WWF Leaves WCW Wheezing on Mat
Attempts launched last fall by Turner Broadcasting System
Inc. to revive its struggling World Championship Wrestling with new management and writers
WCW is posting its lowest ratings on Turner Network
Television since Ted Turner launched the outfit in 1995, and four WCW wrestlers --
including its champion, Chris Benoit -- recently jumped ship to the rival World Wrestling
Federation after a dispute with management.
Although WCW still has big-name wrestlers like Hulk Hogan
and Ric Flair on its roster, many of its most popular wrestlers are in their 40s and 50s,
and some have been sidelined with injuries.
The WWF, meanwhile, is posting its highest ratings ever on USA Network, thanks in part to
a younger stable of former WCW wrestlers who have become WWF stars in the past two years.
WCW's average 4.5 Nielsen Media Research rating for
Monday nights in 1998 edged out the WWF's 4.4 average on USA. But the WWF has built a
sizable lead since mid-1998, often more than doubling WCW's audience in recent weeks.
Last Monday, USA's WWF Raw Is War show pulled a
6.5 rating, while WCW Nitro generated a 2.7. USA averaged a 6.3 rating and 4.8
million homes for Raw in January, while TNT averaged a 3.1 rating and 2.3 million
homes with Nitro.
USA's Walker, Texas Ranger -- which runs
opposite WCW on Mondays from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. -- beat the first hour of Nitro last
week with a 3.3 rating. That same night, USA pulled a 7.3 rating during the last
quarter-hour of Raw, when Benoit and three other recent WCW defectors appeared in
WCW spokesman Alan Sharp said the company realizes that it
has a lot of work to do to win back fans.
"We're trying to create that exciting, compelling
programming that appeals to fans of all ages, but obviously, in the past few months, we
have not created the type of program that's attracted the largest majority of
viewers," he said.
Programmers at Turner recently cut Nitro by one hour
to a two-hour program, so it only competes directly with USA's WWF show from 9 p.m.
to 10 p.m. They also moved WCW Thunder on TBS Superstation to Wednesday from
Thursday, and that show no longer competes with WWF's Thursday-night show on United
Turner executives have made several personnel changes at
WCW in recent months. In September, Turner replaced WCW executive vice president Eric
Bischoff with Bill Busch. The next month, Turner recruited top WWF writers Vince Russo and
Russo and Ferrara scripted raunchy WCW shows featuring
female talent wrestling in mud and in evening gowns -- traditional WWF fare -- as soon as
they joined the company.
But the story lines were too racy, Sharp said.
"We're trying to appeal to fans of all ages but avoid content that's
offensive or likely to alienate viewers," he added.
Last month, WCW brought back writer Kevin Sullivan, who
helped WCW top the WWF's ratings in its early years as its lead "booker" --
the person who decides who wins and loses every match.
The move to cut back Russo's and Ferrara's
responsibilities angered Benoit and three other young WCW wrestlers -- Dean Malenko, Eddie
Guerrero and Perry Saturn -- who demanded that WCW either drop Sullivan or release them
from their contracts.
WCW released the four wrestlers the week after Benoit was
crowned WCW champ during a Jan. 30 pay-per-view event. The WWF signed the foursome
immediately, and they showed up the next week on Raw as "The Radicals."
"We cannot allow talent to dictate to management how
to run the company," Sharp said when asked why WCW released the wrestlers from their
Dave Meltzer, publisher of weekly newsletter Wrestling
Observer, said the defections portend a much bigger problem for WCW: The company has
relied too heavily on older talent, failing to develop enough younger wrestlers, and the
prospects for recovery don't look good.
"It's a complete disaster area," Meltzer
said. "WCW, based on the talent they had two years ago, would be so hot right now.
They misused that talent in favor of putting on 45-year-old guys over and over at the
exclusion of the younger guys."
WCW's older talent "jealously guard their
turf," not allowing younger talent to shine, prompting many wrestlers to walk across
the street to the WWF, Meltzer said.
Indeed, Benoit and the other recent defectors expressed
that sentiment during their recent contract negotiations with the WWF, said Jim Ross, WWF
senior vice president of talent relations and on-air announcer.
"All of those guys expressed to me that they felt like
they were not going to get a fair opportunity to be the stars they all wanted to be,"
Ross said. "They didn't want any guarantees that they were going to be stars.
They just wanted a fair opportunity to move to the next level."
Ross said the four wrestlers took pay cuts to join the WWF,
but they have "performance incentives" that could see them earn more money than
they did at WCW.
Sharp insisted that WCW does plan to put a bigger spotlight
on its younger talent, but the older wrestlers -- which include 55-year-old Terry Funk --
remain crucial to their product. "We're trying to create the superstars of
tomorrow while highlighting some of the biggest names in professional wrestling," he
While the WWF has five wrestlers over 40, WCW's roster
of talent over 40 includes Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Sting, Brett Hart, Lex Luger, Funk,
Hogan and Flair.
Bill Goldberg -- another 40-plus wrestler and one of
WCW's most popular characters -- severed a nerve in his arm when he put his fist
through a limousine window during a recent show. No date has been set for his return.
Two of the WWF's most popular wrestlers -- Steve
Austin and The Undertaker -- are also out with injuries. And Guerrero, one of the recent
WCW defectors, will be out for the next five weeks with an injury.
WWF's recent Royal Rumble PPV event featured
two wrestlers who quit WCW in recent years, Cactus Jack and Triple H, in the championship
match. The event drew a 1.6 buy rate, while WCW Starcade, its most recent PPV
event, pulled a 0.32.
How does WCW plan to make a comeback? Sharp said it will be
a long process, noting that the organization doesn't expect ratings to rebound
But he said WCW executives are looking forward to the
Westminster Dog Show, running on USA tonight (Feb. 14), as a good opportunity to win back
USA plans to push back Raw until 11 p.m. in order to
carry the dog show, and WCW ratings have increased in previous years when USA ran the dog
"We're looking at Monday's show as a good
opportunity to gain some foothold with our fans, and we look forward to a very exciting
show," Sharp said.
Busch and Brad Siegel, TBS Inc.'s president of
general-entertainment networks, who oversees WCW, both rejected interview requests.
Paul Armentano contributed to this report.
The smarter way to stay on top of the multichannel video marketplace. Sign up below.