What Wrestling’s Monday Night Wars can teach us about Streaming Video’s future

Strangely, a 1990s battle between two professional wrestling promotions could show us how the escalating streaming video wars could end.

Friday 26 March 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the end of the infamous Monday Night Wars between World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Similarly, to the current Streaming Video free-for-all, the Monday Night Wars were an all-out battle between two cash-rich entertainment conglomerates.

Wrestling fans dub the conflict the Monday Night Wars because the promotions ran their flagship shows on rival cable networks at roughly the same time on Monday nights. To explain, WWE, broadcast its Raw program around 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) on the USA Network. The WCW ran its Nitro program at 8 p.m. EST on TNT.

The Streaming Video Wars

During the Monday Night Wars, both sides spent enormous amounts of cash and resorted to elaborate gimmicks and dirty tricks to attract viewers. Consequently, the wars transformed professional wrestling from a corny freak show into dark innovative entertainment.

Today’s streaming video wars offer an eerie similarity to the Monday Night Wars. In both conflicts, you had giant companies spending enormous amounts of cash in an effort to dominate a corner of the entertainment industry.

A critical difference is that there were only two combatants in the Monday Night Wars. There are several contenders in the Streaming Video Wars including: Alphabet’s (GOOG) YouTube, Netflix (NFLX), Disney (DIS), Amazon (AMZN), AT&T (T), Comcast (CMCSA), Apple (AAPL), Roku (ROKU), and ViacomCBS (VIAC).

A greater difference is that they are waging the Streaming Video Wars across several areas of entertainment. For instance, sports, drama, comedy, news, music, documentaries, talk, animation, movies, and yes wrestling. The Monday Night Wars were a battle for dominance in one segment of entertainment.

Conversely, there are some intriguing similarities between the two conflicts. Thus, the Monday Night Wars could show us some possible effects and outcomes of the Streaming Video Wars.

Lessons from the Monday Night Wars

Some lessons the Monday Night Wars can teach us about the Streaming Video Wars include:

The fan’s attention is the ultimate prize in the media wars

The Monday Night Wars began because two visionary entrepreneurs realized that attracting the most rabid fans was the path to making the most money in the new entertainment landscape.

Wrestling fans or marks are stubbornly loyal and willing to spend enormous amounts of money on their favorite entertainment. One of the first people to realize the value of such rabid fans was cable-television pioneer Ted Turner.

In the 1980s, Turner noticed wrestling shows on his WTBS super station generated substantial amounts of viewer mail. Turner intuitively realized that entertainment that generated mail could attract enormous numbers of eyeballs.

In anticipation of today’s streaming video services, Turner realized that one way to make the money in television was to control the product. As a result, Turner bought the cash-strapped Jim Crockett Promotions which produced WTBS’s popular wrestling shows.

Turner reorganized Jim Crockett Promotions as World Championship Wrestling. The idea behind WCW was to give wrestling fans a unique show they could only find on Turner’s networks.

Turner’s move put him on a collision course with the nation’s biggest wrestling promoter, Vincent K. McMahon Junior. In the 1980s, McMahon leveraged cable television to turn his father’s New York wrestling promotion, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), into a national entertainment company.

McMahon found wrestling could be a successful prime-time TV show. In 1993, McMahon revamped and relaunched his struggling Prime Time Wrestling program as Monday Night Raw. Raw featured a more aggressive and adult-oriented wrestling with soap-operatic story lines broadcast live in Prime Time on the USA Network.

Turner countered Monday Night Raw with Monday Nitro in 1995. One reason for Monday Nitro was to attract viewers to Turner’s struggling new cable network TNT (Turner Network Television). Turner was having trouble finding original content for TNT because Hollywood producers were snubbing him. Wrestling was original content and Turner owned the promotion.

New Programming will get darker and edgier

To lure fans, Turner began hiring big name wrestlers and experimenting with darker and edgier content.

For instance, WCW took the risk of turning Wrestling’s greatest hero; or baby-face Hulk Hogan, into a heel or villain. The WCW’s new vice president Eric Bischoff took the greater risk of making a popular faction of heels, the New World Order (nWo) the stars of Nitro. Shockingly, they revealed Hogan as the nWo’s evil leader.

