CLEANING UP THEIR ACT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Pro wrestling star John Cena made a grand entrance last Sunday to a sold-out crowd filled with cheering young fans. Packed into Washington's Verizon Center, kids stood on their feet waving foam fingers and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the defiant yet wholesome slogan "Never Give Up."

Over the course of the three-hour World Wrestling Entertainment show, heroes and villains battled it out in the ring, and parents didn't feel compelled to shield their kids' eyes from the action.

What a difference a few years makes. It wasn't all that long ago that wrestlers were waving their middle fingers and fans were wearing Cena T-shirts with a vulgar catchphrase printed across the front. The shapely women wrestled in their underwear - sometimes in pudding - and wrestlers occasionally got so bloody they looked as if they came off the set of a horror movie.

Once a parental nightmare, WWE is now selling itself as family-friendly entertainment. The sexual content, foul language and gory violence that helped build wrestling impresario Vince McMahon's empire has made way for a cleaner product.

"I have fun memories of going to the Arena with my daughter, but when all the sexual stuff started, it became too much for an 8-year-old to see, so I had to quit taking her," said Chris Dolan, a longtime wrestling fan from Dundalk. "Now, I have a 6-year-old stepson who loves wrestling, and the current direction of WWE allows me to take him to the shows."

The new approach cuts across all of WWE's properties, but it's most evident on WWE's flagship television show, "Monday Night Raw." On the USA Network, the show became infamous a decade ago for its raunchy content, but since last summer the program has morphed into a combination pro wrestling/variety show, complete with weekly guest hosts such as Bob Barker and Shaquille O'Neal.

Verne Troyer, best known as Mini-Me in the "Austin Powers" movies, is slated to host "Raw" when it comes to 1st Mariner Arena on Monday.

"It's really allowed us to bring in people that were always following us ... but in the old days may have been just a little bit afraid of our content," WWE Chief Operating Officer Donna Goldsmith said. "Once we changed it, we were able to get these blue-chip sponsors to join."

Besides gaining more sponsors, "Monday Night Raw" has also seen its rating rise as it switched from a TV-14 rating to the tamer TV-PG. And Goldsmith has seen that there has been an increase in female viewers in every age category over the past year.

"I do think that's part of the whole PG thing," she said. "I think they're watching with their families."

What they're no longer seeing when tuning in to the scripted athletic contest/soap opera, is WWE's female characters being portrayed mainly as sex objects. For much of the past decade, the "WWE Divas" were relegated to participating in bra and panties matches and salacious story lines, and a number of them posed nude for Playboy.

These days, WWE promotes the "Divas" as "smart, sexy and powerful." Not only has the company severed its business relationship with Playboy, but WWE now requires its female performers to dress less provocatively in the ring.

"I think the long-term goal in the company right now is to get past the negative stigma of wrestling," said Dave Meltzer, writer of The Wrestling Observer, the industry's leading insider publication. "A lot of the people Vince [McMahon] has hired from organizations outside of wrestling, when they first come in they say, 'You know, compared to tennis, we can't get any sponsors.' "

Despite producing a less offensive product, however, WWE continues to battle public perception among non-wrestling fans. Just ask Linda McMahon, Vince's wife and the former chief executive officer of WWE.

She stepped down from her post in September when she announced her candidacy in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd. It didn't take long for her detractors to use WWE's racier moments against her.

Some critics have even questioned whether WWE's decision to clean up its act was due in part to the fact that Linda McMahon was planning to seek office.

"It's a fair question to ask, but the answer is no," Goldsmith said. "We started changing direction before Linda put her hat in, so that had nothing to do with it."

WWE is just changing with the times, Goldsmith says, much like it did over a decade ago when the product became more risque. Prior to that, WWE programming was like a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. Hulk Hogan - who told kids to "train, say your prayers and take your vitamins" - played the role of a jacked-up, patriotic superhero who vanquished all the villains who dared to challenge him.

On the losing end of a bitter ratings war with rival World Championship Wrestling in the mid-90s, WWE ushered in what became known as the "Attitude Era." WCW, adhering to the standards of TBS and TNT - which carried the company's programming - was limited as to how far it could go in terms of sex and violence, so WWE decided to push the envelope as far as it could. The strategy worked, as WWE eventually surpassed WCW in the ratings and went on to purchase the rival company in 2001.

At the forefront of the "Attitude Era" was "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, a beer-guzzling, middle-finger-flipping, potty-mouthed miscreant - and he was the good guy. Eventually, the sneering Austin - who sold more merchandise at his peak than Hogan did at his - gave way to the smiling Cena as the face of the company. With Cena's square jaw, close-cropped hair and buff body, it's easy to see why his passionate fan base is largely made up of kids and females.

Cena wasn't always so warm and fuzzy. He first rose to prominence in WWE seven years ago by playing a potty-mouthed thug rapper. As the "Attitude Era" began to wane and WWE shows gradually became less coarse, so too did Cena's character. Fittingly, Cena's finishing maneuver, originally referred to as the "FU," has since been renamed the "Attitude Adjustment."

Not all wrestling fans are down with the kinder, gentler WWE, however.

There is a part of the audience that prefers a more adult-oriented product, and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling - founded in 2002 and based out of Florida and Tennessee - has emerged as an alternative.

TNA produces a weekly show on Spike called "Impact" that has more than its share of scantily clad women, profanity and bloody matches involving weapons such as shards of broken glass and a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire.

At this point, however, TNA is no match for the publicly traded WWE in terms of audience size and production values.

"Maybe some of our hard-core fans miss the real edgy content from the 'Attitude Era,' but in general, the reception has been very positive," Goldsmith said. "We still think our content is edgy, quirky, creative and entertaining. It's not boring because it's PG. It's just not quite as attitudinal." ttitude change

Here are some examples of WWE's shift from the raunchy "Attitude Era" to the family friendly entertainment of today:

Then: Steve Austin: foul-mouthed hero

Now: John Cena: hero to women and children

Then: Wrestlers bleeding profusely

Now: No bleeding allowed

Then: A porn star character

Now: A lovable leprechaun character

Then: Nude Playboy pictorials

Now: WWE Kids magazine

Then: Wrestlers appearing on "Howard Stern"

Now: Wrestlers appearing on "The View"

Then: Special guest Gennifer Flowers

Now: Special guest Bob Barker

If you go

WWE Monday Night Raw starts at 8:15 p.m. Monday at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Tickets are $60-$15. Call 800-551-7328 or go to www.ticketmaster.com. Airs on TV at 9 p.m. on USA.

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