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OOLD SCHOOL: THE MONDAY NIGHT WARS  
RAW vs. Nitro: Year Three 
Final Edition / August 14, 2003

by Rick Scaia
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com

 

[Note from the present day: it was an annual tradition, first at WrestleManiacs and then at WrestleLine, for me to publish a RAW vs. Nitro retrospective every September to commemorate the start of the Monday Night Wars on September 4, 1995.  Then, WCW went out of business in 2001, and the tradition died.  But here, on our usual sanctioned "OOld School" day, we're gonna go back and revive it!

My detailed final edition of the the Monday Night Wars feature will be published in serial fashion over the next few Thursdays.  The publication schedule means that the final parts will be posted here at OO on Thursday, September 4: the exact 8 year anniversary of the beginning of the RAW vs. Nitro battle!

I've been meaning for almost two years now to publish this feature at OO, and having a weekly throwback column has finally motivated me to dust it off, reformat it, and present it here for posterity.  It has been polished and corrected a bit since 2001 -- most references should be current, though I refused to change "WWF" to "WWE" at any point along the way -- and should stand as my "final word" on the Monday wars.  Enjoy.]

Year Three:  Don't Call it a Comeback 
September 1, 1997 - August 24, 1998 (Part Four of Eight)

YEAR THREE MONDAY NIGHT WAR SNAPSHOT 
Click Here for Head-to-Head Ratings Chart for Year Three 
Head to Head Battles: 46 
Nitro Wins: 34 
RAW Wins: 11 
Draws:
Nitro Average Rating: 4.3
(up 0.9 from Year Two) 
RAW Average Rating: 3.7
(up 1.3 from Year Two) 
Combined Average Rating: 8.1
(up 2.4 from Year Two) 
Unopposed Nights: 6
(three for RAW and three for Nitro
Highest Head to Head Rating: 5.4 for RAW
(on June 29, 1998) 
Largest Margin of Victory: 2.1 for Nitro
(on September 8, 1997) 
Longest Winning Streak: 29 weeks for Nitro
(spanning September 8, 1997 - April 6, 1998)

Wrestling was on a role... as Year Two segued into Year Three, both RAW and Nitro were in the midst of growing their audiences and trying to step up the televised product. Nitro saw the latest developments in Sting's attempts to secure a match against WCW champ Hulk Hogan, and was decisively winning the Monday night battles. RAW -- mostly on the strength of the Austin and USA vs. Harts and Canada feud -- had rebounded from its embarrassing 1.5 performances of Year Two, and began scoring respectable 3's to Nitro's then-earth-shattering 4's.

And while respectable numbers were a huge step up for Titan, the fact was, the company seemed impotent to do anything as red-hot as the Hogan/Sting feud in WCW. As Year Three moved on, it started to seem like some of the momentum built up by the WWF was fading. First, RAW went to a new taping schedule that meant RAW was live one week, but taped the next, sapping some of the unpredictable atmosphere from the show. On top of that, they seemed unable to put together a show that could steal the thunder of Nitro, mostly because their smaller, younger, unproven talent roster couldn't match up (in most casual fans' eyes) to the never-ending line-up of 80s mega-stars employed by WCW.

And then came a huge blow: the death of Brian Pillman on October 5, 1997, left the company shaken. Titan's handling of the incident the next night on RAW was criticized by some, who thought it was inappropriate to feature an interview with Brian's widow, Melanie. Those criticisms aside, it rapidly became clear that the company which had recently seemed ready to take steps to putting a dent in WCW's armor was back in the doldrums and facing problems publicly and backstage.

Things got worse in November, as a week before WWF Champion Bret Hart was slated to defend his title against Shawn Michaels at the Survivor Series PPV, word leaked out that Hart was leaving the WWF to work for WCW. Of course, this bizarre situation climaxed at the PPV with the "Screwjob Heard 'Round the World," which has been summarized, analyzed, and driven into the ground by me, other internet folks, and even by a "documentary" entitled "Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows" that airs occasionally on the A&E Network. We do not need to rehash it again here, except to say that in the wake of the incident, Bret Hart was leaving the WWF on the worst of terms, and heading to WCW enormous babyface momentum, while Vince McMahon had painted himself into a corner as perhaps the most despised character in the history of wrestling.

A lot of people thought this was the death blow against the WWF: after struggling to hold serve against the onslaught of WCW, they'd just lost their top star, and one of the three legitimate headliners they had on the roster at the time, to Turner's organization.  On top of that, Bret's departure was hastened by Vince McMahon's claim that the company was in graven financial trouble, and in fact, the company did take out a multi-million dollar loan right around this time to help keep them afloat.  The WWF was in trouble, by any sensible conventional wisdom.

