WWE’s Blind Eye Principle and the Prospects for a Second Monday Night War
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 Style. Raw 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!