There's a fantastic article here, from the Wrestling Observer a few weeks ago celebrating Raw 1000, thanks to Clique:
When Ted Turner went to Eric Bischoff in 1995 and asked him why Vince McMahon’s ratings on Monday night were now ahead of their Saturday night ratings, Bischoff told him it was because Monday was a better night and because Raw was sometimes live. Turner then told him that TNT would clear an hour for him every Monday night and he would go live. The feeling in wrestling at the time is that there were a certain number of wrestling fans, and with the shows going head-to-head, it would divide the audience. Instead of a reasonably well rated Raw, which was doing between a 2.5 and 3.0 rating (remember, it was not the primary show at the time; Superstars, usually syndicated in various time slots on the weekends was), you’d have two shows splitting the audience and not doing very well and the result would be a perception wrestling programming wasn’t strong. But the opposite happened. Raw was definitely hurt at first by Nitro, but instead of splitting the overall wrestling audience, the audience grew. Raw did well with younger viewers, kids and teenagers. Nitro, through using so many of the stars from the 80s on top, brought back an older fan base that was not watching on Monday nights.
Raw’s numbers dropped 15-20% right away, but from the start, the overall audience grew about 60%. It wasn’t long before the overall audience doubled and eventually tripled. Raw didn’t get back to its old numbers until 1998, but at that point, with wrestling so big on Mondays and Raw delivering the better product, the numbers skyrocketed. In 1995, although Raw had been on the air for three years and WWF had a Monday night presence dating back many years before that, to most people, wrestling was something you watched on Saturdays or Sundays, either morning, afternoon, or evening, depending on the city you lived in. Very quickly, Monday became wrestling night, a tradition that has remained for a generation.
At the peak of the wars in 1998, the differences in the audience were noteworthy. The median age of a Raw viewer ranged between 23 and 25, which means half the viewers were older and half were younger. That was a remarkably low skewing number for a prime time television show. Moreover, as Raw got more risque and popular, they picked up so many young viewers that even when picking up disgruntled Nitro viewers starting in late 1998, and more in 1999, they got as high as 39% of the audience being 17 or under (right now it’s about half that). The ratings for kids and teenagers were among the highest shows, network or otherwise, on television. Nitro’s median audience during the peak period was 32, but as time went on and they lost the younger viewers when Raw became the hot show, it’s remaining viewers skewed older, hovering closer to 40. Their older audience stuck with it through the bad times while the younger audience either switched to Raw, or many gave up on watching wrestling. That older audience for the most part ceased being fans of wrestling over the last two years of Nitro, and those remaining in 2001 almost all gave up during that year and never came back. The death of WCW immediately cut the over 40 audience watching wrestling down by 35% almost immediately, and that audience never came back.
What is notable is that today, Raw’s median audience ranges weekly from 38 to 40 (although this past week, notable because it was a nostalgia show that should have skewed older, it actually skewed younger because of the influx of teenage boys).
The irony is the show is written today to aim younger than the previous boom period, yet the actual audience is significantly older, even than the Nitro audience. Yet, if you go to the live events, kids are more prevalent, meaning that unless you go to a Raw taping or a PPV show, where a lot more people in their 20s and 30s attend, the aim low works to draw smaller crowds and missing out on the largest block of TV viewers. And that isn’t the case for any other sport-like activity.
During the heyday of the Monday Night Wars, about 10 million people would watch wrestling on Monday nights. Keep in mind that at that time there were also only 75 million homes wired for cable, as compared to just under 100 million today. There were weeks in when Raw was on fire that more than 11 million people would watch wrestling on Mondays, and wrestling was so strong that it legitimately hurt the ratings of ABC’s Monday Night Football starting with the 1998 season.
