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WRESTLING COLUMNS

A Game Plan for NWA TNA
February 4, 2002 - by Todd Martin

NWA TNA has had a rocky first year. They have had inconsistent programming, and haven't really been able to establish a clear identity. Most importantly, all indications are the company is not even approaching the weekly buy rate it needs to be profitable. That said, the promotion is not without strengths. A number of NWA TNA workers have shown tremendous promise as workers and as stars. I have been particularly impressed at various points by AJ Styles, Jerry Lynn, Ron Killings, Amazing Red, Low Ki and Elix Skipper. TNA has been able to utilize many stars of the past and in doing so is attempting to reach the audience that WWE has turned off so drastically the past few years. TNA is definitely not pointed in the right direction, but it has building blocks that could be put together to create a product pointed in the right direction. Here are 10 steps that NWA TNA can take to create a successful promotion:


1) Figure out what you do better than WWE, and emphasize that. Figure out what WWE is doing wrong, and emphasize that too. TNA is not going to succeed if it is viewed as a second rate WWE. That is what it is doing with its current direction. There is a lot the WWE is doing wrong. TNA needs to try to do a better job at those things, and it will then provide an alternative to WWE, as opposed to a "B" rate WWE. TNA needs to tell its fans why it is better than the WWE right now. Have Mike Tenay talk about how you don't have to see the owner's daughter all over the TV, or how you don't get a bunch of lame comedy vignettes with NWA TNA. Call WWE out for portraying necrophilia, or using HLA as a cheap promotional tactic. There are a lot of people disenchanted with WWE, and if you convince them NWA TNA is better, you can attempt to pick up a chunk of that audience. That is what Eric Bischoff did when Nitro started in 1995, and it worked very well. Establish a unique identity for the promotion, and take pride in that identity. ECW did not necessarily create the niche I would have created, as it was too violent for my liking, but it created that identity and believed so firmly in it that the fans couldn't help but do the same. All the WWE mistakes over the past two years make it easier for TNA to create its own niche. Some of the most basic fundamentals of wrestling booking would differentiate TNA from WWE. To begin with, have guys cut serious promos. Don't have them do goofy comedy or try to be cool heels. Have them cut old fashioned "I'm going to kick your ass" promos that adds heat to the product and realism. WWE handed TNA Raven, and he's one of the best people in the world at delivering that sort of interview. Konnan is a fantastic interview. Ron Killings and Christopher Daniels have shown the potential for that sort of interview as well. Figure out who can really talk, and give them the stick. Create logical storylines. WWE doesn't follow any of its storylines through, and if TNA focused on creating an air-tight show every week that is devoid of any semblance of a logical flaw, it can start to get its fans invested in the storylines. These are just examples, and TNA can elect to emphasize different factors. However, it needs to decide what it does best, and then run with that.

2) Figure out what audience you're aiming for. On one hand, TNA is aiming for an older audience by bringing back the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Nikita Koloff and the Road Warriors. On the other, it is producing a style of television that is clearly aimed towards teenagers. A good product will provide something for a number of different audiences. A bad product will provide something to turn off a number of different audiences. That is what TNA is doing right now. The new audience doesn't want to see old guys that they don't know having boring matches. The old audience doesn't want illogical booking and 40 angles a show. Once NWA TNA knows who it is chiefly marketing towards, it can then try to attract other groups without compromising the core product. When it doesn't know what its core product is, there is a tendency to have no promotional direction.

3) Get a new top babyface and champion. That doesn't mean that Jeff Jarrett shouldn't get a push. He's a solid talent and is one of TNA's most well known stars. He should have a high spot, but he shouldn't have the top spot. It's very similar to Triple H and Undertaker in WWE. Fans don't think of Jarrett as "A" talent, they think of him as "B" talent. That's part of why he did so poorly as a headliner for WCW. The fans never have and never will accept Jarrett as a headliner. He doesn't have the charisma, particularly as a babyface. In order for TNA to get momentum, it has to have a star that its fans believe is better than anyone in WWE. That's not Jarrett. There are a lot of choices as to who to build around. I think Killings and Styles are the best choices, but regardless of who they choose, they have to get beyond Jarrett as champion. The unfortunate problem is that much like WWE, TNA has all sorts of political and family alliances. It's going to be hard to convince Jeff Jarrett, Jerry Jarrett or Vince Russo that Jeff needs a more supplemental role. Hopefully they will pick up on this eventually and start to build around someone else. It's very hard to create a fresh product built around top stars who aren't fresh.

