The Origin of WCW Monday Nitro

It is important to look at the early days of WCW to see how Nitro got started. Eric Bischoff was a third string announcer for the company who ended up getting the Executive Producer position because upper management wanted someone to run WCW that wasn’t a “wrestling guy.”

WCW was known for hiring ex-WWF wrestlers, though it should be noted that one of the first things they did was hire Mean Gene Oakerland and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. Ric Flair suggested these announcers get hired first so they could help make stars in WCW. (Flair 226)

One of the first things Bischoff did was move the TV tapings to Disney MGM studios in Orlando Florida. WCW hadn’t been making money running live events, and now they were in a position where Disney was paying them to produce television and was supplying a fresh audience as people toured the various studios where TV shows were being filmed.

One of those shows being filmed was Thunder in Paradise, starring Hulk Hogan. Hogan had left the WWF in the early 90s, and at that point in his life honestly thought he was done with wrestling. While still in the WWF, Hogan was approached by the producers of Baywatch, Doug Schwartz and Greg Bonann, to do a pilot about two ex Navy seals that ride around in a boat fighting crime. It was not picked up as a series right away, but eventually Rysher Entertainment, the company that produced Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, got the show a syndication deal about a year and a half after the pilot was shot, with Hogan as executive producer. (Hogan 225)

Thunder in Paradise was shot on sound stage A, where three thousand people an hour went through the glass walkway on the studio tour. (229) Later, WCW filmed on sound stage B, but the way the tour was set up, people saw B before A. So basically everyone watched the WCW wrestling show, then saw Hogan filming Knight Rider on a boat and wondered why he wasn’t wrestling.

Bischoff got the idea to see if Hogan would be interested in wrestling again. Since Ric Flair knew Hulk previously, Bischoff asked Flair if he would talk to Hogan. (Flair 232) One day Flair approached Hogan on the set of Thunder in Paradise. Both Bischoff and Flair went back to the set several times to meet Hogan.

Hogan was reluctant at first, but he missed wrestling, and there were backstage events for the Thunder in Paradise show that were a factor as well. Keith Samples from Rysher Entertainment did not like some of the deals being made regarding the show, and wanted to bring a producer from Robocop in. However, Hogan was asked to take full responsibility for the show as well. By this point Hogan had enough, saying “The hell with it, pull the plug I don’t care.” (Hogan, 231, 232).

Before signing on Hogan wanted to meet with Ted Turner himself. He met Turner and Bill Shaw, the president of WCW. Hogan’s WCW contract gave him over half of his merchandise sales,though WCW didn’t have much of a merchandise machine at that point) (Hogan 238) and 25% of the Pay Per View revenue. (Flair 233).

Hogan was immediately put into a feud with WCW Champion Ric Flair. Flair had briefly been the WWF a few years prior, and one of wrestling’s great mysteries is why a Hogan/Flair match never happened at Wrestlemania. That dream match finally happened at Bash at the Beach in 1994, where Hogan became the new WCW champion. Flair had long been the face of WCW, as Hogan was the face of the WWF. Bischoff says “In a way-and in retrospect, because I didn’t think of it this way at the time-we were creating a war between the two brands.” (EB 119) He ads “We weren’t looking for a confrontation with Vince, although some people thought we were. Admittedly, some of our statements made it look that way.” (EB 119) Around this time he and Bill Shaw were interviewed by the Miami Herald and both said they dreamt of beating Titan in the wrestling industry. The Herald quoted Bischoff as saying “The biggest challenge we have ahead of us is making people realize we do have a better product. I think the consensus is we are better. But not enough people know that” (EB 119)

Much criticism has been levied to Bischoff over the years about giving Hogan creative control in his contract. In his book, Bischoff says it was the first time WCW spelled it out in the contract, and he reasoned that Hogan was an established brand, the biggest name in wrestling, he wasn’t going to “throw him into the lion’s den to be shredded up by a bunch of insecure people with their own agendas.” (EB 122) He quotes Hogan himself as saying “They’re going to look at Hulk Hogan as the guy who’s going to come in and have too much control over their lives, and they’re going to do everything they can to make that unsuccessful. The only way I’m making this move is with creative control. So if the situation is not comfortable for me, I won’t have to do it.” (EB 122) Also, it is important to remember that WCW was not a strong brand at the time. Hogan feared that if WCW crashed and burned, that the Hulk Hogan character would go down with it. (EB 120)

The next big hire was Macho Man Randy Savage. Macho Man had been an announcer for the WWF, as they were beginning to go with younger in ring talent. Still feeling he had a lot to offer, he had meetings with Bischoff and Flair. Later, Bill Shah asked if Savage was worth half a million dollars and Flair agreed that he was. (Flair 245) Savage would debut on December 4th, 1994, on WCW Saturday Night.

