WWE’s Blind Eye Principle and the Prospects for a Second Monday Night War

March 15, 2010
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For wrestling punters, springtime means WrestleMania.  This year, Canadian legend Bret “Hitman” Hart returns to face Mr. McMahon—World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) owner Vince McMahon’s onscreen heel character—at WrestleMania XXVI.  But this spring another development is raising eyebrows, and hopes: the prospect of a second Monday Night War.

The first Monday Night War began on September 4, 1995, when rival company World Championship Wrestling (WCW), having acquired the sport’s biggest draw, Hulk Hogan, launched the live show Monday Nitro on TNT.  For the first time in television history, two companies ran pay-per-view quality programming head-to-head every week at 9pm. Underwritten by Ted Turner, WCW aggressively challenged WWE’s flagship program Raw on USA (and then Spike).  WCW used the fact that Raw aired ‘live’ only once a month to gain an edge. WCW started airing at 8:57pm—before Raw—whereupon WCW president Eric Bischoff would reveal Raw’s results for that night, reminding viewers that WWE was ‘taped’ while Nitro was fresh and new and anything could happen.  Nitro defeated Raw for 84 consecutive weeks in cable ratings in 1996-8.

While WCW led during a crucial phase of this war, direct competition eventually drove up pay-per-view buyrates and television ratings for both leagues, and the quality of matches and angles was at an all-time high.  But it didn’t last.  In 2001, WCW, mired in financial woes and managerial incompetence, closed its doors and sold its assets to WWE, thus giving McMahon a monopoly over the market.  Since then, many have hoped that a new rival would emerge.

Total Nonstop Action (TNA) may be as just that.  Since TNA owner Dixie Carter hired Hulk Hogan to run creative operations in October 2009, the Nashville-based firm has been preparing for battle.  Recently, it has declared a second Monday Night War, and last Monday, March 8, TNA’s Impact aired on Spike head-to-head with Raw on USA.

But what are the prospects for this second Monday Night War?

Crucial to the enthusiasm that fans felt during the Monday Night Wars was pressing the ‘recall’ button on the remote, and watching WCW and WWE react to one another’s programming on the fly.  A nimble channel-flipping viewer emerged for wrestling in the late 1990s, and these shows appealed to this habit by creating what Jeremy Butler calls “liveness” in his recent book, Television StyleRaw and Nitro often burst into orchestrated bedlam—as when anti-hero “Stone Cold” Steve Austin stormed the ring on a zamboni during one episode of Raw live from Detroit.  The zamboni temporarily took out the show’s audio while Austin dove over security and hammered the villainous Mr. McMahon.

Over the last decade, such eruptions of ‘live’ pandemonium have become increasingly rare.  If Impact can recreate this feel, it may be able to compete with Raw.

But if there is one constant in WWE’s history, it is the blind eye it turns to all competition until it can benefit from acknowledging it.  The problem for TNA is that WWE has no reason to do so in its case.  TNA currently lacks the mainstream visibly needed to encourage Raw viewers to channel flip.  Last Monday’s ratings seem to reflect this: Impact scored a 1.0 cable rating (1.4 million viewers) while Raw’s rating remained consistent with current trends: 3.4 (5.1 million viewers).  Unfortunately for TNA brass, Impact’s performance shows no improvement over its previous Thursday slot, suggesting that the show simply drew its committed viewers.

If the Monday Night Wars are to resume, TNA must recreate the ‘liveness’ that Raw shows only intermittently these days, and draw away enough viewers so that WWE is forced to break its blind eye principle, and react to TNA’s programming.

Let the die be cast!

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7 Responses to “ WWE’s Blind Eye Principle and the Prospects for a Second Monday Night War ”

  1. Nick Marx on March 15, 2010 at 11:14 AM

    Great post, thanks Colin. To what extent do you think TNA’s success will depend additionally on its star-making/poaching ability? WCW always seemed particularly good at stealing WWF stars (Lex Luger, the NWO guys, et al) and crafting storylines that played to the audience’s knowledge of the WWF/WCW rivalry.

  2. Colin Burnett on March 15, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    Great question. You know, that depends. WCW “talent raids”– as they are called– were critical to its success. The most important move was stealing away Scott Hall and Kevin Nash in 1996. And this feeds into the “liveness” point. On Memorial Day of 1996, Scott Hall appeared on Nitro for the first time. He came out of the crowd, skipped over the guard rail and WCW wrestlers and announcers had confused and shocked looks on their faces: “what’s he doing HERE?” So, WCW was able to make this look (to the casual fan) like a WWE invasion. Events like this made it seem like Nitro was “unplanned.”

    But WWE quickly learned from this mistake.

