WWE Channels SNL


The wrestling powerhouse's Monday Night Raw is becoming the new showcase for guest hosts seeking to promote their latest project

That wasn't the suave Ari Gold, the Hollywood talent agent from HBO's Entourage, who bounded into the ring to fireworks on Aug. 3 before thousands of howling wrestling fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Nope, this was a snarling, unshaven, sweating-at-the-brow Jeremy Piven, an actor who had no more business being in a ring with the hulking likes of wrestling bad boy The Miz than, say, tuning up a supercomputer at MIT.

But Piven was promoting his latest movie, Paramount Vantage's (VIAB) goofball comedy The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, and World Wrestling Entertainment's (WWE) Monday Night Raw on cable's USA Network has suddenly become a hot place to sell new movies, TV shows, and Lord knows what else. Piven is just the latest star doing his turn as a "host" of the scripted competition to promote his wares. A week earlier, basketball star Shaquille O'Neal hosted the show to promote his ABC (DIS) series "Shaq Vs." Starting Aug. 18, the program will pit the basketball giant against other athletes in their sports.

Yup, Monday Night Raw has become a virtual Saturday Night Live, the NBC (GE) show that pulls in stars as hosts to promote their latest works to the youngish demo. (How many times has Alec Baldwin promoted 30 Rock, for gosh sakes?) Like SNL, Raw has a discernable audience ripe for the right kind of project—namely a howling group of 3.7 million male viewers, including 1.8 million in the 18-49 age bracket.

Brainchild of Vince McMahon

Which is exactly why Piven showed up at the event (there were banners for his upcoming movie strategically displayed for the cameras) in a Pontiac Trans-Am muscle car (the movie takes place largely at a car dealership), drove it next to the ring, and popped open the trunk to release a co-star—Ken Jeong—who entered wearing a full-length leopard skin coat and brown felt hat that can only be described as what a pimp might be decked out wearing. Jeong pranced around the stage saying some fairly nonsensical things, while Piven went jaw-to-jaw with the menacing villain, even taunting him by calling him "Les Miz" in a reference that you have to wonder how many in the audience actually caught. At one point, Piven actually jumped from the top rope à la some half-crazed grappler.

Like just about everything else in the vaudevillian world of pro wrestling, the Raw guest stars are the brainchild of Vince McMahon, WWE's chairman and chief impresario. The parade of "hosts" began in June when McMahon staged a stunt by which Donald Trump supposedly "bought" Monday Night Raw, but was simply announcing that the show would be commercial-free and that $235,000 worth of tickets to the Green Bay (Wis.) event would be refunded to ticket holders. That generated huge publicity for WWE, and gave McMahon all kinds of ideas.

"When Donald took over we realized that our audience wanted to see something new," says Stephanie McMahon, Vince's daughter and WWE's executive vice-president of creative development and operation. "We have the ability to change our story line to suit whoever hosts." First, the show arranged for comedian Seth Green, who was promoting his Robot Chicken DVD, to host an event and to even leap from the ropes in a faux "pin" in a tag team match. The next week, venerable rock group ZZ Top, on tour with Aerosmith, came in as hosts but mostly did some backstage interviews after showing up in the ring to help "arrange" the night's key matches.

Major Boost in Ratings

Down the road, Stephanie McMahon says the show plans to have as hosts Freddie Prinze Jr., who will promote his new role on the Fox TV show 24, former game show host Bob Barker, and the Reverend Al Sharpton (who hasn't yet said exactly what he'll be promoting). The upside for the stars is huge. According to McMahon, by providing promotions in upcoming shows, replaying shows on its Web site, and adding the pickup it gets from other news outlets, the show can offer as many as 40 million impressions for whatever its hosts might be promoting.

Does any of this actually help the stars sell their wares? Hard to tell. But it has boosted ratings. Raw's total viewers grew by 12% when Shaq was announced, USA Network says, and the program is currently averaging 5.34 million viewers. Heck, Shaq even helped boost women viewers by 20% over the prior week. "They have something to promote, and we have the platform that they need," says Chris McCumber, USA Network's executive vice-president for marketing and brand strategy. "Raw is like a male soap opera anyway. We're just adding a little more entertainment."

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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