Celebs head to ring to promote projects

Celebrities and their handlers may have found an unusual alternative to the traditional talkshow circuit when promoting projects: a wrestling ring.

For the past two months, World Wrestling Entertainment has essentially handed over its “Monday Night Raw” show on USA Network to guest hosts, who arrange matches and interact with the WWE’s wrestlers while touting their new movies, TV shows, books and other fare.

Jeremy Piven recently stepped into the ring to promote his laffer “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” for Paramount Vantage, while Seth Green pushed “Robot Chicken” on DVD, and Shaquille O’Neal sold his new ABC reality show “Shaq Vs.”

Tonight, Freddie Prinze Jr. takes over the show to hype his joining Fox’s new season of “24.”

WWE has long been keen on identifying ways to increase the audience of its live events, TV shows and pay-per-views. Last year, it decided to make all its TV programming PG in order to become more family friendly. Now, rolling out the red carpet for celebs is a way to make WWE’s roster of athletes more pop-culturally relevant.

“We wanted a different way to get our product out there and talked about,” Stephanie McMahon, WWE’s executive VP of creative development and operations, told Daily Variety. “Tying us in with celebrities in Hollywood raises our awareness and gets a variety of people talking about us, which is always a positive place to be. Hopefully it will translate to new viewers.”

The move is starting to pay off.

Overall viewership for “Raw” is up 10% since the hosts were introduced in June and is averaging an audience of 5.6 million each week. That’s considerable given that “Raw” already was one of USA’s strongest performers each week, especially among the lucrative younger male demo it attracts.

“They have something to promote, and we have the platform they need,” said Chris McCumber, USA Network’s executive VP for marketing and brand strategy.

Outside the ring, WWE is gaining considerable exposure, with ESPN having heavily covered O’Neal’s appearance on “Raw.” Clips from the show were played when Piven and Green did interviews on yakkers like “Live With Regis and Kelly,” “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” Wrestlers are also getting invited onto the shows as a result of the tie-in with Hollywood talent.

Naturally, USA isn’t complaining about any of the extra exposure, considering that any new viewers for “Raw” may stick around and watch one of the network’s other shows.

Given how successful the guest hosts have been, WWE plans to continue having them appear on “Raw” at least through the end of the year, and possibly up to WrestleMania 26 next March.

“For right now, it’s really working and clicking,” McMahon said. “But it’s just the beginning.”

Upcoming booked talent includes boxer Floyd Mayweather, former gameshow host Bob Barker, the Rev. Al Sharpton and “Access Hollywood” co-host Nancy O’Dell. Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, Ashlee Simpson, the Osbournes, Danny DeVito, Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, Jimmy Fallon, Rachael Ray, MC Hammer, Woody Harrelson, tennis icon Serena Williams, basketball player LeBron James, and Ashton Kutcher also are in talks for hosting gigs.

While embracing the PG rating has helped WWE attract new advertisers like 7-Eleven and Pepsi, the extra star wattage is only expected to help keep sponsors happy.

“We’re letting them feel safe with the PG environment,” McMahon said. “By bringing in the celebrities, we’re saying, ‘If it’s OK for them, it’s OK for you too.’ “

All of this is ironic, of course, because it almost never happened.

The idea came about when the plug was pulled, earlier than planned, on a fictionalized storyline that had Donald Trump buy “Raw” from WWE’s colorful chairman Vince McMahon. WWE and USA, however, made it seem a little too real for Wall Street, confusing investors, and creating a small PR headache.

But the resulting media attention gave the McMahons the idea for the guest hosts and the company quickly began booking talent and plastering them all over its shows, websites and magazines.

“We’ve gotten the point across that we are fun, we are entertaining and you are guaranteed to have a good time,” Stephanie McMahon said. “We’ve become a complement to the traditional circuit.”

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