Is WWE “Tough Enough” to get with the program?
Vol. III Ed. XLII
Written by: Dr. Trevor Hunnicutt
June 29, 2004
At the 6/22 WWE investor’s conference call, after the rejoicing of glowing financial reports, WWE President Linda McMahon announced that the return of “Tough Enough” was imminent. The conference call was held on the third anniversary of the pilot episode of the show.
The premise of the show those three years ago was simple. WWE could capitalize on the booming market for reality television with shows like CBS’ “Survivor” hitting its stride, and at the same time draw a unique fanbase through the MTV market and get two good developmental stars at the end.
It sounded ideal at the time, but besides significantly high ratings due to popularity in the wrestling community (season 1 avg. – 2.06 cable rating; season 2 avg. – 1.65; season 3 avg. – 1.44 based on our records), the show hasn’t been terribly successful at any of those initial theoretical goals. There is no way to be sure but it’s safe to assume that Tough Enough did not draw a significant new base of fans and although many of the talents they’ve welcomed through the system have amounted to little. You’ll see the specific cases, but first I’ll discuss the basic problems with the show that will still likely be issues in the eventual return of the show, at about the same time the Ultimate Fighting Championships plan to start a reality show on SpikeTV meant to attract new fans to its often-enjoyable but seldom-profitable PPV shows.
At this point, WWE is at a somewhat desperate stage. As the quality of the Monday night RAW show has tapered off from a May Sweeps high, and the Smackdown brand is suffering in many ways, WWE is having to reevaluate how it does business again, and a push of the restart button may be just what will do the trick. However, the main problem WWE faces today is the same one that they faced in years prior and failed to address until the problem became chronic. That problem is lack of talent. How has WWE responded to this key issue? WWE has responded by scaling back the budget and breadth of the developmental program to the current form of Ohio Valley Wrestling and limited-reach outreach to the amateur wrestling and college football circuit. They’ve also responded by entrusting the main event position on one of the big PPVs to someone other than Shawn Michaels, Triple H (16 straight PPV main events), The Undertaker, or The Rock only twice since 2002, at the 2003 Royal Rumbles and WrestleManias featuring Kurt Angle vs. Benoit and then Angle/Lesnar, only because the matches guaranteed better quality than the Triple H title defense (a Steiner DQ and then a flat Booker T feud and match).
The company has done remarkably little to help all but a few chosen wrestlers, an eggs in one basket mistake highlighted when Brock Lesnar leaving and a few other events led to the complete collapse of Smackdown. Ever since the Monday Night War between WCW Monday Nitro and WWF RAW began, the wrestling business has never been the same. When the advent of television finally demonstrated the vast power it wielded, it was an inevitability that the wrestling business would never be the same old business. The product is much faster-paced today than it ever was in the past. The territory system that once existed to feed the system no longer exists. Therefore, wrestling can’t operate the same way it once did. It has to create the system that will fuel fads that cycle wrestlers in and out of popularity at a steady speed. WWE should dominate the “developmental” scene in this country, but in reality, their only developmental territory, OVW, is an afterthought. Until this problem is fixed, Tough Enough and any small-scale, limited-scope system will fail to even make a dent in the system.