As for syndication, because so many people were watching on cable and wrestling was so hot, neither WWF nor WCW needed local syndication, although they did maintain it in many markets. In those days, wrestling would come to town and the demand for tickets got higher and higher. WCW peaked in 1998, although the seeds for the decline, a combination of a complete lack of understanding of what its audience wanted from a wrestling TV show and not making new stars, was already establishing chinks in the foundation. Things would have declined more, as Raw had taken over as the top show due to momentum started with a Steve Austin vs. Mike Tyson angle that saw WrestleMania numbers triple 1997 levels (237,000 buys to 730,000 buys), and led to the landmark Austin vs. McMahon program. But WCW was able to have its best year at the gate and on PPV due to the emergence of Bill Goldberg. After ending Goldberg’s winning streak and doing things like the infamous one-finger touch title change (which would have no negative effect today but was a killer back then), and the miscue of making fun of the taped WWF Raw where Mick Foley won the title, and WCW went down hard in 1999 while WWF had the best year in its history.
Raw ratings declined from their peak when adding a second weekly show, Smackdown. Being on network television, Smackdown actually had more viewers than Raw for a time, although it always drew lower ratings than Raw. While Raw’s ratings peaked in 1999, attendance and popularity continued to expand through 2000. In late 2000, there were signs that the peak was over, and the fall came after WrestleMania in 2001, based on the heel turn of Austin and a number of other factors. The death of WCW eliminated competition head-to-head, even though WCW had really ceased to be competition in 1999. And the show experienced a slow but steady decline in ratings and PPV, although the emergence of new top headliners like John Cena, Batista and others did lead to attendance at live events increasing from a bottoming out period about seven years ago.
July 27, 1998: Perhaps the most shocking moment in the history of Raw was one of the few times they went into the ring without a script. During the height of the Monday Night Wars, everything under the sun was tried, including doing actual legitimate matches, the “Brawl for All” concept. The idea was to do a tournament and not script it, with the idea of creating a tough guy superstar in Steve “Dr. Death” Williams, to set up a program against Steve Austin. To say this concept backfired would be an understatement. A number of wrestlers, including Williams, Savio Vega, Mark Canterbury, Charles Wright and others ended up getting significant injuries. Many wrestlers tough-guy images took a tumble, and even the eventual winner, Bart Gunn, was no longer with the company the next year and whatever he got out of winning was a job with All Japan Pro Wrestling for a few years and a brief career in MMA, which had a limited upside given that he was past the age of 40 when he started. Williams had a reputation as a bar fighter, for his ability to knock people out with one punch from his college days and early career in Mid South Wrestling. He was also a four-time All-American heavyweight wrestler at the University of Oklahoma during perhaps the deepest period of talent ever in the U.S. collegiate heavyweight division. But Williams at this point was 38, hadn’t trained for fighting and his last competitive wrestling match was 16 years earlier. Brawl for All was not MMA, although the idea was taken from MMA and the original choice for referee was John McCarthy (he turned it down, although Danny Hodge was used as the commissioner). It was boxing with oversized gloves, with takedowns legal and worth points, but no ground work. It was somebody’s idea of taking the punching of MMA, eliminating all kicks and submissions, with the idea of no ground work because the wrestling fans may find it boring. The segments were hit-and-miss, as some wrestling crowds hated them, and others liked them. Some matches did not do well in the ratings, but others, like this one, did. In fact, the Williams vs. Gunn match, featuring two guys who normally wouldn’t figure to be over, gained nearly 1 million viewers and was the difference maker in Raw beating Nitro that night. Most remember Gunn knocking Williams out, but the back story made it more interesting. Each had won their first round match in the tournament. Dan Severn, who also won his first round match, was asked to pull out because of the fear he might be the one guy who could beat Williams. Williams had beaten Severn when both were in college, and Severn was 40, but had remained active and competing the entire time. Williams’ body had taken a beating from 16 years of physically tough pro wrestling, working the hard style of Mid South Wrestling and the even harder style of All Japan Pro Wrestling. Williams also had developed a number of drug issues associated with both the pain and partying that were part of being a superstar in Japan, and was clearly past his prime when he came over. Before the match, Gunn told someone in WWF, most stories have it being Jim Ross, although others have said it was really Bruce Prichard (I’ve heard both, Ross certainly makes for a better story), asking if he would get heat for knocking out Williams, since everyone knew Williams was supposed to win. Gunn had won Tough Man contests when he was younger, so had more experience with actual boxing than Williams, who had no boxing training. Throwing punches at guys in bars who don’t know how to fight, and moving in the ring with oversized gloves is something completely different. Still, Williams was winning the fight on points when Gunn surprised Williams with a takedown, and in doing so, Williams completely tore his hamstring. He knew he was done, and had no business coming out for the third round, even though he was ahead, and no ability to move, starting taking a series of punches from Gunn, and was eventually knocked out.
