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Wrestling hotlines were in vogue in the mid-90s. Companies could get away with charging $1.50 a minute to viewers for just about anything - from interviews, to quizzes, to news and many more things besides. WCW had a daily hotline with contributions from Mean Gene Okerlund, Bobby Heenan and more. Hell, even ECW had one. But with such large gains to be made came some very questionable and manipulative practices.
In January 1994, the WWF invited viewers to call its 900 line at the conclusion of the main event of the Royal Rumble to vote for who they thought won the Royal Rumble, despite the camera team not particularly offering any clear cut angle (to be fair - Luger and Hart did an excellent job executing a landing that looked like a dead heat). The implication, perhaps was that you could call up to try and cast favour with the company who you wanted to win the match. Despite this, the company had no plans on doing anything with the information - although the vote could've been the final nail in the coffin for Lex Luger.
Over in WCW things were scarcely much better. Mean Gene Okerlund had a free platform on WCW Saturday Night to push people towards his own hotline - and so he did. Name dropping people like Bret Hart, Roddy Piper and the Ultimate Warrior. Most of the times people who called would find outright lies, or at least something misleading. Okerlund once asked fans to phone in to find out why Ric Flair was in "the North East" (implying he was meeting with the WWF). If you paid your $1.50 per minute (and make no mistake, you were made to wait for that information often four or five minutes) you'd have found out Flair was in New York meeting an executive of Gold's Gym.
But it all pales in comparison to the latest hook on February 5th 1995. Okerlund asked people to call the hotline to find out "which former 45-year-old heavyweight champion" had died. Now, it's bad enough to try and use the death to hook people into calling the hotline in itself (he could've said "We've got more on the death of Jerry Blackwell, former AWA Tag Champion" on the hotline), but quite another to imply that the death may have actually been that of Ric Flair. Flair had been off of TV completely barring a random appearance on the Clash of the Champions - which due to the late no-show of Harley Race meant whatever the company likely had planned for Flair was probably abandoned.
The implication was - call the hotline to find out if Ric Flair has died. And people did. The average weekend for the hotline would've drawn about $5,000 for the company. For what it's worth, if we assume an average call time of four minutes ($6) then we can assume they get about 800 calls every weekend. That weekend they used the hook for Flair the company took in the region of $50,000-$75,000 in income. By the same maths, that's between 8,000-12,000 people calling it. From a business perspective, Okerlund had done one hell of a job.
But anyone with any shame would have been quite rightly appalled by the move. It was especially strange for Okerlund too - who worked with Blackwell in Minnesota in the AWA in the early 1980s. "Crusher" Jerry Blackwell, while short at 5ft 10 was a burly wrestler - billed at over 450 lbs. The "heavyweight title" referred to was likely Blackwell being one half of the AWA Tag Titles with Ken Patera.
Predictably, you'd have to have waited 5 minutes into Okerlund's hotline to hear Blackwell's name - these hotlines were very much "bottom loaded". Okerlund followed up the next week with what was called an insincere apology by those who heard it. Thankfully, it seems this was the nadir for the hotline, especially after what came next.
Hopes the company could contain the fallout would have been dashed when, a short while later, an article by Phil Mushnick in the New York Daily Post used the story as an angle to take a few shots at Ted Turner. The article headlined "Turner phone scam: Better dead for Ted" went onto link the current story with WCW employee Frank Anderson (convicted in Sweden for possesion of HGH) saying: "with any luck, he'll soon suffer drug-induced renal failure and die. Then WCW, on a Saturday night, can tell kids that a former champion wrestler has died, and for only $1.50 per minute, they can find out who."
The article, which later told Turner to "take his friendly TV wrestling business out to be cleaned and burned" would have after effects for the company. Turner demanded the Superbrawl PPV be "squeaky clean" for audience watching, meaning the planned double blade finish between Vader and Hogan was scrapped. If there was one good thing out of this story, it's that the company didn't get away with it.