At the time of the original airing it was a rare example of professional wrestling being broadcast on an over-the-air commercial television network after the 1950s. It coincided with and contributed to the apogee of the "second golden age" of professional wrestling in the United States. In a time when weekly programming consisited primarily of established stars dominating enhancement talent, Saturday Night's Main Event was made up almost entirely of star vs. star bouts. After leaving NBC in 1991, it aired twice on Fox in 1992 before disappearing for over a decade.
Saturday Night's Main Event debuted on May 11, 1985 in the late-night time slot normally assigned to reruns of the NBC sketch comedy Saturday Night Live. Then-SNL executive producer Dick Ebersol had made a deal with WWF owner Vince McMahon to produce the show, after Ebersol had seen the high ratings that two WWF specials drew on MTV in 1984–85. Although the show aired infrequently, it did, starting in 1986, settle into a predictable pattern of airdates: New Year's weekend, an episode in late February/early March, an episode in late April/early May, an episode in late September/early October, and Thanksgiving weekend. 1989 and 1990 both offered episodes in July promoted as "Summertime Bonus Editions."
Saturday Night's Main Event was a tremendous ratings success for NBC during its heyday, most notably on the March 14, 1987 show, which drew an 11.6 rating, which to this day remains the highest rating any show has ever done in that time slot. That show was headlined by a battle royal featuring Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, who were slated to face each other at WWE WrestleMania 3. As Hogan rarely wrestled on the WWF syndicated and cable television shows, Saturday Night's Main Event was the program on free television where most viewers were able to see him in action. The success of Saturday Night's Main Event led to several Friday night prime time specials, known as WWF The Main Event. The first of these, on February 5, 1988 featured a WrestleMania 3 rematch between Hogan and André and drew 33 million viewers and a 15.2 rating, which is still the highest-rated television show in American professional wrestling history. This event was shown live. The late night shows however were always taped 1–2 weeks prior to airing.
While ratings remained strong through 1990, they began to fall shortly thereafter. NBC, who had just acquired the rights to broadcast NBA games nationwide, now started to lose interest in wrestling, and Saturday Night's Main Event was dropped. Its final NBC airing occurred on April 27, 1991. Fox picked up the show in 1992, but it was only shown twice on that network; February 8, 1992 and the final Saturday Night's Main Event of the original run was broadcast on November 14, 1992.
For much of its history, Saturday Night's Main Event was hosted by McMahon and Jesse Ventura with the occasional use of Bobby Heenan in 1986 and 1987. In 1990, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper replaced Ventura as McMahon's broadcast partner when Ventura left the WWF. On the two episodes that aired on Fox, Heenan served as McMahon's partner. From 1985–1988 the opening theme song for the NBC version was "Obsession" by Animotion with the closing theme being "Take Me Home" by Phil Collins, and also the beginning of "Take on Me" by a-ha was used for show bumpers. In 1988, the songs were replaced with an original WWF-created instrumental theme. The new instrumental theme was originally used as the theme of the 1987 WWF Slammy Awards.
Saturday Night's Main Event was revived as WWE Saturday Night's Main Event from 2006 to 2008.