World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Habbo.com have teamed to promote WWE's Royal Rumble on the teen-targeted website. While the actual Royal Rumble takes place January 27, live on PPV, the Habbo Royal Rumble began this week, as Habbo members vote for the top 30 WWE wrestlers they think will make it into the big event this weekend.
Upon reading this, I immediately started thinking about a great article I found a few months ago in the Business & Society Review by Shanahan and Hyman. The article argues that WWE (still called the WWF at the time the article was written, back in 2001) broadcast programming should be deemed a program-length commercial based on the FCC criteria, and that the WWE "is a major violator of the strictures on host selling and program-length commercials." What are they selling? Well, according to Shanahan & Hyman, they're selling themselves...in the form of pay-per-view events. The article goes on to provide a political economic analysis of the WWE brand, and a well-constructed argument that WWE broadcasts are pretty much hour-long advertisements that hook viewers into a narrative that can only be followed properly if the pay-per-view components are regularly viewed/consumed as well.
The stats they provide on the WWE are humbling esp. when considering that -- although they are now quite outdated -- the brand remains immensely popular among young boys and adolescent males. For example:
With more than 5 million viewers, RAW IS WAR, the WWF’s weekly flagship program on the USA network (but recently moved to TNN), is the highest-rated program on U.S. cable television; Smackdown, the WWF’s weekly program on the UPN network, draws almost 5 million viewers. On average, the 35 million U.S. fans of the WWF and rival WCW (World Championship Wrestling) watch 15 hours per week of wrestling programs. Although WWF broadcasts attract an audience that is 70 percent male, viewers belong to many demographic segments (e.g., women are the fastest-growing segment). The three largest audience groups are 6 to 17 year olds (especially 11 to 15 year olds), 18 to 44 year old men, and 18 to 24 year old women. Pre-teens constitute more than 15 percent of the audience. To accommodate these younger viewers, the WWF tempers the violence and sexual innuendo on its weekend morning programs. The WWF’s more than one-half million U.S. fans part with $30 million a month for its pay-per-view programs, such as King of the Ring.
The broadcast programs promote the pay-per-view by creating week-long hype for the weekend PPV events. According to Shanahan & Hyman's study, the average two-hour RAW IS WAR program contains only 36 minutes of actual wrestling. The rest is dedicated to developing soap opera-esque storylines through interviews, grudge match announcements, interruptions by surprise visits from other wrestlers or wrestlers' girlfriends (or boyfriends for female wrestlers)/spouses/children or enemies, etc. The storyline, interviews and all the rest build up intricate plotlines that promise to find resolution only during the PPV event:
All pay-per-view tournaments are scheduled immediately after the Sunday evening program HEAT, which is used to promote the event; tournament results are announced the next night on RAW IS WAR. Unlike many pay-cable programs, these tournaments are never re-broadcast on U.S. stations such as USA, TNT, or WTBS. Still photographs are used to promote a pay-per-view re-broadcast of the event the following night (Tuesday; a non-wrestling night for the WWF). The winner of King of the Ring is touted as the newest icon in professional wrestling’s upper echelon. Of course,“winner” is somewhat of a misnomer; in 1989, Vince McMahon admitted, while under investigation by the New Jersey Gaming Commission, that the matches are scripted.
Because viewers are highly involved with wrestling programming in general, the WWF can work pay-per-view programs into the storyline in the guise of matches to resolve grudges fostered during weekly broadcasts.
The shows also contain numerous other examples of host-selling for sponsor products, which are often also advertised between programming, theme music (each wrestler has a theme song, which can be purchased on a CD promoted during broadcast). The study found that even advertising students (university age) had trouble identifying all the examples of host-selling contained within the programs - this truly seems like an early example of the immersive advertising that has now become so popular online.
There are also problems with the disconnect between ratings and the actual age of audience members. As Shanahan & Hyman explain:
The FCC defines a child as someone under the age of 17, yet RAW IS WAR, Smackdown, and HEAT are rated TV-14. As the largest viewer segment for professional wrestling is 6 to 17 year olds, this inconsistency is meaningful. Although the TV-14 rating means that parents could block children less than 14 years old from viewing these programs, 14 to 16 year olds, who fall into the largest segment of wrestling fans, would not be excluded. So, contrary to the Children’s Television Act of 1990, the WWF is host selling to children.
I think much of the same arguments could be made in relation to this new development, which will surely have some "unintentional" overlap in terms of age groups. Habbo.com is already so heavily commercialized, I doubt that this new development will raise too much of a fuss (sadly), but I think it's nonetheless worth to note how easily the program-length commercial can be digitized. The arguments made by Shanahan and Hyman also provide a good foundation from which to analyze future WWE promotional efforts, and I think provide some good grounding for arguments against advergames and immersive advertising generally.
Here's an additional link to the full article (subscription is required).