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OOLD SCHOOL: THE MONDAY NIGHT WARS  
RAW vs. Nitro: Year Six 
Final Edition / September 4, 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 Six: Turn out the Lights, The Party's Over... 
August 28, 2000 - March 26, 2001 (Part Seven of Eight)

YEAR SIX MONDAY NIGHT WAR SNAPSHOT 
Click Here for Head-to-Head Ratings Chart for Year Six 
Head to Head Battles:
25 
Nitro Wins:
RAW Wins: 25 
Draws:
Nitro Average Rating: 2.4
(down 0.5 from Year Four) 
RAW Average Rating: 5.1
(down 1.1 from Year Four) 
Combined Average Rating: 7.5
(down 1.6 from Year Four) 
Unopposed Nights: 6
(two for Nitro and four for RAW)
Highest Head to Head Rating: 5.8 for RAW
(on both Sept. 11 and Sept. 18, 2000) 
Largest Margin of Victory: 3.0 for RAW
(on both Sept. 18, 2000, and Feb. 26, 2001) 
Longest Winning Streak: 25 weeks for RAW
(spanning all of Year Five)

The WWF jumped to the newly renamed "The National Network," early in Year Six, after over a decade and a half on the more-established USA Network.  The move seemed likely to have 2 effects:  one, since TNN was the cable home of Extreme Championship Wrestling, many expected their national TV outlet would bail on them.  This came to pass, as despite the WWF's willingness to allow ECW to stay on their network, there were just too many problems between ECW and Viacom to keep the relationship alive.  ECW left TNN in October and was essentially out of business by January of 2001.

The second possible effect: because TNN was still stuck with its old "Nashville Network" stigma and was available in millions fewer homes than USA, WCW might -- just MIGHT -- have had a chance to capitalize on an opportunity to attract wrestling fans who lost track of the WWF after the move.  But this one didn't quite pan out.  Although TNN's reduced cable penetration did translate almost immediately into a drop in RAW's ratings, this was not offset by anything resembling a surge by WCW.  With a golden opportunity staring them in the face, WCW instead dipped to unthinkably poor depths in Year Six, averaging their lowest ratings of the entire Monday Night War.

To be fair, in these final days, the company's woes may actually have been attributable more to external factors than to incompetence and political turmoil within the actual WCW power structure.  As Year Six got underway, WCW's parent company, Turner/Time Warner, was preparing for a major business merger with America Online.  Money losing divisions -- this described WCW in spades -- were not going to be kept as part of the company.  It wasn't immediately clear which route would be taken, but early in Year Six, two things started happening:  WCW started trimming costs in hopes that they could cut their losses and become profitable, and rumors started circulating that WCW was for sale.

Vince Russo, ostensible creative czar of WCW, saw the writing on the wall.  The political environment had already turned against him, and on top of that, Russo probably didn't want to be the guy driving the ship when it finally crashed for good.  Using a head injury suffered at the hands of Goldberg as an excuse, Russo took an extended vacation from his creative duties, one from which he decided to never return.  A constantly-shifting set of different contributors were brought in to book WCW in its final six months, at some times even including Eric Bischoff (who was trying to buy the company), but mostly centered on Johnny Ace and Terry Taylor.

Creatively, Year Six saw WCW try -- probably a few years too late -- to genuinely push fresh talent.  Scott Steiner may not, precisely speaking, have been an "exciting young star," but compared to years of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and Roddy Piper, he's a damned spring chicken.  Steiner got to dominate WCW in Year Six, doing an angle where he injured or retired top babyface after top babyface (including Booker T, Goldberg, Kevin Nash, and -- in a gruesome REAL in-ring injury -- Sid). WCW also took some of the actually young and up-and-coming members of their roster and started to give them some chances to shine above and beyond Russo's earlier ham-handed attempts to shove them down our throats.

But for the most part, WCW was left without any real star power, and even worse, without a defined, compelling creative direction.  Early in Year Six, boosted by RAW's back-to-back preemptions and then by its jump to a new network, Nitro managed to stay strong in the upper 2's (even getting a head-to-head 3.2 in the Year's first battle).  But after a few months, WCW was lucky to score even a 2.5; in the final six weeks before its finale, Nitro averaged a pathetic 2.1.  Only the promise of WWF-related content boosted Nitro back up to a 3.0 in its final broadcast ever.

And for all the joy that the WWF may have gotten out of first thrashing and then buying its competition, the story for them in Year Six isn't much better.  They lost about the same percentage of their audience as WCW did in Year Six (and in absolute terms, that equals a viewership loss twice as big as WCW's).  Three different, warring theories might reasonably explain the losses, though in reality, it's probably a combination of all three.

First and foremost, the jump to TNN was a big factor.  The re-branding of TNN as "The National Network" started on the very day that RAW jumped; because of a long, drawn-out legal battle against USA Network, TNN and the WWF did not know that RAW would legally be able to switch networks until 7 days before the scheduled jump.  This not only meant poor promotion of the jump, but it handcuffed TNN from moving aggressively forward in terms of getting together a lot of new, general interest programs to take the place of the mostly southern-centric stuff they'd had.  TNN already had a huge strike against it, as it was available in about 10 percent FEWER households than USA was; adding in the "Nashville" factor didn't help any.

