Television, the one-ring circus, keeps coming full circle. No wonder industry-watchers get that woozy, vertiginous feeling. The latest circle to be come full is the squared circle of professional wrestling, a staple even in prime time (at least on ABC) in the '50s when there were more hours to fill than there were respectable programs to fill them.
In recent years, pro wrestling has resurged on fringe television: local stations like Washington's Channel 20, where promoters simply buy an hour's time to promote live matches, and kooky, bush-league cable networks, like the USA Cable Network, desperate for cheap programming. And, truth be told, it's all been fairly funny, the wild men of Borneo or "parts unknown" rooting around a makeshift ring in pursuit of valorous heroes who arrive in spangles of red, white and blue. And nearly all of them, friend and foe alike, sporting beer bellies, flab and great hairy acres of cellulite.
Announcers screamed from the sidelines that at any moment an arm was certain to be dislocated, and yet one never was.
This seemed just the right absurdity tonic for a doodly Saturday morning. There was no nuisance pretext of legitimacy. It was one great in-joke.
Then something awful happened.
It caught on.
Like bubonic hiccups.
Today, we arrive once more at the terribly familiar television terrain, Rock Bottom. Bolstered by the success that rabble-rousing local airjocks like WRC's tries-too-hard George Michael, the very poor man's Warner Wolf, have had with wrestling clips on their sportscasts, the NBC Television Network looks at pro wrestling for an hour this afternoon on its "SportsWorld" show, at 1 p.m. on Channel 4.
A bright young brick like Bob Costas is lending his talents to this nonsense, but the segments available for preview did not feature him. Instead they featured, among others, a tattered excuse for a broadcasting personality named Bud Collins, who thinks he is just the funniest little thing, though even Bud doesn't seem to glean any double meanings from such remarks, uttered during a history of wrestling, as "Men have always wanted to touch and clobber each other" and "The Greeks had a word for it."
Oh, Bud! Hoo hoo hoo!
Bud refers to professional wrestling as a "sport." He claims it is related somehow to the test of strength and balance in which college, high school and Olympic athletes participate. Poor old Bud. Poor old NBC. Or not so poor. Because just by the sheerest merest coincidence, NBC is considering a new pro wrestling show to appear once a month in the "Saturday Night Live" time slot.
This would be cheap to produce -- in fact, Dick "I'll-Do-Anything" Ebersol, the "SNL" exec producer, would produce it -- and since Cyndi Lauper entered the wrestling scene as "manager" of a lady grappler, fans of rock freaks are looking twice and becoming fans of wrestling freaks, too, so there's your spillover audience. "It's only in the talking stages," an NBC spokesman insisted yesterday.
Who should come along and dampen all this mirth but ABC, which recently aired, as a "20/20" segment, John Stossel's raucous report on the not-so-nice world of pro wrestling. Of course the matches are fakes; everybody knows that, and it doesn't really matter, and Stossel wasted time on a 40-year-old nonscoop. The fans are there for theatrics and histrionics, not athletics.
But Stossel, interviewing a former pro wrestler, learned how profuse bleeding is induced during bouts. Not with colored stage blood, it was said, but with real blood that pours from wounds the wrestlers inflict on their own foreheads with hidden razor blades.
Har har har, eh Bud?
Further, the wrestler spoke of totalitarian tactics by wrestling promoters, who begin or end careers on reputedly heartless whim. Wrestlers who get out of line may be blackballed to obscurity, it was alleged. A Georgia state legislator has called for an investigation of the wrestling business. And to top off the report, a wrestler known as Dr. D took what Stossel claimed was not a playful whack at him, knocking him to the ground. It wasn't funny-ugly, it was scary-ugly. It was "On the Waterfront" time.
Phil Mushnick, sports columnist for the New York Post, has repeatedly decried the use of wrestling clips during newscasts -- during anything that pretends to be a legitimate sportscast -- and called for more investigative reporting, less cute kinetic camp. "TV 'journalists' are aggressively promoting this industry, no questions asked," Mushnick wrote.
One problem is that it is awfully hard to wade into such mire without getting mucky. On the air, there does seem to be a self-mocking side to the pro wrestling reemergence that can be grubbily amusing. During a recent match televised live from Madison Square Garden on MTV, backstage celebrities interviewed included Andy Warhol, whose imprimatur certifies a fad as fashionably frivolous.
By contrast, the excellent PBS "Frontline" series recently aired a report on the movement to ban boxing. There was footage of boxers, including Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, striking blows that killed. Blows that killed people! Mancini is about to get the glorification treatment in a TV movie, because he's so personable. While "Frontline" aired, over on the USA Network's "Prime Time Wrestling" show (its "Tuesday Night Titans" wrestling show recently having moved, with coldblooded logic, to Fridays), a couple of clowns were rather genially pretending to beat each other senseless, which perhaps was not a great distance for either one to go.
The faked mayhem did seem overwhelmingly preferable to the real mayhem.
But bringing the wrestling sideshow into the midway, right there on network TV, can't be a step in the right direction (and might even kill wrestling, which depends on a back-alley, blue-collar mystique). On today's "SportsWorld" telecast, Merlin Olsen recalls that after his football career ended, he was offered $250,000 to make a six-month tour as a pro wrestler. He thought better of it and declined. Now he sells flowers. If he had any moral qualms about pro wrestling, he doesn't mention them. But then, neither does NBC.
When networks have moral qualms they just take a healthy dose of money and whoosh, they go away.