In an unprecedented plot twist, Bischoff often let the bad guys win. Bischoff’s belief is that wrestling fans really want to see the bad guys kick the good guy’s butt. So he gave the fans what they wanted.

In an unprecedented plot twist, Bischoff often let the bad guys win. Bischoff’s belief is that wrestling fans really want to see the bad guys kick the good guy’s butt. So he gave the fans what they wanted.

Fans loved the WCW’s dark turn and rewarded it with higher ratings. The Monday Night Wars were on.

McMahon responded by making the WWF, soon to be WWE, darker and edgier than the WCW. In particular, the WWE began making vicious antiheroes such as Brett “the Hitman” Hart, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Duane “the Rock” Johnson into the stars. Austin became a fan-favorite by beating up heel-turned face Jake “the Snake” Roberts and mocking Roberts’ supposed fundamentalist Christian faith.

In the ring, matches became more violent and bloodier. The WWE also began emphasizing horror by promoting wrestlers such as the Undertaker, Cain, and Mankind. They modeled Cain’s character on cinematic serial killers such as Jason, and Mankind on Hannibal Lector (complete with face mask and straight jacket).

Predictably, streaming video is taking a dark turn. For instance, Amazon Prime’s flagship show The Boyz re-imagines superheroes as power-mad thugs and rapists.

They will break all the rules and violate all norms

The WCW’s dark turn paid off in the ratings. Monday Nitro beat Monday Night Raw in the ratings for 83 straight weeks, as Bischoff constantly reminds wrestling fans.

In response, McMahon violated almost every rule of television and wrestling in the WWE’s infamous Attitude Era. For instance, the WWE’s writers injected sex and race into the storylines.

One infamous character was the Godfather, a big vicious black pimp who boasted about pimping hoes. Female performers dressed as prostitutes always accompanied the Godfather to the ring. Another was Val Venis, who was supposedly a porn star.

A new heel faction was the Nation of Domination, a gang of Black Nationalist thugs modeled on the Black Panthers. Interestingly, the supposedly family friendly entertainer Duane Johnson first attracted attention as a member of the Nation of Domination.

Another faction, Degeneration X was a blatant nWo parody that mocked the WCW’s storyline with inside jokes and potty humor. Meanwhile, Stone Cold Steve Austin energized fans by making obscene gestures and guzzling beer in the ring. The Rock began making vicious attacks on faces while mocking them with colorful monologues.

Finally, McMahon began introducing many of the most popular aspects of pro wrestling, formerly restricted to pay-per-views and arena shows into television matches. Those aspects included blood, violent dangerous moves, and the liberal use of weapons such as steel chairs, baseball bats, and brass knuckles in the ring.

Increasingly violent events including cage matches and hardcore events became a mainstay of the business. All the taboos that had marked televised wrestling became the norm. Notably, McMahon even rechristened Monday Night Raw, Raw is War in a not-so-subtle message to WCW.

The Attitude Era succeeded as the WWE won the ratings war and earned the wrath of conservative and liberal culture warriors. Organizations such as the Parents Television Council (PTC) began attacking the WWE, an action that emboldened McMahon.

My prediction is that streaming video will become more adult with explicit sexual content and over the top violence. As with the Attitude Era, producers will try to attract attention with more sex and more violence. I also predict some politician or culture warrior will try to attract votes and donations by trying to censor streaming video.

There will be a destructive and expensive battle for the top talent

One of the driving forces in the Monday Night Wars was an expensive and destructive battle for top talent.

The defining moment in the Monday Night Wars was the infamous Montreal Screw Job. The Screw Job occurred when WWE’s top star and champion Bret Hart defected to WCW for a bigger paycheck. McMahon responded by humiliating Hart, a Canadian hero, in a pay-per-view Survivor Series, in Canada’s second largest city; Montreal, Quebec.

The Screw Job exposed Wrestling’s ugly behind-the-scenes politics and the almost insane battle to sign big stars to fans. To explain, McMahon was trying to damage Hart’s reputation to make him less attractive to fans.

