With female-centered series about wrestling stars, the WWE is appealing to women — and their partners.
With its smackdowns, outrageous personalities and subtle-as-a-flying-hammerlock storylines, pro wrestling has long seemed like the original reality TV.
So it’s no surprise that when World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) wanted to expand, the company decided to create an actual reality show. The result was Total Divas, the E! Entertainment series about the lives of female wrestlers outside the ring, which returns September 19 for an impressive season eight.
“What we do is tell interesting stories, and that’s what TV audiences want,” WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon says. “Total Divas has been successful because the real-life stories we’re telling are almost better than what is happening in the ring. These are professional athletes, as well as actresses performing in front of thousands of people live every year.
"But they also have to deal with everyday challenges, like body-image issues or deciding whether to get married or be a mom.”
The show, which has been renewed through season nine, works because of its “beloved cast of strong, diverse women whose big personalities and unique lifestyles resonate with our viewers,” says Amy Introcaso-Davis, E!’s head of development and production.
The network is also three seasons into a Divas spinoff, Total Bellas, featuring twin sisters Nikki and Brie Bella, who were original Divas cast members.
Meanwhile, WWE expanded its content recently with Miz & Mrs on USA, an unscripted series about married wrestling superstars The Miz and Maryse. WWE’s television staple, Monday Night Raw, the number-one show on USA, has been airing since 1993. Its Tuesday-night tussle, SmackDown Live, will mark its 1,000th episode on October 16; it’s been airing since 1999.
Divas is the result of a long search for a female-centric reality series, McMahon explains. Nothing clicked until WWE took advantage of its longstanding ties with NBCUniversal and connected with E! (USA and E! belong to the NBCU corporate family). She reasoned that the channel catered to the same reality-loving female audience she sought.
“There was so much natural synergy,” she says. “They were looking for complementary programming and saw our fan base. The WWE is in 180 countries, broadcasts in 25 languages and has the top-rated [cable] programming on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We have nearly a billion social media followers and the number-one sports channel on YouTube.
"So, working together was the perfect way for us both to expand our audiences and platforms.”
Interest in the WWE among women is growing; McMahon estimates that 40 percent of the total audience is now female.
And the wrestlers have benefited, too, from their greater exposure. The Bellas, for instance, market a clothing line and even their own wine. But the best benefit, Nikki Bella says, may be the way Divas showcases female empowerment for a younger generation: “These are true wonder women and role models. We’re hearing moms tell us, ‘I want to watch your show with my daughter.’”
Even though the WWE’s plan was to add female fans, the Total Divas story seems to have a twist ending: the series may actually be attracting more men.
“I’ve often heard women say they became fans of the WWE because of their boyfriend or husband,” McMahon says. “But now I’m also hearing guys say just the opposite: I’ve become a fan because my girlfriend or wife loves Total Divas!”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2018