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Wrestling in the mid-90s on television came in a number of forms. In the WWF, you had a programme like Monday Night Raw that was, for the time, very innovative in the way it presented storylines and angles. In WCW, you had a programme like WCW Saturday Night, that still very much felt like a throwback to a bygone era with squash matches aplenty. In ECW, you had a television programme that was so far from the playbook you'd be forgiven for looking at it and not recognising it as wrestling at all. But each bought a different thing to the table that in a lot of ways have gone away from modern day wrestling. Below, I will attempt to look at what each company did so right with their television and see how that could perhaps be replicated in 2015.
On thing to remember, a bit, at this stage, is that while we are talking about shows that (in the case of Raw and ECW Hardcore TV) were an hour long, both the WWF and WCW were producing a lot of weekly television. The WWF had Raw, Superstars, Mania and Action Zone, WCW had Saturday Night, Main Event, Pro and Worldwide. The bulk of it can be filed under “sydnicated” television that rarely contributed to major storylines. It's not a fair comparison to the WWE producing five hours of first run programming a week, but it is to underline that it's not as one sided as you think.
The Squash Match
A fascinating knock-on effect of the late 90s is the death of the squash match. There is a generation of wrestling fans right now who haven't sat through an hour of wrestling that was wall-to-wall one sided matches. Largely attributed to WCW Monday Nitro, these matches were seen as too predictable to an audience that was smartened up to it. In the mid 90s, Raw was usually all squashes barring one marquee match, Saturday Night likewise. With ECW, you'd probably get a more modern feel, with squashes saved for big names like 911 where they were necessary. Is there a home for squash matches on television in 2015? The honest answer is it's difficult to say. My hunch is no, but nobody has ever tried. Certainly, in a world (WWE) where Raw is filled week after week of talent exchanging victories a small addition of regular squash matches could certainly be beneficial. Could it work over three hours? That's another question.
It's not an understatement to say that each of the three companies handled promos quite differently. In the WWF, promo time was limited, usually, to a weekly King's Court segment. It made a lot of sense, as the company had only a handful of guys truly comfortable on promos – Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon. But many big names at the time – Lex Luger, Bret Hart, Owen Hart, Diesel, The 123 Kid and others would drift if they were left to their own devices on promos. Put them in the ring with an old hand like Jerry Lawler and, at the very least, they've got a holding hand to get through the segment and get the point across.
In WCW it was much the same. Although rather than 6-7 minute King's Court segment you were treated to the more traditional 1-2 minute interview. Where the WWF had Jerry Lawler, WCW had Mean Gene Okerlund, and absolute pro at this. If you couldn't regularly get your point across with Okerlund helping you along the way you had no chance.
ECW... now here's a different one! For ECW, it might have simply been a case that taping time restrictions meant that in ring promos weren't feesable, but you rarely saw them. You'll hear stories from guys about cutting promos into the early hours once the show was over. Promos in ECW were a simple as you like – just take a camera, put a wrestler in front of it and let them talk. It worked so well because the cast of guys they let talk regularly were all so good at it: Shane Douglas, Paul E. Dangerously, Cactus Jack, The Public Enemy. Beyond those guys you didn't hear from others quite so regularly. It was the ECW cliché “execentuate the positives, hide the negatives”. Those that could talk (and Douglas, Heyman and Jack were better than everyone baring Ric Flair in this era) talked a lot, those who couldn't, didn't. You never heard from Sabu, you never heard from Chris Benoit or Dean Malenko. Those guys shone in other areas.
If you ask a wrestling fan, who think they know a thing or two, about the biggest problem(s) in the WWE in 2015, and they don't mention scripted promos then they're not the wrestling expert they claim to be. Scripted promos is, in all liklihood, the biggest problem in the WWE, it has been for years. Just listen to Wade Keller or Dave Meltzer, hell or even Steve Austin himself, they'll all say it. The issue, in short, is that guys are being given pages of pre-written material. Not only does it not come from their own mind it also requires them to memorise things word-for-word. Would Steve Austin have been the great he became if his promos were written word for word? Would The Rock?
Now this is a real tricky one. A real tricky one. What I mean by pacing is the frequency of which acts appear on shows. On Raw, in particular, in the mid-90s, you could often go weeks without seeing your favourite acts. The hour long format, combined with the one match that matters per week meant that you didn't need to bring people on every show to fill it. Instead, you had your mid carders who would appear freqeuntly, but not always and, more importantly, your main event acts could be cycled in and out. Seen every few weeks so that when big pay per view events came around they were an attraction. In WCW, this was less the case, owing to a longer, two hour show and perhaps a roster that was in a huge period of transition.
ECW were artists at this, mind. Unlike Raw or Saturday Night, the make-up of an ECW show could change from one to the next. They might jump straight into a title match, they might open with 10 minutes of promo segments, they might spend the first half hour of the show recapping a feud. What they did so well (and really, it should be said, ECW Hardcore TV was lightyears ahead of either Raw or Saturday Night in 1994) was they would focus on individual characters on different shows. You might get a 15 minute medley about the Public Enemy, you might get a recap of the Sandman feud with Tommy Dreamer, you might get half an hour dedicated to Shane Douglas – highlighting his last few weeks, followed by a match, followed by a promo. When you've only got an hour fill, and you're willing to bill as fluid as they were, you could keep main guys rotated in and out of shows and they wouldn't be burned out on the audience.
Is that replicable in 2015? Can the WWE really afford to keep big names off of a three hour show? The answer, in all probabilty, is no. But the more the weeks go by, and the less Brock Lesnar appears, the more special he seems in relation to the rest of the roster.
I blogged about heel authority figures in wrestling here. Really, they just HAVE to go.
So What Can They Learn?
Well, it's tricky in the sense that, really, three hours is far too long for a weekly wrestling television program. I'm unsure if it's even possible for the WWE to produce great wrestling television anymore, certainly not for more than a few weeks. But what could the WWE, or indeed TNA, do with a two hour TV timeslot?
The first, without question, would be the reintroduction of squash matches. No, not to the volume you saw on Raw or WCW Saturday Night, but a couple each hour certainly couldn't hurt. At a time where wrestling seems to be incapable of booking wrestlers to beat each other in clean finishes, it would enable wrestles to get over key moves in an enviroment where they wouldn't be damaged by “creating an even match”.
The second, and this is mainly looking at the WWE, is ditching scripted promos. Whether WWE are shit scared of their talent going off the track I don't know, but scripted promos just aren't as effective. They don't sound authentic (some of the lines talent are given sound down-right awful) and they don't have the same feeling as a wrestler being able to get behind and say something they truly believe in. Hell, some of Steve Austin's best promos were in ECW – his remit from Paul Heyman “say how you feel”.
The third really applies from ECW Hardcore TV. Don't be afraid to mix up the format. TNA is as close to the ECW format now as it has been in over a decade. They tape things in a block, and their roster is smaller and in theory will be more fluid than in the past, with fewer wrestlers under longer term contracts. If TNA watched ECW from mid-1994 they see shows of all shapes and sizes, they'd learn that wrestling can be entertaining in a number of ways.
And to both companies, get rid of the heel authority figures. PLEASE!