McMahon was angry at WCW for poaching many of his top stars including Hogan, Rick Flair, Randy the Macho Man Savage, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Rowdy Roddy Piper. One reason for Turner’s hiring spree was to keep some of those stars off WWE’s television shows. Notably, WCW’s writers never found a use for Hart, but the Hitman was off Monday Night Raw.

Vince was sending wrestlers a message; defect, and I will destroy you. In a notorious TV interview about the Screwjob Vince bragged that “Bret Hart screwed Bret Hart.” The interview was character assassination on national television.

We have seen nothing like the Screwjob in streaming video yet, but I predict we will. I predict some streaming service will try to destroy or sabotage the competition’s big stars.

A possible scenario is that AT&T (T) owner of HBO Max pays Robert Downy Junior a huge salary to keep him from playing Iron Man in Disney+ shows. Another screwjob scenario is that streaming services try to destroy other services’ stars reputations. For example, “documentaries” that expose a competitors’ stars’ excesses such as sexual abuse or drug use.

Before the Screwjobs start, the streamers will pay more and more money to stars, producers, and writers to attract attention and free publicity. The thinking is star power will attract subscribers.

Ruthless Competition does not improve quality

Oddly, the Monday Night Wars had an odd effect on wrestling’s quality. The quality of the WWE’s wrestling improved while WCW’s got worse.

As the wars wore on, the WWE’s product got tighter and more polished while WCW’s product got sloppier and sloppier. Corny and absurd story lines, poor matches, and mindless excess became the norm.

In one horrendous gimmick, the WCW drove fans away by putting a championship belt on b-list actor David Arquette to promote an awful movie called Ready to Rumble. An equally terrible storyline was WCW star Bill Goldberg’s undefeated streak, which produced an increasingly dull card of boring matches.

Thus, the belief the streaming video wars will create better entertainment could be wrong. I predict many streaming services will churn out terrible shows fans will loathe. However, those shows will cost more and more money.

The Monday Night Wars ground to a halt on the last episode of Monday Nitro broadcast on 26 March 2001. Turner’s successors threw in the towel by selling WCW to McMahon. McMahon himself shocked fans by showing up on the last episode of Nitro and bragging about his victory.

Ironically, the wars’ end was an effort by TNT’s new owners, Time Warner, to keep competitors from launching a new wrestling show that could threaten its channels’ ratings. Selling WCW to WWE was a guaranteed method of destroying the wrestling promotion. By then Turner had retired from television to engage in full-time philanthropy.

McMahon dismantled WCW and folded its remains into the WWE. The WWE became a moneymaking machine, raking in cash from merchandising and advertising.

 With little competition, WWE toned down its product and dominated the business. Wrestling fans who wanted an alternative turned to tapes of Japanese shows and independent wrestling. A glorified indie promotion TNA (now Impact Wrestling) made a valiant effort to compete with WWE but never quite made the big time.

The New Wrestling Wars

Today, wrestling is a battleground in the streaming wars. Ironically, WWE (WWE) was the first victim of the streaming wars.

The wrestling promotion shut down its niche streaming service WWE Network and sold all of its programming to Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), owner of Peacock. WWE content including pay-per views is only available on Peacock. There is now active speculation that Comcast will buy WWE.

Similarly, AT&T (T); the owner of Turner Broadcasting and HBO Max, has reentered the wrestling business with All Elite Wrestling (AEW). One of AEW’s showrunners is Cody Rhodes; the son of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, who once served as WCW’s showrunner.

AEW even has a flagship show on Wednesday nights on the TNT network they call Dynamite shades of Monday Nitro. Predictably, AEW has started poaching WWE stars in a throwback to the Monday Night Wars. Recent AEW shows have featured WCW stalwart Sting and Eric Bischoff, who apparently has no role in the promotion, bragging about their return to TNT after 20 years.

In addition, AEW is experimenting with YouTube programming by offering two YouTube only shows Dark: Elevationand Dark. Thus, wrestling is now a front in the streaming video wars.

The ultimate lesson from the Monday Night Wars is that in entertainment no victory is final. Therefore, I think the Streaming Video Wars will last for a long-time and claim many victims just as the Monday Night Wars did.