This past weekend, heavily pushed as returning after a “30 year absence”, British Wrestling once again took pride of place on ITV’s Saturday evening schedule, with the heavily anticipated World Of Sport Wrestling, a “one off” New Years Eve special.
ITV, when asked, continue to deny a returning Series, however talk among those involved is that pre-production has already begun on tentative taping dates early in 2017. Based on overnight figures, the show averaged 1.25 million viewers, on the lower end of what they may have hoped for, with a 7.3% audience share. To put that into perspective, the average for ITV in that timeslot in 2016, was 13.5%.
Indeed, it was not a normal Saturday, taking place on New Years Eve and opposite one of the bigger football matches of the year in Manchester City and Liverpool on BT Sport 1, but the fact remains, a higher percentage of the people watching TV were watching something else than normally in the 5-7pm Saturday slot. Crucially, the show did not hold the near 1.5 million viewers of the programme “The Chase” that preceded it, nor did it approach the 2 million average of “Ninja Warrior UK” that followed it, a significantly lower rating for that programme than it’s 3-4 million norm – again perhaps a indictment of the night, or potentially a sign of World Of Sport being a weak lead in. WOS started with 1.5 million viewers (likely hold overs from the 2.5 million people tuning in for the news and weather bumper) ticking down throughout the show until it’s last quarter hour where the show hit a low of 1.17 million, slightly up to 1.24 million for the last few minutes of the programme, where it would appear people were tuning back in for Ninja Warrior.
In a very different landscape, ITV Wrestling was averaging 8.5 million viewers in the early 70’s and 4 million viewers in the late 80’s but even here, with differing parameters, the number has to be seen as something of a disappointment, although likely not one so egregious it can’t be explained away if ITV were indeed already positive on the idea of a series. It seems unlikely to dissuade the broadcaster exploring the idea further, however it may not be unreasonable to suggest such falling viewership patterns could impact upon both the timeslot and scope of a potential series – i.e. a shorter run of episodes, rather than something more sustained.
The content of the show itself had plenty to be positive about. With the rise of the online streaming services and more competition than ever for eyeballs, the production of the bigger UK indies has improved dramatically – this however, was a level unseen before in British Wrestling. There were issues to be ironed out, specifically the Kevin Dunn style jump cuts seemingly at random, and some obvious crowd sweetening, but on the whole, taking place on a soundstage with professional lighting and sound, and on a multiple camera shoot, the show looked tremendous and for the most part felt major league. The backstage segments were a mixed bag, polished, if perhaps overly scripted and clichéd, but the main talkers on the programme, Grado, Dave Mastiff and the authority figure Max Beesley Snr aka Mr Beesley, did an admirable job with the material given.
Jim Ross, taking lead announcer duties gave the show a weight and crucially, a level of credibility that will have justified his hefty price tag, and although some of his references, particularly the US and WWE centric ones seemed misplaced, he was assisted in that regard by Alex Shane, who himself did a fair job filling in the gaps in JR’s knowledge with trivia on the UK scene. Still, the multiple production gaffs where JR was shown neck deep in his notes reeling off facts about the World Of Sport past, were amusing, as was repeated mention of the “long vacant” WOS title, which did not exist in the 20th Century programming.
Some have taken issue with the attachment of the World Of Sport name to a production that did not on the face of it contain much allusion to what is remembered with that name, and while “mount evans” rules matches are synonymous with the term World Of Sport in the hive mind of wrestling fans, the reality of much of the original ITV Wrestling run, is that it also contained ladder matches, many one-fall singles matches and even inter-gender matches, especially in later years where it resembled more of a variety show than most give it credit (the programme itself “World Of Sport” being a segmented presentation of many sports, not just wrestling). In truth, the viability of that style in the mainstream, 30 years later, when most have grown up with the “American Wrestling” tropes of WWE and a US influenced generation of independent wrestlers, is questionable at best. While it was nice to have talking head footage of the veteran wrestlers who worked that style splattered through the show and an argument could have been made for at least one technical “mount evans” match in style, if not full rounds format, “American Wrestling” is what this show likely had its best chance of succeeding with, and what it delivered.
