The Importance Of… 06.19.09: Thunder
We Need Another Show Like WWF!
Riding an unparalleled wave of success, at the start of 1998, WCW launched a new show on TBS called Thunder. In looking back, Eric Bischoff has claimed that he was not wild about the idea of two extra hours of TV time, and yet, wrestling was hot and the Turner executives were looking to capitalize any way they could. And so, despite the better judgment of those who were actually in the wrestling business, WCW was off and running with its new program.
Thunder is Born
Thunder wasted no time in asserting itself as the B-level show, relative to Nitro. While commercials for the show touted the company’s biggest stars (most prominently, Hollywood Hogan) in reality, such performers rarely made appearances, as Thunder became a center for lower-mid-card talent, with only the lightest sprinkling of top tier names. Looking back at old Thunder results, you can find that The Giant, Scott Hall, Hogan and others did make appearances. The problem was that they rarely made appearances together, or in back to back weeks. Thunder was the small-time show that big names would swing by periodically to give a little boost—not altogether different from established WWE talents making occasional appearances in the developmentals today. In past eras, such a formula may have held up. After all, in the eighties-to-early-nineties syndication era, it was customary for fans to watch shows filled with squash matches and lesser talents. In the days of the Monday Night Wars, though, fans had little patience for this sort of programming, and quickly lost interest in the show.
Beyond the lack of top tier talent, Thunder also suffered for the way in which it over-exposed WCW. Over three hours of Nitro each week was already challenging the collective attention span of the audience. Add in weekend programming, and pay per views, and the product was a bit over-saturated. Putting on an additional two hour broadcast grew tiresome for the television audience. What’s more, as WCW began its decline in viewership and revenue, the company started taping Thunder on the same night as live Nitro’s—subjecting those dedicated fans who stayed for the whole thing to five hours of the product in a single night.
It’s hard to imagine Thunder succeeding under the circumstances, and yet, some might point that WWE is doing well today with five-plus hours of regular programming each week. It’s easy enough to explain the difference—that being, the brand extension. Many balk at the separate brands, given how fluid they have become, between ‘talent exchanges,’ drafts and cross over PPVs. Nonetheless, having two, and now three distinct ‘leagues’ has gone a long way toward giving WWE the feel that it has truly separate, different products running at the same time. At different points, Bischoff has claimed that he had the same idea—whether it was the nWo legitimately seceding from WCW, or Bret Hart leading a separate roster on the second show. Regardless, Thunder featured just enough of the same talents, and just insignificant enough consistent talent to make the show consistently stale and uninteresting.
All of the above is enough to establish Thunder as a poor idea, and a bad wrestling show. WCW only further established this show’s dismal legacy, though, with its most memorable moment—the one and only world title change to occur on Thunder. This would be the time when David Arquette won his first and only wrestling title.
Looking back at Arquette’s title victory, there are divergent opinions. Some, including Bischoff, have rationalized the decision, because of the attention the move garnered, including significant coverage of WCW in the next day’s USA Today. While this was valuable PR, true wrestling fans would never forgive WCW for this insult to the title. A lineage of strong champions like Flair, Sting, Vader and Goldberg is enough to make a title meaningful—meaningful enough to withstand the taint of (arguably) lesser champions like Dallas Page, Scott Steiner and Ron Simmons. But when you throw in a non-wrestler, and what’s more, a 100 pound guy who was never even in the wrestling business—that’s the kind of taint that a legitimate title may never overcome. This moment of garbage booking is probably what Thunder is best remembered for.
In a sign that WWF was decisively beating WCW, the launch of Smackdown on Thursday nights prompted WCW to retreat, pulling Thunder out of its alliterative home night and out of competition’s way, relocating to Wednesdays. From there, it was only a matter of time before WWF truly won the war, acquiring its rival.
Some readers will surely question why I devoted a column to Thunder, given how dismal, unentertaining, and insignificant the program turned out to be. The fact is that that Thunder was important for just how many things WCW did wrong. True, the company was forced into many of these decisions by the powers-that-be at Turner. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned from the show. Non-wrestling people should not wield so much power over a wrestling company. Expanding the programming schedule bears a very real risk of over-exposing the product (a lesson Vince McMahon has taken to heart in his consistent refusal to make Raw a three-hour show permanently). Fans aren’t interested in watching a show when it’s clearly secondary—when a promotion does nothing to hide that it’s an inferior program. And David Arquette as world champ—well, this is a lesson that probably didn’t need to be taught, but for those who were curious, it was quite the failure.
That’s all for this column. Next week, we take a look at the importance of Smackdown. See you in seven.