4) Dump Vince Russo. I don't buy for one minute he isn't involved in the creative process. His fingerprints are all over the product. And that is a big problem. Vince Russo does not have clue one about what professional wrestling is. He does Vince Russo television really well. But his idea of professional wrestling destroys the foundation of the business, even at its most successful. I am firmly convinced that Vince Russo has done more to destroy professional wrestling in less than 10 years than anyone else in the history of the century old business. This is not the sort of person you want involved in your promotion in any capacity, and the flaws in his vision of wrestling are present in the TNA product right now. A lot of the product is quite entertaining. The show opening interaction between Russo and Tenay towards the end of December was compelling television. So was the Tenay-Schiavone interaction this past week. The problem is that these segments don't build up future matches. The top stars of the show aren't even wrestlers. Mike Tenay is not a top babyface. He is an announcer. Even if he is needed to do the mic work for the anti-Russo troops, he should have someone else by his side every single time, getting that guy over. Likewise, Russo needs to be getting other people over. But he isn't. The unquestioned top heel of the promotion is Vince Russo. All the angles flow through him and all the wrestlers are either fighting against him or fighting for him. He's not a manager, he's a McMahon. He's more concerned with his own ego than with the NWA TNA product. It is his view that wrestling will never be as successful as it was when he was working for the WWF, and that sort of defeatist attitude isn't going to help a fledgling promotion. He's not even a wrestling fan. He recently remarked on a radio interview that he doesn't watch WWE wrestling, and there's no way he would watch wrestling if it meant missing "Everybody Loves Raymond." Moreover, he isn't even a good television character. His promos are average, he has no idea how to build up matches, and he has a tendency to bury the product. No good can come from having Vince Russo around, and they need to get rid of him. Traditionalism vs. new wave is an okay top storyline, even if is somewhat passť following the NWO and DX. However, that is a lot different from Vince Russo Friends vs. Vince Russo Enemies, which is what the product is right now. There is a formula for how to book professional wrestling that has been tried and true for decades. No one as influential in the creative process as Vince Russo has ever had less of a grasp of how to act on that formula. So keep the book the hell away from him!

5) Surprises cannot be the focus of the show. There is only a finite number of people you can bring back as surprises. People enjoy seeing their old favorites. It is a way to make the show exciting. However, it is not the foundation of any show. The storylines and feuds need to advance to build long term interest. Surprises are a short term remedy, but until the focus is fully on the guys you know will be there and not on those who might be there, the show will never pick up real steam. The constant flow of surprises also sends the subliminal message to fans that the regular NWA TNA performers aren't good enough. TNA doesn't have enough faith in them to focus on them, and instead tries to get you to watch by focusing on surprise guests. The surprise guests don't put anyone over, and the result is that the potential stars of the group never get over. TNA is clearly booking to get a reaction from the internet on Wednesday nights, rather than to build up long term programs. It's WCW syndrome all over again. Why are the lessons of that promotion so hard to digest? TNA ought to use surprise guests from time to time in order to create intrigue, but it should by and large advertise the most important performers on any given show. If they are big enough stars and are tied sufficiently into the storylines, they will help do better buy rates. If they aren't, then using them as a surprise in a focal point just disappoints the fans that ordered the show anyway.

6) Stop referring to the demise of WCW and the decline in the popularity of pro wrestling. No one wants to watch a TV show that constantly reminds them the product is dying. Baseball fans didn't want to listen to announcers talk about a strike when a strike was approaching last year, and wrestling fans don't want to hear about how wrestling is dying. TNA needs to be presented as hip, and as something better. There is a very limited audience of hardcore wrestling fans who will support wrestling no matter what. They enjoy hearing shoot comments about what happened to WCW. But the goal of TNA needs to be drawing a bigger audience than that. That bigger audience isn't going to come when TNA constantly rubs it in your face that they are a minor league product comprised of the lesser remnants of a dead promotion that WWE didn't even want. That's not my framing of their promotion; that's their own framing. If the people in charge of your creative direction, like Vince Russo, doubt whether the business will even exist in a year, they shouldn't be booking. The people in charge should have complete confidence that what they are doing is going to succeed, and if they do the fans will follow suit. WCW didn't die because wrestling doesn't work as an entertainment form. WCW died because the people in charge made countless mistakes that were obvious to everyone involved. If TNA avoids those mistakes then there are no parallels that can be made between TNA and WCW.

7) Emphasize the X Division. The X Division was the strength of the show last year. Since then, they have done a good job of defining better who the X Division wrestlers are. The problem is, they don't have lengthy matches against each other any more. When Jeff Jarrett was doing radio interviews hyping up TNA last year, he emphasized that the 2 hour no commercial timeslot gave TNA flexibility to have longer matches if desired. They have given up on that, however, ever since right around the time Russo became an "on-air performer." Matches are the backbone of wrestling. Have excellent matches every week with Amazing Red, AJ Styles, Jerry Lynn, Kid Kash, Low Ki, Elix Skipper, Christopher Daniels and company. Exciting lightweight wrestlers is one of TNA's strengths. Take advantage of that! Don't stick these guys into tag team matches with either of the Harris twins. TNA doesn't have to structure itself like Ring of Honor. However, it ought to take advantage of the great wrestlers it has, and the best way to do that is a strong focus on the X division, and the X division title.

