Bob Barker, Shaquille O'Neal, Ozzy Osbourne, Al Sharpton and Cedric the Entertainer aren't who you'd expect to see when turning on World Wrestling Entertainment programming. OK, maybe Ozzy.
All are featured guests this fall with the WWE as Vince McMahon's machine undergoes some image polishing and stresses a family friendly approach.
They've toned down the language, gotten rid of the fake blood. The lingerie matches are gone, with the Divas now wearing the type of workout clothes common at the gym. Characters who are popular with youngsters, such as John Cena and Rey Mysterio, get more screen time, and the WWE Kids magazine debuted last year.
The WWE has worked with networks that air their programming to change parental guidance ratings from TV-14 to PG.
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"We just followed our audience and tried to listen to them," said McMahon, the WWE chairman. "It's a more sophisticated product. It's just the right move business-wise, but more specifically the right move in terms of reaching our audience."
McMahon said it's been a gradual process, with the company now trying to spread the word to potential viewers and advertisers who might not have given the soap opera in tights a second look.
The WWE's programming is spread across several networks: "Monday Night Raw" airs for two hours on USA; the SyFy network shows "Extreme Championship Wrestling" on Tuesdays; WGN America shows "WWE Superstars" on Thursdays; and "Friday Night Smackdown," which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, is on My Network TV.
During the peak of what the company refers to as its "attitude era" a decade ago, the WWE's audience was dominated by young men. While its popularity has waned, the fan base has simultaneously grown older and younger, according to audience research. A little more than a third of its audience is female.
The audience also is ethnically more diverse than most shows: 62 percent of the audience is white, 20 percent of the viewership is black and 23 percent is Hispanic (Hispanics were counted as both white and Hispanic). It's the most-watched English-language show on cable among Hispanics, the company said.
With the Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial arts becoming more popular as competitors, it made little sense for the WWE to ramp up the attitude with violence and sexuality, McMahon said.
"You really can't compete with that," he said. "Why not deliver a more sophisticated product and not go to those extremes? If the audience wants those extremes, they know where to go and how to get it."
Going PG has helped the company draw advertisers who might have looked away before. Pepsi, 7-Eleven stores, Mattel toys and the Army National Guard are among the sponsors that have signed up since the shift, the company said.
The association with steroids also hurt. Anabolic steroids were found in the home of wrestler Chris Benoit after he killed his wife, 7-year-old son and himself in their suburban Atlanta home two years ago. McMahon toughened the WWE's drug testing rules.
"Their public image was pretty bad," said Dave Meltzer, publisher of the trade publication Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "They took a major hit and said, 'We've got to become a kinder, nicer company.'"