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WRESTLING COLUMNS

WWF 90210
http://www.altwrestling.net
By William Parrish of Santa Cruz, CA

Sound the alarm! Not three weeks since the NWO's first in-the-flesh apearance on WWF(E) TV, Smackdown drew one of its worst ratings ever, fan interest is starting to sag, and locker room morale is in the dung heap. In this myopic age of wrestling, that can mean the onset of only one thing.

Panic.

I'm exaggerating slightly here, and Vince McMahon and company should at least take solace in the fact that the NWO's arrival has coincided with a short-term business increase. You can read the "February Business Comparisons" in this week's Wrestling Observer Newsletter to get the details, but suffice it to say that the WWF's numbers have been up across the board -- lackluster ratings notwithstanding. Also, I would be surprised if WrestleMania didn't deliver yet another 2.0 buy rate, even if the hype for the World Title match has been attrocious. Stephanie McMahon and Triple-H have effectively buried Chris Jericho's drawing power in a deep-sea vent, but the monumental appeal of Rock vs. Hogan should still have enough legs to attract the biggest PPV audience in the last year. That said, the WWF bases its day-to-day operations disporportionately on the latest TV ratings, so I would be surprised if the management team in Stamford isn't hard at work discussing possible Smackdown and RAW hot-shot scenarios as we speak.

Because, I mean, The Rock's return after a two-week lay-off and a dramatic injury angle only yields a 3.4 rating" A THREE-point-FOUR" Three. Point. Freaking. FOUR"

The phrase "I told you so" immediately comes to mind, which is probably why Vince McMahon gave the impression on yesterday's "Byte This" that he wishes fans like us would shut our pie holes, smash our keyboards to smithereens, and never bother him with smart-alecky columns like this one ever again. And that was his mood before he got word of the ratings calamity. Right now, the guy really has to feel like the weight of the world is upon him, and even though he takes so much pride in having buffer shoulders than any of his wrestlers, it's going to be an awfully tough burden for him to bear.

Unfortunately, Vince has no other choice other than to bear it, because he got himself into this mess by going against the expressed sentiments of almost everyone on his management staff and roster. The NWO promised to be nothing more than a short-term fix in the first place, and even the short-term...well, it's coming up short.

To most of us, it's no great revelation that the NWO never had a chance of ushering in another boom period. I'm sure McMahon realized that, too, and he obviously had his own fair share of initial reservations about the group's potential effectiveness. Still, he had to be expecting at least somewhat of a sustained ratings surge. Instead, Team WWF is in the midst of a very confusing time, and ever since Friday afternoon, Vince has probably been sitting in his office, scratching his head looking like Buff Bagwell working on the Rubik's Cube.

In hindsight, where Vince erred in his assessment of the NWO's latent drawing power was that he failed to grasp the larger picture. He is a wrestling promoter, after all, which means he avoids studying history about as scrupulously as my ex-girlfriend avoids the dinner check, but that propensity may really come back to haunt him this time around.

Don't get me wrong: I won't ruminate over the standard line about how Hogan, Nash, and Hall have a proven history of selfish and destructive behavior. Nor am I going to dwell on the fact that almost every single U.S. boom period (early-'80s World Class, mid-late-'80s WWF, '98-'01 WWF, etc.) was forged by an innovative concept and fresh stars -- not by recycling ones from a previous era. Both of those are great arguments, but they've also been beaten to death, and the WWF obviously has no intention of heeding them.

Instead, I'm going to doff my "pseudo-wrestling historian" cap for the time being and approach the WWF's dilemma from a completely different slant. One, in fact, that might even be more amenable to Vince McMahon. After all, Vince fancies his company as more of a soap operatic entertainment franchise (hence the old "wrestling is a soap opera for men" catch-phrase) than as a traditional pro wrestling promotion, so, for the moment, that's the slant I'm going to take.

Much like a typical pro wrestling promotion, the standard life-span for almost all successful soap operas is that they'll initially flourish based on a unique theme or premise -- coupled with a number of fresh-faced and charismatic young stars -- before their audience tires of the same characters and constant storyline rehashes. For example, "Beverly Hills: 90210" was the the hottest soap opera on television in the early-mid-'90s, but, not surprisingly, it steadily declined in popularity during its final few years of existence. During the nosedive, the show's producers tried everything they could could to recapture "90210's" previous faddishness. They introduced new cast members, they recycled successful storylines from the past, and, as a last resort, they even reinstated characters from the glory days.

In its final year, the show brought back Luke "Dylan" Perry -- one of the four biggest stars from its zenith -- with the idea that he would spike the ratings and lure back lost members of the audience. Much to the surprise of everyone involved, ratings actually plummeted when "Dylan" returned, and the program was off the air by the next season.

Forget for a moment that I just marked myself as one of the world's only members of the "WWF-Beverly Hills: 90210 crossover demographic" (though, from reading the Observer over the years, I've gathered that Dave Meltzer's with me on that). In a roundabout way, what held true for Luke Perry also fundamentally holds true for the NWO, Val Venis, the Godfather, Goldust, and Mr. Perfect. While I'm happy for the latter group of guys that they got another break, let's face it: There's no better way to communicate to your audience that your product is passe than to start reintroducing characters that abandoned the show because they were stale in the first place.

To put it another way: Nearly everything Hogan, Hall, and Nash have done thus far has created the impression that the WWF is in re-runs. The match-ups with Steve Austin and The Rock may be novel in and of themselves, but the "invasion" storyline has been done to death, the NWO troika is as burnt-out as ever, and there's no longer anything special about angles involving hammers, cinderblocks, and car crashes. The NWO is like a soap opera character who's already been involved in five different "drug addiction" storylines and three different love triangles, yet the show continues to center around her. The show's ratings are half of what they used to be, and almost everyone who still watches the program is tired of the character, but she's still a "main eventer" because she has a reputation and established connections to the producers.

Granted, the WWF-soap opera comparison has its limits, particuarly because the Fed is still such a live events-driven entity. Still, in both the pro wrestling and the soap opera genres, evidence that the company should constantly create new stars and experiment with new concepts is manifest. The "Attitude" boom period is over and there's no use trying to salvage it, and the more the company tries to recapture the past, the more they're bound to regress. It doesn't matter that the NWO had never been a part of the Fed, because the audience base burned out on it over three years ago. In effect, the WWF needs to become a new soap opera with several brand-new cast members.

All things considered, I don't completely fault McMahon for taking a chance on the NWO. They had been absent from the limelight for a while, and there was no way of knowing they would seem so stale and so trite. Still, after three weeks, I think it's safe to say that the WWF should already be making plans to abandon NWO Titanic -- or at least to rebuild the ship -- instead of waiting until the propellers are sticking up in the air.

So, while the WWF remains vital, and I'm sure business will at least remain strong -- even on the current course -- for at least a couple more months, after that, well...

There's a good reason why 90210 only airs in re-runs right now.
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