    Here’s my point: talent raids would be a factor here if TNA could sign someone really major, like John Cena or Edge. But this is doubtful– WWE really does lock down such talents in long-term deals, and no longer accepts verbal commitments– so they’re going to have to try out other things to create “shock television.” Right now, they’re bringing in old, washed up talent like the Nasty Boys, Scott Hall (who is now known to insiders as “Last Call” Scott Hall), and Sean Waltman. So, there is a measure of shock, here, but for the long term hiring the old guard is not the solution. It makes TNA look like a minor league or old timers federation.

    Bringing in “the old guys,” in my estimation, undercuts the ‘edgey’ feel that TNA needs if it’s going to chip away at WWE’s lead. It’s going to have to look to rock-solid storylines, and TNA does not have a good track record in this regard.

  3. Chris Medjesky on March 15, 2010 at 12:43 PM

    I am quite pleased to read this article. While some of the long history is left out of this piece, I understand the need to do so. As a scholar interested in wrestling (there seem to be so few of us!), I hope this article might bring about some renewed interest in a topic that seems almost shut down since the release of Wrestling with Manhood.

    I agree that the WCW approach to TNA is a horrible mistake and one that will likely stop any momentum TNA had dead in its tracks.

    I often wonder, though, how much the name TNA hurts the company. First the TNA reference to T ‘n A was a bad attempt at a pun and to draw in the sexualized adolescent audience even though the product (WWE will always be the standard of what is considered mainstream wrestling, at least in America). Total Nonstop Action is equally silly, though. Perhaps a total overhaul is needed to be taken more seriously with a wider audience.

  4. Colin Burnett on March 15, 2010 at 10:16 PM

    Thanks for the response, Chris.

    First, I agree that wrestling might have a more permanent a place in scholarship. But it seems that scholars don’t quite know where to fit it in. For this reason, I have tried to suggest here that it could have a place in television studies. After all, the study of the history of modern wrestling angles and storytelling depends on the study of wrestling’s use of the means of television– wouldn’t you agree? I think here of the rise of stars who, like “Gorgeous George” in the 1940s, used the new medium of television to create larger-than-life characters with national appeal; WCCW’s innovative use of handheld cameras in the 1980s; the dependence on pay-per-view television to build companies with national fan bases in the same decade; the reliance on monthly or quarterly shows like WWF’s Saturday Night’s Main Event on NBC and WCW/NWA on the Clash of the Champions on TBS to advance major storylines in preparation for pay-per-views; and smaller changes, like the increased number of backstage cameras to shoot locker-room action in the 1990s. In short, an argument could be made that the kinds of stories wrestling tells both in and out of the ring and the effects of these stories on viewers require a consideration of television. (And this says nothing of the dependence of television– particularly some networks, like UPN– on wrestling programming to draw higher ratings.)

    As to the issue of TNA’s name, I completely concur. But as best I can tell, TNA honcho Dixie Carter likes it, and has no plans on changing. TNA brass apparently mulled over alternatives when they moved to Spike, but decided against the idea– as you know. Quite honestly, when I mentioned to a few colleagues my idea for this piece, and I informed them that the competition for WWE was a company called “TNA,” I was invariably greeted with a chuckle.

    The question is: does this matter to wrestling fans?

  5. Chris Medjesky on March 15, 2010 at 10:29 PM

    Colin,

    The question of whether the TNA name matters to wrestling fans is a good one that has significance for researchers. What would it say about wrestling audience, for example, if fans were actually offended by the name (surely this would throw a wrench into the common labels placed on wrestling fans). This would require a qualitative study and provide an interesting intersection between uncommon methods with a particular theory theory (since we are really talking about the rhetoric of names).

    More importantly, though, I think that television studies is an excellent place for wrestling. This sidesteps the “sport” debate and focuses more on its core place in culture. As you stated, it as significant to history as anything else – a fact mentioned repeatedly tonight on Monday Night Raw. My only hesitation is that performance studies must come into play if scholars were to attempt a fuller understanding of wrestling and its impact. The live performance is a completely different product at times and remains an equally understudied component of culture.

  6. Colin Burnett on March 21, 2010 at 6:24 PM

    By way of a follow-up, I direct the reader’s attention to a report issued, apparently by the Wrestling Observer, stating that WWE is indeed ‘watching’ TNA’s broadcast, and doing so ‘live’ while RAW is on the air. The report states:

    “WWE may have been paying more attention to last week’s TNA iMPACT! then they may have let on. One WWE source noted that the production team was definitely keeping an eye on iMPACT! and estimated that one of every five TV monitors in the production area were tuned to TNA iMPACT!.”
    (http://www.wrestlinginc.com/wi/news/2010/0321/486283/index.shtml)

    There’s no evidence yet that WWE has altered its decision-making as it relates to storylines and angles to ‘respond to’ TNA programming. Stay tuned.

  7. Summerslam Fiend on August 11, 2010 at 10:34 PM

    The war didn’t last long. Only a couple months later TNA move it’s show to Thursdays and in doing so will stay around for a long time..I don’t think any other wrestling show could compete with WWE on Mondays. Good Luck to TNA