The Raw Nature of Televised Professional Wrestling: Is the Violence a Cause for Concern?

By Tamborini, Ron; Skalski, Paul et al. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Raw Nature of Televised Professional Wrestling: Is the Violence a Cause for Concern?


Tamborini, Ron, Skalski, Paul, Lachlan, Kenneth, Westerman, David, Davis, Jeff, Smith, Stacy L., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Professional wrestling has smashed its way into American popular culture. Surveys show the magnitude of its appeal as ratings and revenues have risen to unexpected heights. World Wrestling Entertainment's (WWE) Monday Night Raw program soared in popularity during the late 1990s, reaching as many as 8 million cable viewers a week by 1999 ("Raw Ratings History," 2003). Although the appeal of professional wrestling is not limited to any one demographic audience, reports show its strong appeal to adolescent viewers. According to year-end 2002-2003 Nielsen ratings, on average, 483,000 children ages 2 through 11 watch Raw and 822,000 watch Smackdown every week. The numbers are even larger for children 9 through 14, with an average of 627,000 weekly for Raw and 847,000 for Smackdown.

Wrestling's appeal with the adolescent market has resulted in criticism from a variety of sources. Consistently, the Parents Television Council (2001) has ranked WWE programming among the worst shows on both network and cable television, calling it too violent for family hour programming. Scholars have condemned professional wrestling for lacking any human dignity in its portrayal of violence (Raney, 2003) and for fostering fighting among impressionable youth ("The Evidence Against Media Violence," 2001). Limited research indicates that young children perceive wrestling as more realistic than do adolescents and adults (British Broadcasting Standards Commission, 2001). Because realism strengthens the ability of television violence to increase viewer aggression (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963), initial indications that young children are watching and likely to perceive the violence as real compels us to learn more about the manner in which wrestling violence is portrayed.

Researchers have argued that contextual features associated with TV violence are critical in determining its influence on youthful viewers (Wilson et al., 1997). Despite the fact that many young viewers are ardent fans of wrestling, we know little about the manner in which it portrays violence. Recent inquiries into the content and effects of mass media on children and adolescents have focused on highly specific types of programming, including children's programming (Wilson et al., 2002) and music videos (Smith & Boyson, 2002), yet we know little about the content of wrestling. Although we can only speculate about why wrestling violence has been generally overlooked, we are concerned that television might portray wrestling violence in a manner potentially more damaging than the violence in other genres. An assessment of the amount and context of violence might help determine whether or not professional wrestling contains the type of violent portrayals that might engender aggressive reactions in its audience.

Research on Televised Wrestling

Scattered research on televised wrestling examines gender differences in motivations for viewing (Lemish, 1998), self-reports of behavioral imitation (Lemish, 1997), and perceptions of wrestling realism among young children, adolescents, and adults (British Broadcasting Standards Commission, 2001). Two other studies on live exposure to wrestling have examined effects on audience aggression (Arms, Russell, & Sandilands, 1979; Kingsmore, 1968). Yet this research provides little information on patterns of exposure to televised wrestling or details of violent content.

Two recent studies of British TV content show that some of the most violent televised programs on British television were World Wrestling Federation (WWF) productions (Gunter & Harrison, 1998; Gunter, Harrison, & Wykes, 2003). However, little here informs us about the nature of the violent content, and the meager evidence on American wrestling is even less informative. One story televised on Inside Edition reported the results from an Indiana University content analysis on 50 episodes of Raw broadcast in the United States. The authors reported more than 1,600 instances of crotch-pointing gestures, nearly 1,500 uses of the words hell or ass, and over 600 cases where objects like steel chairs or tables were used as weapons (Raney, 2003). …

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