8) Put together matches that have the potential to be good. The aspect of NWA TNA that most resembles WCW at the end is the way they throw together matches without any understanding of how to book professional wrestling. Professional wrestling is not a sitcom where you throw together all sorts of different "characters" and then have them interact in different situations. Wrestling is about creating a group of heels that the crowd dislikes, and a group of faces that the crowd roots for. They don't have to be simplistic cartoon characters, but they do have to clearly defined. You then match them up against each other with an eye for making entertaining matches that people will pay to see. Paul Heyman was always very good at this in ECW, in terms of hiding people's weaknesses and creating meaningful feuds. Wrestling has a place for entertaining characters who cannot wrestle particularly well. However, you have to be careful with them so you don't have a series of bad matches. On last week's show they had matches featuring David Flair vs. Jerry Lynn, Mike Sanders vs. Ron Killings, and AJ Styles vs. Larry Zbyszko. These are matches that didn't even have the potential of being good, and in making them, they squandered the talents of Lynn, Killings and Styles. More attention needs to be paid to who they match up. As Dave said on the last TNA report, Low Ki should never be in the ring with Brian Lee. TNA needs to set its wrestlers up for success in the ring, not doom them for failure. Not every match clicks, but there are some matches that clearly will not click. Those matches need to be avoided, unless they serve a clear purpose. There are people involved with TNA that should have a really good sense for this sort of thing, like Jerry Jarrett and Mike Tenay. They need to say something when the idea is proposed for Ron Harris vs. Amazing Red.

9) Create a sense of order. The shows consistently feel exceedingly anarchic. It doesn't seem as if anyone knows exactly what is going on, and the show has a feeling of chaos. Obviously, this is to an extent a conscious decision by TNA decision makers. The theory is chaos makes the show feel exciting and unpredictable. The problem is that this isn't the right time or promotion for that sort of philosophy. So much has happened in wrestling the past 5 years that a restoration of order is needed for any promotion. This is particularly true for a new promotion, which needs to teach the viewer the basic rules of the promotion before violating them. If the rules are never established, the transgressions on those rules don't mean anything. A piledriver would mean a lot in promotions like Memphis or later Smoky Mountain Wrestling solely because it had been banned. The shoot interviews going back and forth don't mean nearly as much in TNA because they don't fit into a broader context that the promotion has established. Additionally, this "Crash TV" feel that TNA has taken in particular the past few months is bad for the weekly PPV medium. It has better potential on cable TV, where channel surfing viewers might be enticed to tune in. The people who watch TNA have ordered the show already. Shocking TV doesn't get any new viewers. This lack of order is most clear in Mike Tenay. He has the potential to bring respectability and credibility to a product, and to convince the fans of what the promotion wants to get across, like a Gordon Solie, Lance Russell or Jim Ross of years past. TNA instead has turned him into an excitable, angry borderline maniac. When Mike Tenay is swearing and yelling, there is no basic feeling of stability. Without stability, nothing you do has much impact.

10) Get a regular TV show. I know, easier said than done. But this is the only way to create a profitable company. The current system doesn't build up future matches very well at all. Thus, it is extremely hard to build momentum. You get momentum in wrestling by taking the fans on a voyage towards a particular match. TNA doesn't have that direction. A TV show with a monthly PPV would do that. It would force them to build up feuds over time, rather than going week to week. Additionally, it is clear by this point that TNA is never going to get a large audience through the weekly PPV route. It needs to build an audience through free TV, and then get them to buy PPVs. Put together a tape of TNA's best stuff and sell it like crazy to every cable network you can find. It's going to be tough, but if TNA works hard enough, it can get a prime time program somewhere on cable. WWE is weak enough right now that if TNA is able to get a TV program and create great television, it can grab some of WWE's audience. I would try to go head to head with Raw. Raw has been a consistently poor product, so if you put on a good product, you can grab a good chunk of that audience and create some enthusiasm about wrestling again. If you don't put on a good product, you would have died in a different time slot anyway, so you might as well go all out. The problem with WWE is that they book week to week, and the current format of NWA TNA encourages week to week booking. By getting a TV show and doing less frequent PPVs, TNA can build up programs and matches, and get a lot more people to order those PPVs. No wrestling promotion in history has sustained itself on interviews and surprises. It's silly I have to even say this, but wrestling needs important wrestling matches to succeed. TNA has yet to build up a match that feels truly important, and a lot of that has to do with the current format. Wrestling TV is best served to build up to a big card. Wrestling has always separated the buildups of top feuds from the payoffs of top feuds. TNA is treading on dangerous waters in trying to do both on the same show. Thus far, it hasn't worked.


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