
Paramount Network aired a WWF event last month -- reportedly the first time a broadcast
network had shown wrestling in four years. The special, during a sweep period, performed
well, and UPN later said it would add a WWF show to its Thursday-night lineup this fall.
Wrestling events on PPV generated about $178 million in
revenue last year, out of a total of $241 million in event revenue. The category pulled in
more than $84 million in the first quarter of 1999 alone, out of $202 million in event
revenue, according to Showtime Event Television. Only big-name boxers draw better.
Industry observers said they believed the incident would
blow over, and it wouldn't have lasting repercussions for the WWF.
"It was an isolated incident," said one executive
at a large New York-based media-buying service, who requested anonymity. "Advertisers
that buy wrestling are accustomed to a certain amount of controversy. This incident should
not have any significant impact on viewer popularity."
"It certainly was a tragic event, but I don't
think the buy-rates will be affected at all," Cable One of Fargo, N.D., marketing
assistant Eric Lardy said.