In early 1995 WCW went through some company restructuring, and Bill Shah was out of the company, Eric Bischoff became president of WCW, and now reported to Harvey Schiller, the head of Turner Sports. (EB 146-147)

Eric Bischoff’s goal was to simply turn a profit. In fact he made a bet with Harry Anderson, who worked on the financial side of Turner, that he could make WCW turn a profit. The deal was if he did, Anderson would get on his hands and knees and give him one dollar in front of WCW employees. (EB 148)

One idea he had to make a profit was to sell their TV footage overseas. Now that they had big stars like Hogan and Macho Man that were recognizable in Europe and Asia this was a good opportunity. Star TV in China was paying top dollar for footage at the time. The problem for Eric was Rupert Murdoch owned Star TV, and famously didn’t get along with Ted Turner. (EB 149) This led to the now infamous meeting between Bischoff and Turner.

At the meeting was Bischoff, Ted Turner, Scott Sassa, who oversaw Turner’s TV networks, and Harvey Schiller. Eric did his presentation on the Star TV deal, and just a few short minutes in Turner interrupted. “Uh, Eric, What do we need to do to become competitive with Vince.”

Eric was prepared to answer every possible question about the Star TV deal, but was not ready for this. Thinking off the top of his head he simply said “Well, Ted, I think we need to have prime time.”

Ted Turner then looked at Scott Sassa and said “Scott, I want you to give Eric two hours every Monday Night on TNT.” He then asked how soon the show could be ready. Eric said perhaps by August, Turner agreed. What was soon to be called Monday Night Nitro would debut on September 4th, 1995, and the Monday Night Wars began. (EB 150 151)

Bischoff, Eric with Roberts, Jeremy “Controversy Creates Cash” Simon and Schuster 2006

Flair, Ric with Greenberg, Kieth Elliot “Ric Flair, To Be The Man” Simon and Schuster 2004

Hogan, Hulk, with Friedman, Michael Jan, “Hollywood Hulk Hogan” Simon and Schuster 2002

The Origin of the Monday Night Wars

The roots of the Monday Night Wars stem from a rivalry between Vince McMahon and Ted Turner that went as far back as the 1980s, when Vince McMahon was first taking his promotion national.

Before the advent of cable television, the professional wrestling scene in the North America was made up of several small regional territories that never crossed over into one another. What would eventually become WWE was a territory based out of New York run by Vince McMahon senior. Other territories included Mid Atlantic, run by Jim Crockett, Georgia Championship wrestling by Jim Barnett, AWA in the Midwest run by Verne Gagne, and in northwestern Canada was Stampede wrestling run by Stu Hart. When Vince McMahon Jr. took over his father’s business, he took his company national, hiring talent from other regions in a move that was unprecedented, eventually turning his territory into the global giant it is today.

One of the ways McMahon reached a national audience was through cable, but he was not the only wrestling promoter on cable. Ted Turner launched TBS, the Turner Broadcasting System, which was the first super station, or the first station to be carried on all cable providers. One of the main programs on the super station was Georgia Championship Wrestling. Starting in 1971 Georgia Championship Wrestling aired from 6:05pm to 8:00pm on Saturday nights. TBS’s highest ratings were from Georgia Championship wrestling. Hence it was around this show that Turner built his cable empire. New shows would debut before and after Georgia Championship Wrestling until they built an audience and moved to another time slot. (1)

While it was a different territory, Jim Crockett and his Mid Atlantic territory out of the Carolina’s grew highly successful, and ended up supplying a lot of the talent that appeared on Georgia Championship Wrestling, and thus appearing on TBS. (2)

Georgia Championship Wrestling’s stockholders included Jim Barnett and Paul Jones, but in the early 1980s a young Vince McMahon got control of the company. This put Vince in position to air WWF programming on the TBS network. McMahon offered TBS $500,000 a year to air WWF programming. Turner agreed, and took Crockett’s wrestlers off the air.
While WWF talent appeared on TBS, Vince also had a deal to air programming on the USA network, saying “I thought that would be a great 1-2 punch straight away into the cable market.” Turner and Vince had a handshake agreement, but eventually Turner wanted out. (3)

Turner was not happy when WWF programming was airing on another network besides his own. Turner also wanted to buy a piece of the WWF but was refused. Turner went to court over this dispute, but the court ruled in favor of McMahon, who ripped up his contract in front of Ted Turner. (4) Crocket also wanted back on the air, and paid Vince 1 million dollars to get his old contract back to be on TBS. At the time Vince was planning his first Wrestemania, so basically Crocket helped pay for Wrestlemania. (5)

By 1988, Jim Crockett’s business grew very popular, but unfortunately for them acquired a lot of debt. That year Ted Turner purchased what was then called Jim Crocket promotions and re-christening it World Championship Wrestling, or WCW. At this point Turner called McMahon saying “Hey Vince I wanted to let you know I’m in the rassling business.”
To which McMahon replied “Well you’re in the rassling business…. I’m in the entertainment business. That’s two completely different philosophies.” (6)

WCW star Ric Flair ads “The association with Ted Turner and the cable network was huge. What was bad was he just gave different parts of the company to his friends whether they had experience or not.” (7) The early days of WCW saw a series of rotating bookers (people who plan out the matches) and executives; including Jim Herd, Ole Anderson, Kip Fry, wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, the controversial Bill Watts, and Bill Shah. Under Shah’s regime, a new position for Executive Producer opened, which would eventually be filled by a young ambitious man who would change the course of wrestling history. That man, was Eric Bischoff. (8)

Sources

1 The Rise and Fall of WCW. DVD, WWE Home Video. 2009

2 Rise and Fall

3 Rise and Fall

4 McMahon. DVD, WWE Home Video 2006

5 Rise and Fall

6 The Monday Night Wars Episode One: The War Begins. WWE Network, 7/7/2014

7 The Monday Night Wars Episode One.

8 Rise and Fall

The Monday Night Wars Documentary Episode One Review: The War Begins.

