Programme Related Smackdown

Right from the very dawn of the medium, television has had a comfortingly symbiotic relationship with professional wrestling. This was particularly so in America when from the 1950s onwards even the smallest stations found that their local grappling promotion provided them an easy way to fill broadcast hours on a Saturday morning. It was very cheap to produce, all that was required was a single camera and a man to announce and commentate on the bouts. That it also rated impressively and consistently was an added bonus.

The wrestling promoters themselves quickly cottoned on that the television exposure was a gift to their businesses. The television shows became little more than extended adverts, filled with exhibition bouts of varying quality, teasing the carrot that the most exciting contests, the championship matches and those that pitted star versus star could be found on the non-televised evening events. Crowds would flock to the sports halls and larger arenas, not only to see in person the characters, heroes and villains depicted on their screens, but also to see if the star would exact the revenge he had promised over the enemy who had left him lying prone on the last episode.

This “shop window” concept extends into the present day. Of course modern day wrestling television shows are a step up from the parade of one-sided squash matches of the past, but each one still has time set aside to promote the next event for local audiences, specially filmed inserts promoting the next time the travelling circus comes to town. This is especially true for British audiences. The twice-yearly visits to these shores by the traveling WWE circus are all inevitable sell-outs – but this is helped no end by the opportunities the company takes to promote the dates and arenas they will be visiting and the potential attractions they contain. You can more or less guarantee that the TV deal the company has with Sky Sports explicitly states that the live events will receive an appropriate level of exposure.

Yet this is actually something of a balancing act, particularly when it comes to the regulatory regime. British television is subject to strict regulations on the separation of programming and advertising. Consumers and the general public, it is believed, are in need of protection from their own ignorance. Their inability to differentiate themselves between promotions and spectacle. Producers and broadcasters alike must exercise caution and make sure there is no ambiguity between when audiences are being sold to and when they are simply being entertained.

This means a degree of subtlety is required when tying commercial events to television programmes. You will notice that the X Factor TV shows don’t explicitly promote the live arena tours of the finalists which follow each series. To do so would risk breaching Ofcom rules. Hence the regular competitions that offer VIP tickets to the shows as prizes. That’s permitted you see, and it helps of course that even if the viewer doesn’t win or even doesn’t bother to enter in the first place they are at least aware that the live shows are taking place. Method in the madness.

So the question has to be asked. How does promotion of live WWE events embedded within their weekly programming as show on Sky Sports comply with these restrictions? Well a few weeks ago the broadcaster had the “opportunity” to explore this issue with the regulators. Because someone submitted a complaint.

The outcome of this is contained within the latest Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin. Issue 302 published on April 11th 2016. The complaint concerned three promotional sequences contained within the edition of WWE Smackdown broadcast on November 7th 2015, all advertising various shows on the upcoming tour later that month. It was enough to raise Ofcom’s hackles.

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Sky’s argument was that the sequences were actually Programme Related Material, something which is explicitly provided for in the various codes on television advertising. Material consisting of products or services both directly derived from the programme and specifically intended to allow viewers to benefit fully from, or to interact with, that programme.

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On the “undue prominence” matter, they noted that the sequences were of 3o seconds in duration, spread out during a two hour programme and contained little in the way of calls to action with no reference made to ticket prices or providing links that would lead directly to purchasing sites.

Be under no illusion that this was a high stakes matter. As we’ve seen, this idea that a wrestling TV show is part entertainment, part promotional spectacle is ingrained into the very heart of what wrestling promoters do. Would the live events in this country continue to be viable if they no longer had a free ‘shop window’ in which to promote them? More importantly in this always-connected 360-degree media world, were the broadcast regulators about to ban all potential promotional tie-ins surrounding TV programming?

To what was certainly general relief all round, Ofcom swallowed Sky’s argument wholesale.

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Accepting that the promotions were PRM, Programme Related Material, Rule 9.4 did not apply. That aspect of the complaint was not upheld.

The “undue prominence” aspect was a little trickier however, the regulator eventually coming to the conclusion that notwithstanding the lack of sales information and the short duration of the inserts, the fact that as many as five different promotions were broadcast during the course of the show was pushing matters slightly. Too many they said, too much of it. So in that respect the broadcast was in breach. But that is fixable. The line in the sand has now been neatly drawn. The promotions are allowed, just not so many of them.

This section of the Broadcast Bulletin received no headlines and will have gone unnoticed by all but those obsessives like me who scour the fortnightly publications for nuggets like this. A point of technicality it may have been, but it is a fascinating illustration of what a balancing act broadcast compliance can be. Things you’ve always done, programming techniques you have used for years can be stood on their head in an instant. All because one person didn’t like an advert for a live wrestling event.

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