Can you believe that Vince McMahon, the highly successful wrestling promoter and owner of WWE, and media mogul and billionaire Ted Turner were actually friends and business associates once upon a time?
Turner owned TBS – also known as ‘The Superstation’ – which was a feed of his independent television station based in Atlanta, and was distributed throughout the United States by satellite to cable and satellite subscribers.
The Superstation mainly showed films and classic TV series, and would eventually expand its schedule to include sports such as baseball, basketball and wrestling.
Sports entertainment would become a regular fixture on the schedule, and Georgia Championship Wrestling drew high viewing figures to the network, and contributed to the growth of the station in the 1980s. During this period, the Superstation would also show programming from WWE.
However the once-strong working relationship between McMahon and Turner would soon dissolve.
McMahon has started showing syndicated WWE programming on the rival USA Network, and because of this, Turner decided to drop McMahon’s programmes from his channel, and instead showed programming from WWE’s main competitor at the time: Jim Crockett Promotions.
McMahon decided to stay on the USA Network which helped the fortunes of WWE grow with national exposure of the product, spearheaded by McMahon’s hand-picked flag bearer and World champion Hulk Hogan.
Hogan would eventually lead the company into the very first Wrestlemania in 1985, which proved to be the foundation of bringing WWE into the mainstream.
In the meantime, Jim Crockett Promotions was struggling to keep up with the boom of WWE, and in 1988 Turner was bought a majority stake in the promotion, and in return created World Championship Wrestling.
Turner would comment on an edition of The Monday Night Wars series on the WWE Network that:
“The reason that I got involved from an ownership standpoint was that Mr Crockett was having a very difficult time competing with Mr Mahon. And I had a vision that eventually we would be successful with”.
Vince McMahon would respond on the same episode:
“I wasn’t really concerned with Ted when he bought Crockett Promotions. Ted called me up to say that he was in the rasslin’ business“.
In the early 1990s there was a slight-but-gradual downward turn across the wrestling industry as a whole. However WWE remained the number one promotion in North America.
A refresh was needed for WWE TV offerings, in particular their offerings on the USA Network. Prime Time Wrestling was an established Monday Night fixture on the channel for WWE had gone through a number of rapid format changes with the show ranging from a highlight package show, through to studio based format, and panel-based content.
Towards the end of Prime Time Wrestling’s run on USA, there were some standout memorable moments such as the WWE TV debut of Ric Flair in 1991, Mr Perfect’s face turn prior to the Survivor Series in 1992, and the unveiling of the Steiner Brothers joining WWE in one of the final editions of the show.
McMahon had been toying with the idea of doing a live weekly wrestling show for a while, and eventually one of the longest episodic TV shows in the world was born: Monday Night Raw debuted live from the Manhattan Center in New York City on 11th January 1993 with a fresh format of competitive feature matches and segments.
Raw set the tone for a new style of a wrestling TV show, however the increased popularity of Raw being live every week would eventually become a financial burden for WWE.
The only option to keep Raw going was to pre-record some of their shows. The trend for Raw would be broadcast one live show a month, and then after the live show pre-record the next three or four editions. As the Monday Night War unfolded, this would prove to be a disadvantage for WWE.
The fortunes in WCW would take a turn when a highly ambitious TV announcer named Eric Bischoff joined the company in 1991. It should be noted that, a few months prior to Bischoff joining WCW, he had a screen audition for WWE, but was unsuccessful.
It had become apparent to Bischoff that WCW was mis-managed since Turner purchased Jim Crockett Promotions in 1988. The company were looking for someone who could help turn WCW into a TV product, as opposed to a live event one. Eventually Bischoff would be given the role as Executive Producer for WCW, and he was tasked with raising the standards of WCW programming.
In early 1995, Bischoff had a meeting with Turner to pitch an idea to the billionaire relating to a licensing deal between WCW and Star TV in China. Bischoff proposed to Turner that this would be a good opportunity to increase revenue, and to introduce WCW programming into a big international TV market.
Turner raised a question in this meeting which would be a big turning point in the fortunes for WCW. Turner’s question was nothing to do with the expansion into the Chinese market, or Murdoch, or any licensing deals.
Turner simply asked Bischoff;
“What do we need to do compete with Vince?”
Bischoff, who featured on the Monday Night War DVD released in 2002, commented that he wasn’t prepared for that question. He spontaneously replied: “Give me prime time!”
Turner looked at the President of TNT, who was present in the meeting, and looked back at Bischoff, and then once again to the TNT President and said;
“Scott, give Eric two hours every Monday night on TNT”.
Bischoff left the meeting with a huge dilemma on his hands with what he was going to do with two primetime hours he was just given on Monday nights by Turner and the TNT President.
This was a huge gamble for Bischoff, as WCW had predominately been on TV on Saturday nights, and WWE was pretty much established on primetime TV on Monday nights.
Fans and media critics raised their concerns that having two similar TV wrestling TV shows on air at the same time would water down the product in a TV ratings battle.
At the time there were only a small number of wrestling fans tuning into Raw already, and WCW’s new primetime TV show would only take a small amount of the WWE’s audience, further reducing the overall wrestling viewership.
Bischoff was fully aware that for WCW to have any kind of success, they would have to be different, create a new fanbase of wrestling TV viewers who did not watch wrestling on Monday nights, and not just take away viewers who already watched Raw, as their loyal fanbase had already been round for some time. Bischoff sat down and made the following list;
- “They’re taped, I’m going to be live.“
- “They’re targeting a specific demographic, I’ll target a different one.“
- “They’re very animated and cartoon-esque, I’m going to be very reality based“.
Once the elements of the show were laid out by Bischoff, a name was needed. TNT showed classic action movies at the time on Saturday nights under a programming strand called ‘Saturday Nitro’. To fit in with the channel’s branding, the new wrestling show was simply called ‘WCW Monday Nitro’.
Now that the new wrestling show had a name, Bischoff held several press conferences announcing that WCW Monday Nitro would be going head-to-head with WWE’s Monday Night Raw, and made bold statements saying that WCW would eventually emerge victorious.
The gauntlet was laid down for what would become known as simply, the Monday Night War.