January 4, 1999: What made this show so famous was not anything on Raw, although Mick Foley as Mankind, beating The Rock to win the WWF title was certainly a big deal. It was the words of Tony Schiavone, on Nitro, under orders by Bischoff, to say that Mankind, Mick Foley, who used to wrestle here, will be winning their world title on a taped show, and mocked the decision to make Foley champion, saying, “That’ll put asses in seats.” While Foley had established himself as a main eventer, and his Hell in a Cell match with Undertaker in 1998 was one of the most talked about matches of the decade and maybe in history, he was not the kind of person that anyone would have expected to be world champion. In many ways, Foley’s title win was the first time McMahon made the title an award for loyal service as opposed to it being for the top face or top heel in the company, since clearly those positions were held by Austin and The Rock. At the time of the announcement, roughly 375,000 homes and a total of 600,000 viewers at that moment switched from Nitro to Raw, making it one of the biggest promotional blunders of all-time. Little known is that on that night, Bischoff was asking around whether or not he should announce it on the show, and the consensus was strong that it would be a big mistake. Bischoff usually listened, but this time he didn’t. To understand how big pro wrestling was on that night, Raw set its all-time record rating up to that point, a 5.76, while Nitro did a 4.96. While Mankind beat Rock for the title, WCW did the infamous Hulk Hogan one-finger to the chest title change to Kevin Nash, who had just ended Bill Goldberg’s winning streak. While the big switch of audiences to see Foley win the title is much remembered, what is forgotten is that after Foley won the title, a Goldberg run-in on Nitro and Austin run-in on Raw were going on at the same time for the overrun. Goldberg saw Nitro bring its audience back, going from a 4.6 to a 6.5, taking many of those viewers back from Raw which went from a 5.9 to a 5.1. The growth of the final segment of Nitro, many returning after Foley had won the title, was an incredible 2.1 million viewers, among the biggest growth periods in history. Between the two shows on that night during the overrun, there were 8,642,000 homes and 13,827,000 different viewers watching wrestling. And keep in mind two other factors. There were only 74.5 million homes with cable on that night, compared with more than 99 million today. And going head-to-head with wrestling that night was the Fiesta Bowl game that determined college football’s national championship, which had nearly 30 million viewers.
May 10, 1999: During the height of the Monday Night Wars, with Nitro pre-empted due to the NBA playoffs and Raw having the night to themselves, the show drew a 8.09 rating and 9.2 million viewers, destroying the 1.4 that the NBA playoff game did the same night. The show peaked with a main event of The Rock & Steve Austin & Vince McMahon vs. The Undertaker & HHH & Shane McMahon, which did a 9.17 quarter and 10.4 million viewers.
June 28, 1999: A match where Steve Austin won the WWF title from The Undertaker in Charlotte drew the largest rating and audience to ever witness a pro wrestling match or for that matter, any pro wrestling segment, ever on U.S. cable television. The match did a 9.5 rating, which was 10.72 million viewers. Perhaps the most impressive is that one out of every six television sets in the U.S. that had cable that was on during that time was watching that match. Because for more than a decade, Vince Russo has made it a talking point to say how the “The Is Your Life: Rock,” segment was the highest rated segment in history (it did an 8.4 quarter), to show how skits outdraw matches, it’s become a talking point how that was the highest rated segment in Raw history. Actually there were a handful of different quarter hours that beat that total, including most of the second hour of the May 10, 1999 show.
The median for today's shows surprises me, for something that should be having a median of about ~25 is in fact average an age of around 39 or 40, which is poor for Raw. It should be skewing younger, the main reason it isn't is because of the stale product that is failing to bring in young teenage viewers and early 20's. Despite what WWE would like you to think, not everyone wants to see SuperCena, and the above number for me proves that a lot.