The History of Saturday Night's Main Event

Copyright 2007 by Mike Rickard II
 
Originally published at World Wrestling Insanity June 2, 2007
 
As Saturday Night's Main Event (SNME) makes its 35th appearance on TV, it's easy to look at it as just another wrestling show.   However at the time of its inception, SNME was one of the biggest happenings in professional wrestling, an event almost as important at the time as Wrestlemania.  SNME represented not only the success of Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (WWF) but that of professional wrestling in general.   The National Broadcasting Company's (NBC) airing of SNME was the first network television airing of professional wrestling since the 1950's, a sign that professional wrestling was breaking out of its cult niche into the mainstream.
 
The SNME program was developed by Dick Ebersol, the NBC executive partially responsible for the creation of Saturday Night Live (SNL).   Ebersol was looking to recreate the success of SNL and the WWF seemed to be a good partner to help him achieve his goal.   Ebersol was familiar with the WWF product and he felt that the WWF's Tuesday Night Titans (TNT) show shared many of the same qualities that made SNL a success.  After persuading Brandon Tartikoff (NBC's vice president of programming) that SNME would appeal SNL's fan base, the show was given the green light.  

While Ebersol was impressed with the creative aspects of the WWF product, he realized that production-wise, the WWF shared something with the SNL cast in that they both weren't ready for prime-time.   As detailed in Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, Ebersol's felt that:

the production values hadn't changed much since the fifties.   Vince's MTV shows didn't impress him and Wrestlemania struck him as downright   primitive.  There would also be no more showing up at an arena with a single truck carrying a ring and some lights.   Ebersol wanted four cameras at      ringside with boom mikes to catch the grunts and groans that usually went unheard.   He wanted state-of-the-art lighting rigs.   He wanted concert quality sound.   [1]


Utilizing his years of experience in network TV, Ebersol's improvements helped the WWF polish its TV product to an unheard level of quality.   Ebersol's influence not only transformed the WWF's production values but that of professional wrestling in general.   Once fans had seen the fantastic production values of SNME, they expected the same in all of their wrestling shows.   Overnight, the era of recording wrestling TV in old studios in front of a small audience became headed for extinction as the WWF had instituted a new standard.


Ebersol's commitment to the success of SNME reflected the fact that he was gambling his reputation on the show.   NBC guaranteed a certain rating for advertisers who aired commercials during the timeslot in which SNL aired.   If SNME's ratings did not match the number guaranteed by NBC, the network would have to pay a penalty back to advertisers for the difference.   If SNME was a failure, Ebersol's rising star at NBC could quickly plummet. 


With so much riding on the success of the first show, everything was done to make it a must-see event.   The WWF packed the show with its top talent including Hulk Hogan, the Junkyard Dog, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, the U.S. Express (Mike Rotunda & Barry Windham), Ricky Steamboat, and Wendi Richter.   In addition to the cream of the WWF crop, SNME's inaugural show featured guest appearances by Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T.    With SNME airing roughly six weeks after Wrestlemania, McMahon wisely booked several follow-up matches from his first PPV including a Hulk Hogan/Bob Orton bout, a Wendi Richter vs. Fabulous Moolah rematch for the Woman's Championship, and an edition of Piper's Pit featuring Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff (who had recently turned babyface).    

Behind the scenes, WWF officials butted head with Ebersol and the NBC crew over how the show should be run.   Vince McMahon recognized the difference in experience (at the time) between the WWF and NBC and wisely let Ebersol call the shots for the most part, leading to the aforementioned changes that would help the WWF build part of its reputation on production values second-to-none.


In the end, the first edition of SNME was a complete success, exceeding the expectations of both Ebersol and the higher-ups at NBC  [2] . The show outdrew the ratings SNL had pulled in during the same timeslot, opening the door for more editions of SNME. Over the next five years, SNME would air several times a year on NBC's late-night Saturday lineup as special programming.  

SNME was equally important for the WWF, giving the promotion access to a national audience of new fans.   Vince McMahon would use the show as a platform to launch new angles for the WWF with the hope of luring fans to his then budding pay-per-view PPV products.


A large part of the show's appeal was due to the fact that it featured wrestling lineups that fans typically would have to buy a ticket to see.   When SNME first aired, fans were used to seeing nothing but squash matches on regular WWF television (the idea being that fans would be forced into buying a ticket to see big name wrestlers face one another in the ring).   With SNME, fans could see championship matches and specialty matches (such as a cage match) that they'd never seen before on television. 


The spectacular success of SNME would impact the wrestling industry for years to come.   From the fans' perspective, the arrival of SNME met a higher level of expectations both in terms of the production values they saw on TV as well as the quality of matches aired.   From the WWF's perspective, there was the realization of how big the market could be for their product.   Not surprisingly, the success of SNME carried over to the WWF's other ventures, primarily PPV.   In terms of the industry in general, wrestling promoters sought to duplicate the WWF's success by improving their own product.   Not everyone tried and for those who did, it was a costly process that led to the demise of more than one promotion.


Dick Ebersol's gamble paid off for both him as well as his for Vince McMahon and the WWF.    Ebersol's position at NBC improved naturally and Vince McMahon steered the WWF to new heights of success partially on the back of SNME.   In the end though, the real winners were the fans who got to enjoy matches on free television that they'd never even dreamed of seeing before. 


[1] Assael, Shaun & Mooneyham, Mike. Sex, Lies, & Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004 .

  [2] Muchnick, Irving. Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal Toronto: ECW Press, 2007 .
SBN-10: 1-55022-841-2
ISBN-13: 978-1-55022-841-0
6.75 x 9.75 in, 300pp, paperback
Published by ECW Press

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Every fan of professional wrestling remembers the moment that captured their heart forever and hooked them for life. Whether it was Ric Flair regaining the NWA Championship from Harley Race at Starcade, the Freebirds turning heel on Kerry Von Erich, Mick Foley flying off the cage at King of the Ring, , Samoa Joe's epic trilogy with CM Punk in Ring of Honor, or the premiere of WCW's Nitro: these are the matches and moments that thrilled, terrified, or outraged overwhelming you with real emotion.

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About the Author:  Mike Rickard has been writing about the sport of kings since 2005.  His work has been seen on Pro Wrestling Illustrated's website, Pro Wrestling Torch, Gumgod, World Wrestling Insanity, and Canadian Bulldog's World.