A Three Year Search Meets its End
On a day that harkened back to the debut of TNA Impact last June on Fox Sports Network, TNA presented its first SpikeTV show Saturday night for the first time on SpikeTV. The show was replayed Monday night at 12 a.m., though not the highlight of this year’s Monday Night War reincarnation, where it became the first professional wrestling show to air nationally since the cancellation of WCW Nitro on TNT and subsequent sale of the company in 2001.
The show, which featured a match between Rhyno and Jeff Hardy as well as highlights of a title change in Canada between Jeff Jarrett and Raven and the debut of the group formerly known as the Dudley Boyz, was more than just reminiscent of a previous milestone in the company’s journey. For a wrestling startup continuously set back by a challenging, disorganized, and unprofitable trek forward, it was the biggest such milestone for a company that was, by most accounts, moribund from day one. And it is the closest the company has come to creating a wrestling promotion in America that can compete with WWE.
Four years ago, when Time Warner decided to sell WCW and Jerry Jarrett first considered a return to promoting and booking professional wrestling, it was a lot easier to have a positive outlook on the business. Even with the lamentable and unsure times of the death of WCW, it was still much easier to have a positive outlook on the future of the business. The WWF was very profitable and produced a good product; WCW, even at its creative worst, maintained still respectable cable ratings and one could reasonably believe that if only the company had a different direction and a star, it could regain a position of prominence and competition to the WWF.
A year later, when Jerry Jarrett presented the unique concept of a pay-for-product wrestling company (in a way to get around the tricky idea of getting a TV deal, which seemed impossible), the mood surrounding professional wrestling had soured considerably. When WCW was sold, the millions of fans who supported the company suddenly were without an alternative to the Vince McMahon vision of wrestling that once again dictated the pace of the industry. The loss of these fans was a capstone on the tragic legacy of WCW: they had garnered a group of loyal fans, they disrespected their fans, they made ignorant decisions, and slowly, they lost their fans, many of whom at no point would ever invest time in watching the WWF product, even when it was the only thing left. But the WWF had problems of its own, in many cases related to its own poor choices. The Invasion angle with WCW they booked went bust; they ended the marketability of their biggest star Steve Austin, all as the tip of an iceberg that represented an incompetent tact towards booking. It was easy to be depressed that spring, the spring where even WrestleMania was a failure.
So Jerry Jarrett’s idea was taken with a perhaps appropriate degree of skepticism. What it was that drove Jarrett, a former Memphis-area booker and promoter who then lived comfortably as owner of a construction business, chose the more stressful, less predictable road is still in many ways a mystery. Still, he and a group of others sold the idea to iNDemand. He secured the PPV provider, a group of talent young and old, and slightly over $1 million from HealthSouth.
And in weeks, the company was met with its first challenges: everything from booking problems, to the money being spent entirely, to a scandal with a PPV consultant. Within a few months, the company was on its last legs and sure to die. Somehow, Jarrett and his son Jeff, the promotion’s lead star, maintained optimism in both the strategy of running strictly on PPV and the idea of starting a new wrestling company at all.
Whether a naïve belief or not, the company never did die that winter. Dixie Carter, the company’s current president, sold her father Bob Carter on the idea that TNA Wrestling could be profitable for his business—a relatively small utilities company called Panda Energy—and he invested in the company.
Varied booking methods—and indeed bookers—were employed in the following years. But, good or bad, it became clear that there was little way for TNA to make a profit doing small weekly live events and PPV events to a small group of hardcore or deep-pocketed fans (watching TNA weekly came at a cost of $520 annually).
Jarrett was never totally weaned off the idea that the company couldn’t be profitable on PPV, but others were convinced enough that it became policy to search for a deal. With this switch in ideology came the domino effect that produced the debut of TNA on SpikeTV. The company negotiated aggressively with WGN Superstation, a small cable network out of Chicago, and came close to getting on their station (the deal was supposed to be done and the first TV show was booked), with a possible chance of it being head-to-head with RAW. But the deal fell through, and the company was back to square one. The company produced two years of weekly PPVs in what was described on the debut SpikeTV Impact as “relative obscurity.”
Weeks passed and an opportunity to negotiate with Fox Sports Network came to fruition. They got far, but the deal was not without complication. Fox Sports was cold on the idea, in the first place, and the nature of their network would mean that the show would often be preempted. In the end, TNA was able to work out a deal, but at high weekly paid programming price. They switched to a more TV-friendly venue in Orlando, FL and switched to less frequent PPVs, much like WWE. Remarkably, Panda had remained with the company throughout their search for the deal—by that point, losing almost $20 million with the project.
The show debuted June 4, 2004 on FSN and was, beyond the degree that could have been expected, a resounding success. The show drew a solid rating for a debut on FSN and was acclaimed by people who watched it.
But in the weeks that followed, only a limited amount of success could be ultimately realized with the program. The show fell into a pattern of squash matches and failed to build on their original ratings. Both parties unenthusiastic, TNA chose to terminate the contract at the end of a one-year period, in hopes of negotiating either with WGN again or other networks.
The Spike negotiations opened up and progressed quickly. Doug Herzog, the Spike president, was not necessarily against having professional wrestling in the aftermath of WWE moving back to USA (a contract negotiation which he terminated because of the price Vince McMahon was asking), but he didn’t see what the advantage would be of adding TNA. Again, they negotiated a contract that would involve paying for the slot.
And we come to today. A day that’s reminiscent of the not-so-distant past, yet one step forward. Will TNA succumb to the same problems that stifled their success before, or can they capitalize on the opportunity and create the first competitive marketplace for wrestling since the death of WCW.