But the wrestling business is anything but conventional.

WCW stormed strong into the year-ending Starrcade PPV, which was headlined by Hogan vs. Sting, and also featured WWF living legend Bret Hart in a guest appearance. Along the way, they featured another of those Nitro trademarked "Holy Shit" moments, when the late Rick Rude appeared live on an edition of Nitro at almost the exact same time he taking part in a Degeneration X interview segment over on RAW (RAW had been taped 6 days previously, and Rude had made no indication that he was interested in jumping ship at that time). Jim Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith also joined brother-in-law Bret Hart in jumping to WCW. Brian "Crush" Adams was a final defector.

WCW also just happened to luck into developing Bill Goldberg as an undefeated juggernaut. Goldberg could have been asked to drop a match at any time during his lukewarm initial months (many pegged him as a Steve Austin knock-off, which was perceived as a cheap tactic by WCW). But a strange thing happened: the fans began to warm to Goldberg as he grew into his own unique (non-Austin-esque) style, and announcers started to take note of the fact that Goldberg had defeated every prelim wrestler he'd faced so far. A legend was born, and was fostered for well over a year.

With a talent roster that was healthy and at 100%, key storylines in WCW included a plethora of main event talents such as Hogan, Sting, Lex Luger, the Giant (a/k/a "The Big Show"), Randy Savage, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Roddy Piper, Goldberg, and Dallas Page. It seemed like Starrcade might be a "home run" show that once and for reduced the WWF to a bush league knock-off.

But despite the great job of promotion WCW did on Nitro leading into Starrcade, the show itself was lackluster. Sting beat Hogan in the big pay-off match to their 18-month long feud, but did so in a cheap and convoluted fashion (Bret Hart "restarted" the match after accusing Nick Patrick of a fast count for Hogan) that the feud and the WCW Title were both cheapened and diminished. Sting would be stripped of the title, and would regain it (but again, for only a very brief reign) in February, but by then, the damage had been done.

Bret Hart also got off to a less-than-explosive start in WCW, as the Turner braintrust apparently figured that they didn't have to do anything to promote Hart, and would instead just assume that everybody knew what happened to him in the WWF, and thus would consider him a babyface. After a disappointing feud with Ric Flair, Hart began treading water.

And all this was going on while the WWF had been quietly positioning itself for a last ditch strike. For all the troubles they faced very early in Year Three, Titan actually had a few things going for it as calendar 1997 concluded. For one, Rocky Maivia, who had debuted as a babyface one year previous and utterly failed to get over, cut his first heel promo, joined the Nation of Domination, and quickly broke out as one of the company's most hated performers after he dubbed himself "The Rock." Steve Austin, sidelined by a neck injury for much of this timeframe, returned to action, bigger than ever, and began getting pushed to the top of the company. Degeneration X, a heel faction led by Shawn Michaels, came into existence about this time, too. Michaels, once again a WWF champion, was way more over during this reign as a heel than he was as a babyface in his previous run at the top.

But perhaps most subtle (and still most important) of all... Vince McMahon turned his "screwing" of Bret Hart into the most savvy and successful booking move of the year. McMahon had never been anything but a TV announcer for the WWF; but now he was being acknowledged as "the boss." Even worse, he was an evil, conniving, ruthless boss who stabbed one of his most loyal workers in the back. It didn't seem like the ire of your best-informed and most-loyal fans could ever be a good thing, but inside of four months, McMahon was placed into storylines as the WWF's evil owner who'd stop at nothing to eliminate the beer-swilling, profanity-spewing Steve Austin. McMahon knew what he was doing when he made himself the bad guy, after all... and he might even have known what he was doing when he got rid of Bret Hart; after all, would Hart have gone along with some of the decisions Vince made about moving to the Attitude Era's more "mature" product? It's hard to say...

The atmosphere of the Monday Night Wars changed for good as 1997 became 1998. In January, the WWF announced that Mike Tyson would be a part of WrestleMania 14, creating an instant stir, and garnering some mainstream attention. The push began to make Steve Austin the company's top star (which would also take place at WM14). And finally, the WWF had developed mid-card talent who were over with the crowds and could help the promotion put on strong top-to-bottom shows that might give them a chance against WCW and their huge talent roster. Late '97 and '98 saw the emergence of Mick Foley as a major star (in his three different personas), it saw the formation of the New Age Outlaws (perhaps the most over tag team in the business over the course of the Monday Night Wars), the return of multi-time IC Champ Jeff Jarrett to the WWF, and the elevation of The Rock to viable champion status.