The winners of the Tough Enough competition (and people who ended up contracted eventually) were Maven Huffman, Nidia Guenard, Christopher Nowinski, Linda Miles, Jackie Gayda, John Hennigan, and Matthew Cappotelli. Two others (Jamie and Josh Matthews) ended up being hired in other capacities. Huffman was cast as the athletic up-and-comer from Tough Enough and was not as successful as was hoped in different attempts, and is now a regular on Sunday Night Heat. Guenard was used in a number of capacities as well, paired up for the longest as Jamie Noble’s trailer-trash valet and now doing nothing much as a wrestler in the women’s division on RAW. Nowinski was put in the tailor-made gimmick of Harvard elitist and showed a good deal of charisma in the role but was green in the ring and his feuds never got off the ground. He was tragically injured and suffers from post-concussion syndrome, which retired Bret Hart after an errant kick from Bill Goldberg. Miles was used as a wrestler briefly before being shuffled around into a gimmick with Doug and Danny Basham as a dominatrix named Shaniqua. She was moved out of the role mainly due to being unpopular in the locker room for having an attitude. Gayda was used as a wrestler also until she proved to be awful and was involved in one of the worst matches of the year. She is now a valet for Rico. Hennigan has been in OVW most of the time since coming out of Tough Enough where he proved to be an awful wrestler as well. He was briefly given the role of Eric Bischoff’s assistant Johnny Nitro until he was written out a few weeks ago. Cappotelli has made progress, also in OVW, and was scheduled for a push as Cruiserweight champion before being injured.
Those who never made it to WWE but were able to get bookings on the indy scene, including Paulina from season one who had a stint with NWA:TNA and Scott, one of the more memorable finalists from season three, who was the hottest ticket on the indy scene for about three days, all share one thing in common, they aren’t prominent anywhere. The success they had from the television show couldn’t be parlayed into successful careers on the indy scene. Rumblings of the possibilities of hiring some of those who had been eliminated, like season three’s Jonah, never materialized, and he disappeared from the indy scene after a short spurt of popularity.
The lack of success achieved by talent pulled from Tough Enough stems from the fact that the pool from which they draw is suffocated by the same means that their company struggles. In essence, the market for wrestling is poor, which has affected both WWE and the underlying system that was depended upon in years past when WCW, WWF, and on a lesser lever ECW competed.
The basis for the extremely popular reality show “American Idol” is the idea that there is a great amount of undiscovered talent in America, who with a little help, can be tremendous, money-earning talents, and draw television ratings on the way there. In the sense that the show draws great ratings consistently, they are successful. But the byproduct of the search, including the winners of the competition are startlingly short-lived. Tough Enough draws from an exceedingly small base of people with some potential (look, natural charisma, and athleticism), draws good ratings on the way, and then the result is similarly mediocre. The show searches for a miracle that isn’t out there.
I’m not opposed to the show as a fan or critic. There are many benefits to the show if WWE follows up on the opportunities that they are presented by the show. However, it is important for WWE to realize the limitations of the formula and the true problem that needs solving.
Before I leave you with your thoughts on this issue, I will leave you with a larger question with which to frame your discussion of the developmental system. This quote is from Evan Ginsburg, write of the Wrestling Then & Now Newsletter. “You know, I just find that so many of the WWE wrestlers are technically sound, physically superb, but just cookie-cutter. Just missing the charisma some of the old school guys had. These guys can do 37 high spots, but I wouldn’t trade them for one Fred Blassie.”
WWE Great American Bash thoughts: With a weak lineup and no compelling reason to purchase the show, it is necessary for WWE to nonetheless present a good product for the fans who fork up the $34.95 to see the show. I often hear people complain about the exorbitant prices at the cinema—often in the range of $8-$11 per ticket at big theatres, counterbalancing the cost of erecting monstrosities of theatres in the middle of deserts and the price of tickets. WWE is no Hollywood, and three hours of Lord of the Rings is obviously a better pick than some of the shows that WWE can throw out for more than triple the price. As reliable and dependable as we have been to WWE as far as their PPVs go, a breaking point has been reached. The day of bad PPVs with a bloody main event, or boring PPVs with overrated main events being tolerated are coming to an end and with a steady pace, WWE is hacking away at its most loyal fanbase, guaranteeing a moribund product. They’ve brought out every business trick to balance the books in the end, but obviously the employees at the other end of the cuts won’t tolerate it forever and the trick is up. Instead of giving fans a good show, in thanks of their continued support, they gave them the Great American Bash, which on a historical level sullied the name of the classic, but as far as the current product goes, damaged it irrecoverably. The show ranks with the worst PPVs ever.
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