The matches themselves, were for the most part good, with the wrestlers on the whole working a safer “holiday camp” style in an attempt to likely play to the casual family audience that is no doubt the target of this product. I was in the crowd for the taping and while some of the audience reactions did come off canned on TV (and there was lots of fan direction in the building) it was a genuinely enthusiastic crowd of existing wrestling fans who were boisterous all night and made all those on the show come off as bigger stars as a result. Grado, pushed strongly as the top babyface of the taping came off well, as did other babyfaces Kenny Williams and Sam Bailey in their four way ladder match and El Ligero in the match of the night with heel Zack Gibson (although it too, suffered from a minor production gaff, where a relatively tame table bump, had to be removed from the show due to it’s timeslot, and replaced with footage of gurning fans).
Elsewhere in the show, was a decent “first time ever” women’s singles match from Alexis Rose and Viper (Klondyke Kate in the WOS heyday was known for working the aforementioned inter-gender matches) and a very good tag match where Joe and Mark Coffey teamed against the singularly named Rampage (not Brown) and Ashton Smith, whom due to their size difference and matching gear, got good heat from the crowd for looking like a father and son duo.
The only negative with regards the in-ring product was some of the booking, in that while the simple one night story with Grado and Mastiff worked for the one off presentation, Grado particularly was over exposed, appearing in three matches by nights end with diminishing returns. The booking of Harry Smith as British Bulldog Junior was also particularly strange as Smith, while a good choice for a big moment on a Saturday evening ITV show (his father was long rumoured to have been joining the cast of Gladiators on ITV in the 90’s) looked decidedly uncomfortable hitting some of the spots Davey Boy Senior was known for and was perplexingly allowed to enter the “Battle Royale” match half way through as an advertised surprise, despite the nights on-going story of a commissioner Mr Beesely wanting a fair card. His quick, relatively clean elimination was also a strange call, perhaps showing some of the naivety of this, a wrestling show, being put together and booked by a television production. It is that naivety, which is the biggest question mark hanging over the project. While a polished ITV Saturday Night setup is likely to do best with gaining mainstream attention, if a series is to come, it is repeat custom which will be required and while entertaining, this show did not quite have the depth of even a WWE show, nor did it feel like there was much of a hook to bring viewers, casual or hardcore, back for more shows. It was a pleasantly entertaining, inoffensive show that will likely need some tweaking and perhaps the further involvement of wrestling minded people on the creative side, to truly flourish.
Also in question, is the impact a continued ITV Wrestling presentation will have on the wider British Wrestling scene. WWE, whom already had many British talents on their radar though their own tryout camps and the excursions and local knowledge of William Regal and Robbie Brookside, may well have had existing plans of a sort in the UK, but those plans were surely expedited when ITV got into the game, with WWE quickly announcing their own WWE UK tournament, taking place in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens on the 14th and 15th of January. That too is expected to become a Series, with repercussions already being felt by WWE’s foray into signing British talent. What Culture Pro Wrestling specifically, have raised the ire of WWE, when trying to sign one of their most pushed acts Joseph Conners, as well as stars Trent Seven, Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne to dates which WWE had wanted the talent and had first refusal.
The fallout appears to be that those wrestlers will no longer work for WCPW, but can work elsewhere, and while lesser restrictions appear to be in place for the ITV contracted talent (appearances on television aside), 2017 is likely to involve much more division and political fray. The likes of PROGRESS, RevPro and ICW may at the moment be safe from WWE interference, as unofficially endorsed friendly promotions, but what happens when a lesser company, or someone with ambitions similar to a WCPW, wants to put an ITV contracted talent like Zack Gibson over the WWE UK Champion, or the reverse, if Grado, ITV’s top man, is required to lose to a wrestler from the other side?
Other smaller changes in the landscape have started to emerge with Alex Shane taking on the three Butlins “camps” previously promised to All-Star Wrestling, after All-Star hit UK tabloid headlines earlier in the year for running Islamophobic angles using a Muslim heel wrestler. The Alex Shane deal could be an innocuous one to land more bookings for his NGW talent, but equally, with Shane’s connection to ITV, could provide opportunity for leverage of the ITV WOS name for touring shows similair to those already in place for ITV staples The X-Factor and The Voice. The real impact is harder to guess, but what is certain, is 2017 is sure to be an interesting year in British Wrestling and certainly its most significant and most widely exposed year in decades.
At the very least, if ITV World Of Sport provides nothing else, local promoters up and down the country will be rubbing their hands together at the idea of being able to put “as seen on ITV!” (and “as seen on WWE UK!”) all over their promotional material in the year to come.
Find me on Twitter and Instagram: Benno @BensonRichardE
Credit – Overnights.tv and ITVWrestling.co.uk for the viewership information contained in this article.