RAW went from scoring upper-2's and low-3's before the dismissal of Bret Hart to scoring consistent mid-to-upper-3's after the New Year. The convergence of all of these factors resulted in the WWF growing its audience, but not at the expense of WCW. Rather, they were drawing new fans in; if anything, WCW continued strong for several months after the lukewarm Starrcade. The total wrestling audience had ballooned. But that also meant that a greater percentage of viewers than ever were newer "casual" fans who might be swayed to one side or the other more easily.

And that's eventually what meant the end of Nitro's domination of RAW.

With the wrestling audience at an all time high, there were a greater number of "swing" viewers out there every Monday. Nitro was beginning to stagnate again in early '98, while RAW was easily the better show each week. But there is also a certain inertia involved in being #1. It would take something big, something that wrestling fans could recognize as a sign that the tide had turned in the Monday Night Wars. But once that sign was recognized, there would be no going back. Nitro's inertia would be wiped out.

The sign turned out to be the Tyson-assisted WrestleMania 14 and the next night's red-hot live RAW, spanning a 26 hour window on March 29 and 30, 1998.

At WM14, the WWF launched the "Stone Cold" Steve Austin era, making him their signature star and champion. Austin had built a strong following among hardcore fans as far back as his WCW days in the early 90s, but had grown into a mainstream sensation on the heels of his Austin 3:16 catchphrase and his babyface turn at WM13.

The next night on RAW, the seeds were sown for the Austin vs. Vince McMahon feud that would become the year's hottest angle. And just as important, in my eyes, that edition of RAW also saw Degeneration X regroup with the return of Sean "X-Pac" Waltman from WCW. Waltman cut a killer quasi-shoot promo on Hogan, Bischoff, and WCW, and in the process, created the impression that the WWF was "the place to be" (the same impression that had served WCW so well just about exactly 2 years previous). The New Age Outlaws were added to DX on that night, as well, and inside of a few months, their popularity demanded that the group turn babyface.

The one month timeframe from March 23 through April 13 tells the entire story: the week before WM14, Nitro trounced RAW (4.6 to 3.6). The next week, March 30, the night after WM14, RAW took a small bite out of Nitro's advantage, as fans tuned in to see the start of the Stone Cold era (Nitro wins, 4.2 to 3.8). On April 6, word had spread among fans that Austin was cool and "Syxx-pac" had jumped ship, and RAW bounced all the way up to a 4.4 rating (Nitro squeezed out a win by posting a 4.6). But on April 13, RAW's surge was not to be denied: after 83 consecutive head-to-head wins for Nitro, RAW posted a 4.6 rating to best Nitro's 4.3.

Nitro would over-compensate, and hype a Hogan vs. Savage main event for the next week's Nitro, ensuring a win for them..... but after that victory, Nitro would claim only one more ratings win in the next 12 head-to-head battles. RAW, which had been solidly in the mid-3's before WM14, never dropped below 4.0 after March 30, 1998. The turnaround came that quickly, and that 4.0-plus streak remained alive and well to the bitter end of the war.

Nitro's one win during that mini-streak for RAW came on the night of Goldberg's WCW Title win over Hulk Hogan... after that, WCW got hot again for one brief run in the final three weeks of Year Three. WCW won those three consecutive weeks, on the strength of a strong debut for the Ultimate Warrior. But would it last? Well, that's a question to be answered on the next page, as Year Four kicks off, now isn't it?

But as Year Three came to an end, there's no denying that for the first time since mid-1996, there actually was a war on Monday nights, instead of a one-sided thrashing. In the third 52-week segment of the Battle for Monday Nights, RAW came roaring back to life.

MILESTONES AND MINUTIAE: Wrestling's combined audience exceeded an 8.0 rating for the first time on December 29, 1997, and exceeded 9.0 for the first time ever on April 20, 1998... the first ever 5.0 in head-to-head battle was scored by Nitro on April 20, 1998.... after several 3-hour-long specials in the latter part of 1997, Monday Nitro officially went to three hours each week (a format it maintained for about two years) on January 26, 1998...

Continued in "RAW vs. Nitro: Year 4"....

OO Monday Night Wars in Review
Intro --/-- Year One --/-- Year Two --/-- Year Three
Year Four --/-- Year Five --/-- Year Six --/-- Conclusion

E-MAIL RICK
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