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From All-Star through AEW: The history of pro wrestling on ITV

By Bradley Craig, British wrestling historian and author exclusively for F4WOnline.com

The presentation of All Elite Wrestling’s Buy In pre-show and its Double or Nothing pay-per-view marks British TV network ITV’s latest foray into professional wrestling.

Its last, launching World of Sport Wrestling as an in-house entertainment brand, was its first actual attempt to provide its own content. Unfortunately, the viewership rapidly declined over the course of its first series, and it appears that outsourcing is the direction that the network is looking to pursue through its broadcasting of an AEW product.

But, ITV has a long and established history of working with external wrestling content providers. 

Domestically, the channel partnered with Joint Promotions and later All-Star Wrestling to provide its content. However, the broadcaster has worked with global brands for its wrestling output, including stateside promotions such as WWE and WCW. 

Paving the way for commercial television throughout British shores, Independent Television network (ITV) was launched in 1955. Upon its inception, the channel was tasked to produce viable programming in competition to the BBC television service, and was the only alternative for viewers at the time. As Joint Promotions was formed as a monopoly wrestling organization in post-WWII Britain, it was inevitable that its status as the clear market leader would provide it with the greatest broadcast opportunities upon the advent of television. 

ITV quickly established a partnership with Joint, and their first collaborative broadcast of pro wrestling was held on November 9th, 1955. Eventually, this would lead to a weekly diet of matches by 1960, most notably on Saturday afternoons as part of a cluster of sports programming called Let's Go. The coverage was a ratings success, the high point of which was a famed May 25, 1963, rematch between rival heels Mick McManus and Jackie Pallo, held on the same day as the FA Cup Final (the culminating match of the most prestigious knockout soccer tournament in England) which some insist to have attracted a television viewership of 16 million viewers. 

Within a few years, the Saturday afternoon schedule of ITV sports coverage was reconfigured. From January 2, 1965, the channel debuted World of Sport, a variety sports show that would continue to showcase professional wrestling as a regular fixture. Similar in format to ABC’s Wide World of Sports in the United States, it would remain an institution for domestic wrestling fans until its eventual cancellation on September 28, 1985. Nevertheless, professional wrestling would remain a part of ITV’s Saturday programming.

The standalone show, simply titled Professional Wrestling, would evolve into a rotation of footage provided by Joint Promotions, All-Star and, from 1987, the WWF (incidentally, one of the advertised matches set for UK broadcast was a match between Bret Hart and Tom Magee). In 1988, the show was axed, ending a tradition of 33 years of pro wrestling coverage on ITV.

After the cancellation of British wrestling in 1988, some regions within the ITV network did showcase other American promotions, but the most prominent of these was its deal with WCW which lasted from 1989-1995. In its early years, ITV was a commercial network consisting of several regional franchisees across the United Kingdom. Within this network, Grampian Television was the local broadcaster for the majority of northern Scotland from 1961 through 2006. And it was on Grampian that WCW was presented for the first time to a British audience with its initial transmission on January 10th, 1990: a Wednesday night at 1:30 AM.

Advertised on local newspaper listings as Superstars of Wrestling, the show was actually a repurposed version of WCW Pro Wrestling, created specifically for the international market. It was contained within a block of programming called Night Time, a nocturnal cluster of shows produced by the Granada franchise of ITV being broadcast to several regions across the network in England and Wales, as well as the Grampian region within Scotland. The shared production output between regional franchisees was essential; it was made in an effort to reduce budgets during their low-viewership late hours. 

A number of changes were implemented to ensure that WCW Pro Wrestling was immediately accessible to the British market during its initial run. Although it retained the same opening sequence and featured many of the same matches, new commentary was recorded by Lance Russell and later Eric Bischoff to specifically remove any references to upcoming PPVs or house show dates being promoted for the domestic circuit. In fact, the commentators would frequently refer to the show as "International Pro", recognizing that it was an adapted version and not the original syndicated show that was transmitted across the United States. Almost all linking segments were removed, and replaced with additional matches from other WCW tapings.

Despite an unenviable late-night slot, and an irregular broadcast run in which the airing days and start times were frequently shifted, WCW Pro Wrestling was a success. Introducing a new audience to the superstars of WCW, its popularity steadily increased, which led to the inaugural 1991 tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland and opening up merchandise opportunities. 

As a result of the increased brand awareness, WCW was awarded a more regular fixture on ITV.

In addition to its established slot within the Night Time schedule, feedback to some sporadic weekend airings of WCW Pro Wrestling had been well-received. In response, the network had decided to give WCW the timeslot which was once synonymous with wrestling during the era of World of Sport. 

On May 29, 1992, WCW made the transition to late afternoons every Saturday with each episode usually starting around 3:50 PM and finishing before the release of the domestic soccer results. A key change was made to the wrestling programming. From its first Saturday broadcast, the international version of WCW Pro Wrestling was substituted in favor of WCW Worldwide, which had just been given a substantial production overhaul in early April. On commentary, long-time Worldwide host Tony Schiavone would be joined by Jesse "The Body" Ventura, their banter being a significant departure from the solo commentary which was prevalent on Pro Wrestling.

Furthermore, Worldwide was given a fresh opening title sequence and on-screen graphics, and various format changes to modernize the show. These included exclusive interviews with the wrestlers and, most notably, the addition of WCW Magazine newsflash segments which updated viewers on relevant storyline happenings within the promotion. Each episode would end with a teaser of the following week’s feature attraction main event in order to entice the viewer to return. 