1973 saw The World at War, a WWII documentary considered a landmark in the history of British Television.

A generation later, World at War producer Jeremy Isaacs returned to produce the Cold War documentary for CNN and BBC.

Last August, the most important documentary of our generation debuted, its final two episodes aired in early January of 2015. This documentary aired on the WWE Network. This documentary, was the Monday Night Wars. Each episode covered a particular aspect of the war. In this series I will review each episode.

The first episode is entitled “The War Begins.” It covers the events leading up to the first few months of Monday Night Nitro. It starts with the early 1980s when Vince McMahon Jr. took his father’s company and expanded it nationwide during the advent of cable television. The seeds of the McMahon/Ted Turner rivalry are explained as in these early days WWF (now called WWE) programming aired on both the USA and TBS network. TBS was owned by Ted Turner, and was the first nationwide cable network. TBS also aired wrestling programming from southern regional territories like Jim Crocket Promotions/NWA and Georgia Championship Wrestling. Ted Turner is not interviewed for this documentary, but several episodes of this series show clips of a 1998 Ted Turner interview. In this particular episode Turner is shown explaining that he didn’t like WWF programming being on the USA network as well as his own, so he canceled his deal with Vince.
Following this, in 1988, Ted Turner formally bought Jim Crocket Promotions and re christened it World Championship Wrestling, or WCW. Vince explains that Turner called him at this point saying “Hey Vince I wanna let you know I’m in the rasslin business.”

To which Vince replied that meant they were in different businesses, explaining “Well, you’re in the rasslin business…. I’m in the entertainment business.”

Explaining the eventual problems with management, WCW star Ric Flair says “The association with Ted Turner and the cable network was huge. What was bad was he just gave different parts of the company to his friends whether they had experience or not.” While Flair said this we see the clip of Robocop freeing Sting from a cage, undoubtedly one of the goofier moments in WCW history.

WCW in the early days had trouble succeeding, but by the early 90s WWF was facing hard times as well (The Gobly Gooker bit is shown). Vince felt his mega star Hulk Hogan had reached the zenith of his career, and they parted ways in 1993 while Vince started focusing on younger talent.

At the same time, a young Eric Bischoff, who was a C team announcer in WCW, put in for the job of WCW Executive Producer. Within 18 months he turned it into a profitable company. One of the changes he made was WCW started filming shows at Disney MGM studios. On the next lot over, Hulk Hogan was filming a TV show called Thunder in Paradise. Hogan says that Bischoff and Ric Flair approached him on set. At that time in his life, Hogan thought he was done with wrestling, but says they kept approaching him for five to six months before he eventually decided to wrestle again. This five to six month period is something I’d be very curious to hear more about. I’d love to follow the thought process of all those involved during this period.

From here it explains how other stars like Macho Man signed onto WCW. The documentary takes the stance that Eric Bischoff had a blank check from Ted Turner to do what he wanted. Bischoff is never given screen time to respond to that. Bischoff tells the story of the now famous meeting between him and Turner, in which Turner asks him what they have to do to compete with WWF. Not expecting the question, he answered go head to head with Vince. Not expecting Turner to agree, Ted Turner decided to start a show Monday nights on TNT, which was Turner’s flagship channel.

Apparently Eric Bischoff had 6 weeks to prepare what would be Monday Night Nitro. The first episode aired on September 4th 1995, and ended up having 2.5 million viewers. It was broadcast live from the Mall of America in Minneapolis Minnesota. One of the more memorable incidents is when Lex Luger, whose WWF contract expired literally the day before, walked onto the set of the first Nitro. This episode provides a lot of interesting details about how that came about and how his defection was kept under wraps.

The Madusa incident is also covered, where the WWF women’s champion appeared on Nitro and dumped the women’s title in the trash. However there wasn’t as much new insight into that incident. Madusa was not interviewed regarding this incident or for the documentary in general, whereas Lex Luger was.

This episode covers how Eric Bischoff gave away the already recorded events from RAW on his live Nitro program. The tone of the episode is mostly negative toward that tactic.

It ends with the WWF Nacho Man/Huckster comedy bits that make fun of Hogan, Savage, etc. Bischoff says both he and Turner thought they were funny.

While I would have liked to have seen an original interview with Ted Turner, former president of Turner Sports Harvey Schiller offers a few words of insight. Overall this first episode is very informative on the origins of this great era in wrestling. It is easily one of the best episodes of this series.