But:  the WWF's last five prime time weeks on USA averaged a 6.1...  their first five on TNN averaged a 5.2.  That's a drop of more than 10 percent (which could have been justified by just the jump to TNN).  That leads us to seriously consider the other two theories:  (1) that wrestling's moment in the sun has passed, and the business as a whole was entering a fallow period, and (2) that the WWF itself was getting slipshod in its storytelling, alienating some casual fans.

The WWF, at the time, tried to downplay the cyclical nature of the business, preferring to boldly state that as long as they were putting out a strong product, they could remain as popular as ever.  There may be something to be said for the "better mousetrap theory," but the truth is that wrestling hit unthinkable peaks in the late 90s, and pop culture was bound to move on.  Perhaps someday wrestling will again be the massively hip, cool phenomenon it was for a couple of years.  But until then, building the better mousetrap simply meant the WWF would stay away from sinking to the depths of the early 90s (when the WWF and WCW were both in dire straits, playing to small houses and cable ratings).

But just how good was the mousetrap, anyway?  The Fed ran into some serious problems early in Year Six, as they seemed to fumble the return of Stone Cold Steve Austin.  What should have been a grand celebration of one of the business' top stars coming back turned into a debacle of a top storyline in which Rikishi was first introduced as the driver of a car that ran over Austin a year previous, but was later reduced to a mere button man for Triple H (due to fan disinterest in Rikishi as a main event heel).  By keeping HHH heel at this time, the WWF also missed out on following through on a HHH/Kurt Angle feud that the fans seemed plenty interested in.  In fact, the elevation of Angle to a top level heel (and WWF Champion) stands out as one of Year Six's lone successes for the WWF.

This creative stagnation no doubt contributed -- along with the jump to TNN and the cyclical nature of the business -- to the drop off in viewer levels in Year Six for the WWF.  The end of the six year Monday Night Wars may have had a definitive conclusion, but the truth is that the winner, the WWF, still limped to the finish line, losing nearly a fifth of its audience over the course of the Wars final months.

The end of the War, however, brought renewed promise for the future.  Not only was the WWF addressing some of its internal problems by bringing in Paul Heyman (now available due to the demise of ECW), but the nature of the War's conclusion opened up many previously-unimaginable creative opportunities.

That's because, on March 26, 2001, the WWF announced that they had purchased WCW.  The deal was actually sealed three days before, but it was on Monday, March 26, that the reality of the situation set it.  On that night, RAW and Nitro actually shared storylines and did a "Simulcast," that started with Vince McMahon announcing (via satellite) on Nitro that he had purchased the company.  Nitro then concluded with Shane McMahon shocking everybody by actually showing up live in Panama City, FL, to announce that he, personally, had purchased WCW, and was taking over instead of his dad.

Thus the stage was set for the War to continue... even after the War was over.  A WWF vs. WCW promotional battle was something fans had dreamt about for a long, long time.  And now, even though the very real battle for Monday Nights was over and the WWF was the winner, fans could look forward to WCW stars invading the WWF as 2001 continued.

Unopposed by Nitro and with the Invasion storyline looming, the WWF seemed ready to regain some of the losses suffered in Year Six of the War.  Of course, it didn't quite pan out that way.  But that's not a story for now.

The story of Year Six, and the whole of the Monday Night War, ends with the WWF purchasing WCW and ending the War on a 114 week winning streak, the decisive winner in the six year long RAW vs. Nitro Battle.  Of course, RAW's story continued, and there's still one more page of "The Big Picture" to consider...  so keep on reading!

MILESTONES AND MINUTIAE: RAW aired in late night on the USA Network on both August 28 and September 4, pre-empted in favor of US Open Tennis.  Then, on September 11 and 18, RAW aired in prime time on USA for the last times ever before jumping to The National Network on September 25...  RAW and Nitro two shows combined for a 9.0 rating for the first and only time during Year Six on September 11; the two shows would combined for an 8.0 or better rating only three other times in Year Six, and dropped below a combined 7.0 a total of five times in the Year...  previously, RAW and Nitro had not fallen below a combined 8.0 since February '98, and not below a 7.0 since December '97...  Nitro's only ratings above 3 came on the first and last Monday's of Year Six (September 11, and the WWF-takeover simulcast on March 26, 2001)....  RAW did a 4.8 rating on October 16, 2000, the first time WWF drew less than a 5 in prime time since November of 1998; RAW would dip below a 5 a total of ten more times in Year Six....  Nitro's margin of loss for its final show (the Simulcast) was a 1.7, the only time the margin was below 2 in Year Six, and the smallest such margin in two years (since April '99).

Concluded in "RAW vs. Nitro: Looking at the Big Picture"...

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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