Since 1992, when Sky Sports became a subscription service, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has always been something that you had to pay for in the UK. That changed in 2000, when WWE gained a presence on free to air (FTA) television in the UK. It should have been a great opportunity for WWE to boost its popularity in the UK since it was now available in every home in the country. As it turned out the deal was a total disaster. WWE was dropped at the end of its contract in 2001 and dispatched back to Sky with its tail between its legs. Some say that the station decided not to renew two weeks into its two year contract. So how on earth did a great opportunity for WWE go badly wrong?
First the deal. In December 1999 WWE signed a two year deal with Channel 4 (C4) to show Sunday Heat (a mix of highlights from RAW and Smackdown plus original matches). More importantly the deal also included four of WWE’s monthly pay- per-views(PPV) – those being held in January, April, July and December. While the Royal Rumble in January was the only elite event among them by luck rather than judgement C4 got two other big events in 2001 – July’s Invasion PPV which was the first one to feature WWE wrestlers against WCW/ECW wrestlers and December’s Vengeance PPV where Chris Jericho became the first ever Undisputed Champion. It should have been a great chance for the WWE to boost its UK audience and for C4 to get a high rating – the WWE was at peak popularity at the time. For fans without Sky – like me – it should have been a dream come true.
It wasn’t. Basically the alliance ran into trouble in two weeks. On 23rd January 2000 C4 broadcast its first PPV – the Royal Rumble. While delighted to see a WWE PPV live on FTA television I – and most UK wrestling fans – were not very pleased when C4 cut to commercials whenever they felt like it – one of the commercial breaks interrupted a promo by the biggest star in the WWE at the time the Rock. But if fans were unhappy about that C4 were totally shocked at what they saw.
There was a lot about the 2000 Royal Rumble that C4 did not like. They were shocked by the violence in the tag team tables match and the Triple H v Cactus Jack street fight. They were shocked at Chyna a woman fighting not one but two men as well as being in the Royal Rumble match itself. And above all they were shocked by the Miss Rumble swimsuit competition. Oh dear where do you start with this rubbish? With the fact that it was won by 76 year old Mae Young and she flashed her breasts! Now they were prosthetic breasts but how would C4 have known that they were not real?
It is important to understand that C4 were – and still are – the most politically correct channel in the UK. When C4 started back in 1982 their whole raison d’être was to provide programming for minority groups and women.So a woman flashing (even prosthetic) breasts was hardly going to go down well. It was a totally unnecessary stunt by the WWE but C4 cannot be absolved of blame themselves. Ever heard of the saying “buyer beware”? C4 obviously thought that the WWE was the same kind of wrestling that had been popular as part of ITV’s World Of Sport from 1965-85. That had been shown at 4pm on a Saturday so C4 showed their weekly Sunday Heat at 4pm. Now if C4 had watched WWE programming for more than no seconds before signing the contract they would have known it had little or nothing in common with the UK wrestling of the 1960s/70s/80s. The WWE was in the middle of the Attitude Era the most politically incorrect era in its history. It was a dreadful culture clash.
Some say (though this would never be proved) that C4 had decided after that Royal Rumble not to renew the deal. But be that as it may they still had seven PPVs to show the next one being Backlash in April. C4 decided to show it on a 50 minute delay so they could edit out anything they did not like that appeared on the show. There was. After a tag team match between T&A and the Dudley Boyz T&A’s manager Trish Stratus was put through a table by Bubba Ray Dudley. Another totally unnecessary stunt by the WWE. But this time C4 got the backlash from wrestling fans for censoring the show. As a compromise C4 showed the rest of the PPVs in their contract uncut.
Sunday Heat was also a problem. Since the programme featured highlights from RAW and Smackdown some of the programme was unsuitable for its 4pm time slot. So again C4 censored it and again the fans complained. Ironically WWE had suggested Heat be shown at 10 pm and eventually once C4 grew disillusioned with WWE Heat was moved to 11pm but of course its ratings then fell.
To no one’s surprise C4 announced in July 2001 it was not renewing it’s contract. The rights were eventually sold back to Sky….for half of what C4 had paid for them! UK fans – like me – were sad to see it go but it had been a total disaster for both sides.
Could it have been any different? Not really It was a dreadful culture clash. If either side had known what the other was like I doubt that the deal happens. When C4 dropped the deal it mentioned WWE’s propensity for showing violence against women. True the violence and sexism in WWE at the time was awful but if they had watched WWE before hand C4 would have known this. On the other hand had WWE known how politically correct C4 was they would either have not signed a contract with C4 at all or toned down their product accordingly. In my opinion the bigger the potential audience the more risky controversial content is. Ironically today’s PG WWE would be more suitable for C4 than the 2000-01 version but it doesn’t get the ratings.
The moral of the story? When two organisations who have nothing in common get together because one wants money and the other wants ratings it is always going to be a train wreck. And that is what the WWE-C4 alliance was. A complete disaster that should never have happened. UK wrestling fans were the real losers. We were given a great present – free WWE – and had it taken away because of a culture clash that was never going to work anyway. This was always destined for an unhappy ending.