Even operating under a TV-PG rating, WWE can get away with scads of lewdness and violence.
Many fans bemoan the PG Era, believing the more family-friendly rating to be an albatross dragging the product down. A closer look reveals that it's not as limiting a rating as one would think. Wrestlers regularly inflict lacerations on each other and spit out language that would make your grandma blush.
The transition from the Attitude Era has certainly seen WWE tone itself down.
Chair shots to the head are gone. Blood only comes accidentally. Penis references have all but gone away.
Still, recent history has shown that WWE has plenty of room to spread its wings of violence within the TV-PG rating. In terms of the sexual innuendo side of things, shows like The Big Bang Theory show that the company hasn't yet reached the limits of the rating.
The rating system begins with self-policing.
As TVGuidelines.org states, "The TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board is responsible for ensuring that the ratings are applied accurately and consistently." But it's the networks and producers who voluntarily rate their own programs.
That means one can call a show whatever rating it wants until someone like the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board starts complaining. In WWE's six PG years, there haven't been enough table smashes and kicks to the mouth to garner enough complaints for the company to have to change its programming's rating.
TVGuidelines.org notes that PG-rated programming can feature "moderate violence." "Intense violence" denotes a TV-14 rating and "graphic violence" would earn a show a TV-MA rating.
The difference between these types of violence is subjective and debatable. Last year, the Parents Television Council campaigned to have The Walking Dead switched from TV-14 to TV-MA. In producers' minds, people killing zombies and zombies killing people was "intense," not "graphic." The council disagreed.
WWE has yet to feature folks murdering the undead, but it is inherently violent. It's a form of entertainment built around men and women fighting each other.
One can do some serious damage onscreen and have it still be considered TV-PG entertainment. Take Triple H's assault on Daniel Bryan on March 17, for example.
The COO handcuffed his rebellious employee and proceeded to pepper him with punches. He slammed him against the announce table and later placed his head against a ring post before smashing it with a steel chair.
The violence displayed that night was apparently still within the moderate range.
It's a range that seems to have a lot of room for brutality. Brock Lesnar throttled Big Show on the TV-PG-rated Royal Rumble 2014. He cracked chairs against the big man's body until they broke into pieces.
At Payback, Randy Orton and Triple H propped Roman Reigns onto the ring steps and repeatedly whacked him with a Kendo stick. The next night, Seth Rollins turned on Reigns, attacking him with chair shots.
The two beatdowns left Reigns' back a nasty sight.
Trust is completely dead to me. pic.twitter.com/ytvu6LSO1r— Roman Reigns (@WWERomanReigns) June 3, 2014
WWE has seen worse, though. In May of last year, Mark Henry whipped Sheamus with a belt until he wore a series of welts across his back.
Ouch! Is that sheamus's back from mark Henry whipping it with a belt... :O pic.twitter.com/QOCaEYwiO0— #ThankYouUndertaker (@CenationHBK) May 7, 2013
Carnage is common when the WWE cameras roll. Enemies smash each other into the barricade around the ring, and men crash onto fallen foes, destroying tables underneath them.
In a collection of memorable table moments, WWE mixes spots from the Attitude Era with the tamer PG one. Collisions like these are no less common today. Mostly, it's the height of the falls that have changed.
Mick Foley famously plummeted from the top of the Hell in a Cell back in 1998. Concern for wrestler safety and the TV-PG rating have taken away moments as dangerous as this one, but as one can see in the above video, there is no shortage of flesh and wood meeting.
Jeff Hardy's dive onto CM Punk at SummerSlam 2009, Big Show chokeslamming Orton through a table and The Shield triple powerboming Undertaker through one all happened during the PG Era.
So it's clear that WWE can get away with calling table smashes and beatings with steel chairs "moderate." One then wonders what it takes for violence to be labeled as "intense." Fans just saw Bryan send Kane through a flaming table at Extreme Rules, which had nothing moderate about it.
If that's considered acceptable for a PG rating, WWE is not going to suffer in the least. Fans sometimes act like today's WWE is a Mickey Mouse version of what we saw in the late '90s, but violence has been scaled back, not eradicated.
The bigger change on WWE TV has been the cleansing of its language and sexual content.
Divas don't strip down to their underwear (NSFW) as they once did. Triple H and Shawn Michaels once delivered a speech (that was censored on TV) riddled with curse words and references to sex. We're not going to see anything close to that again, but WWE doesn't have to strip all the edge from its language.
In a study by the Parents TV Council, researches looked for what kind of language popped up in PG-rated shows. Instances of sexual innuendo appeared in 33.2 percent of the programming it studied. References to sexual body parts came up in 24.3 percent of the shows.
It sounds as if WWE is a church show compared to some of the other PG-rated stuff out there.
Fans hear words like "ass" and "bitch" on WWE programming, but that's well within the TV-PG limits. Were those terms to become as common as Jerry Lawler's bad jokes, the company would eventually hear from the Parents TV Council.
Brie Bella called Stephanie McMahon "a b---h."
Brock Lesnar claimed to be "an ass-kicker," and Reigns is one of many to throw the word "ass" into a threat.
That's about as far as today's WWE goes, though. It's not as if wrestlers need more controversial words than that to get their points across. Even in the height of the Attitude Era, no one was using George Carlin's famous "seven words you can never say on TV."
The TV-PG version of WWE is less raunchy, which is likely why it's been able to keep its current rating in spite of its violence. As a society, we seem to be more afraid of having our kids see a pair of bare breasts than watching a man shoot another one dead on TV.
This is where WWE can claim to be more family friendly than it used to be.
Superstars may make jokes about someone not having any balls. We haven't seen anything like Edge's live sex celebration (NSFW) or the kind of penis-centered bits D-Generation X once did. If the company wanted to, though, it could feature more innuendo and sexual references.
The Big Bang Theory (Rated TV-PG) taught us as much. In a recap of the latest season, two men grab each other's chests while talking cup size. There is talk of rectal exams and sex at work. In addition, the camera focuses on the upper half of a naked woman in the shower.
By that precedent, WWE can spice up its shows if it chose to do so. That wouldn't mean a full return to the time of Bra and Panties matches, but the jokes could get more adult.
The company, though, seems more interested in testing the TV-PG limits on the side of violence. Kids tuning into WWE will see men mauling each other with chairs, Kendo sticks and the occasional flaming table, but the language before and after will be relatively decent.