Editorial: Tune in for battle royal

Jun 18, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The World Wrestling Federation is finally putting on a fight with some real suspense to it-and it’s a fight that should interest everyone in the television industry.
The WWF is hauling one of its most persistent critics, the Parents Television Council, into court, alleging the PTC, in its eagerness to persuade advertisers to abandon WWF programming, defamed the wrestling body. The case could have ramifications well beyond the narrow legal issue of whether PTC President L. Brent Bozell III stretched the truth a bit when he pressured advertisers to withdraw sponsorship of the WWF’s successful “Smackdown!” franchise.
Bozell’s group is waging a war against media sex and violence, and its weapon of choice is its influence on advertisers. The PTC is also targeting “Boston Public” after an episode in which a teacher goes to bed with a student; the group claims it has already convinced two advertisers to bail out on that show.
At issue in the WWF case is whether the PTC went too far in blaming the deaths of four children in wrestling incidents on moves the youngsters learned from WWF programming. But the bigger issue, as is so often the case in media disputes, is free speech. The odd twist in this case is that it is the PTC-which loves to tell broadcasters what they should and should not put on the air-that is claiming its First Amendment rights are at risk.
The court can be expected to focus its attention on the narrow question of defamation. But the WWF may try to raise the heat on advocacy groups by getting the court to examine how much control they should be allowed to exert over programming.
On the other hand, if the PTC plays its cards right, it may be able to turn its day in court into a discussion of how far programming should be allowed to go and whether broadcasters should be held liable for the fallout from their shows.
Clearly, this battle is no typical WWF event, with caricature good guys and bad guys. The truth is, neither combatant in the grudge match is particularly sympathetic.
But each side brings to the table some of the most pressing issues facing the industry. Getting the legal conversation started is a step in the right direction.