Despite the shows being broadcast several weeks beyond their initial United States air date, the product appeared visually fresher than ever. The Turner production values were a sharp contrast from the Saturday afternoon fare that the British pro wrestling audience had accepted for years. In less than one year of securing the timeslot, the decision was made to tour the UK for a second time in March 1993. 

With the improved production values placing greater emphasis on the personalities of the talent, WCW was able to generate mainstream interest in its roster and be in a stronger position to launch its licensed products. One publicity tour in promotion of the WCW Official Video range featured Johnny B. Badd and Van Hammer on a number of media appearances including magazine and radio interviews, and were also the focus of a segment on the BBC daily lunchtime magazine show Summer Scene. However, it was another summertime event which truly illustrated both the live-event potential and the mainstream appeal of professional wrestling in the United Kingdom.

On August 29, 1992, WWF held its annual SummerSlam pay-per-view spectacular at Wembley Stadium in London. Headlined by an unforgettable Intercontinental Championship match between brothers-in-law Bret Hart and Davey Boy Smith, the show was an unparalleled success. Drawing a reported crowd of over 80,000 to the live show, it was a spectacular which likely prompted WCW to galvanise its efforts in the promotion of a second UK tour. 

By the autumn of that same year, the announcement was made. WCW was coming back to the United Kingdom, this time for The Real Event tour. With Bischoff promoting the tour in various market-specific WCW Magazine segments that were edited into the UK broadcasts of WCW Worldwide, the company was in a stronger position to communicate its return to its core television viewers. WCW Magazine, which occasionally modified its content for the UK market, ran adverts for the live events. By the New Year, ITV started to promote the tour, setting promotional interviews with Sting for Look-In, and its daily program, Good Morning Britain.

But it was the availability of another wrestling star who had an equally strong influence on the appeal of The Real Event to local fans. 

In the autumn of 1992, the WWF career of Davey Boy Smith had come to an end. Amidst a steroid scandal that rocked the Federation, Smith was one of several names who departed with the company as it came under increasing scrutiny from the mainstream media in the United States. However, in the United Kingdom, there was little to diminish the box office value of Smith. As the most prominent British wrestling star of his era, he was a proven commodity and had been cultivated by the WWF as the top attraction of its European tours.

His acquisition by WCW in January 1993 was timeous for the promotion of The Real Event as the national media heavily publicized the arrival of "The British Bulldog". In WWF, the reach of Smith’s wrestling matches were constrained by the boundaries of its exclusive deal with satellite television provider Sky. For the first time since the 1980s, he could be appreciated by the larger ITV audience. Capitalising on his appeal, he rapidly became the key focus of WCW’s marketing adverts and press releases within local newspapers in an effort to build momentum in the weeks leading to the tour. 

But, at the same time, WCW was in the midst of a significant managerial change, due to the abrupt resignation of Bill Watts from the role of Executive Vice President of Wrestling Operations in February. As an interim solution, Wrestling Operations would be administered by Ole Anderson while the booking of talent was under the direct supervision of Dusty Rhodes. Despite the internal upheaval, the promotional appeal of The Real Event was unaffected. In fact, sales figures of tickets were indicating record business. 

It would later be reported that the company drew a record-breaking gate of 11,500 fans at its sold-out March 11th event from Wembley Arena, over 10,500 fans to its NEC Birmingham show, a capacity crowd of 8,000 fans to the G-MEX in Manchester, another 5000 person sell-out at the AECC in Aberdeen, and two crowds of approximately 3,000 to Kings Hall, Belfast and The Point in Dublin. 

Critical reviews of the tour were highly praised. Coming off the SuperBrawl III PPV, the roster appeared motivated to excel in front of some of their largest paid audiences on international soil. But the success was illustrated in the statistics. In terms of consecutive business, it was WCW’s most lucrative schedule of house shows that the company had promoted to that point.

WCW would retain this national timeslot within most of the ITV regions until 1995. With no major national broadcast shopfront for its product, the streak of commercially viable UK live events came to an end.

For ITV, there would be no significant national presence of professional wrestling on the network until the pilot broadcast of the domestic production of WOS Wrestling in 2016. 

However, a repurposed version of WCW Worldwide would later return to a national terrestrial audience in the summer of 1999 through a partnership with Channel 5, which lasted until the closure of the promotion in 2001. The timeslot proved somewhat successful as the novelty spurred another set of international tours presented by WCW which maintained box office appeal during a time when its domestic gate returns had shown sharp decline.

But it would not be long before the company’s prime competitor would secure a deal with a national broadcaster. 

In December 1999, when WWF’s partnership with Sky was set for renewal, the promotion secured a deal with Channel 4 to showcase WWF Heat on Sunday afternoons as part of a cluster of shows under the T4 banner (a programming block aimed at teenage and young adult viewers), together with five of its PPVs per year, commencing with the 2000 Royal Rumble. 

In terms of viewership potential, the presentation of AEW Buy In on ITV 4 presents the greatest reach for a US-based promotion since the WWFs deal with Channel 4 ended in 2001. But AEW’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view is being presented to a new audience via a broadcaster with a historic link to professional wrestling that can be traced back 64 years. 

In the short term, it is clear that ITV is willing to take a gamble with AEW’s debut at Las Vegas.

What remains a subject of speculation is the broadcaster’s commitment to professional wrestling as a long-term property and the international opportunities that might be born from that investment.