August 31, 2012

ROUNDTABLE: the Ratings Edition

The Roundtable is back by popular demand. I, FK9, remain your humble moderator, and joining me this time are Talon, JSO and the returning Shelbin because he loved the first Roundtable so much he just had to come back for seconds. The readers voted for a discussion on the ratings situation for this month's edition of the Write Call, and let no one say that we here at TNAsylum don't give our readers what they want.

But before we begin, I have to give each of my colleagues a quick warning. If you take a peak under your shirts you will discover that powerful electrodes have been attached to each of your nipples. As per Shelbin's request, any mention of a certain person in the comment section who shall remain nameless will result in you being shocked until you lose all bladder control. Don't ask me how I did this without you knowing about it; it was a long complicated process and explaining it would take more time than we have. Besides, that's not what we're here to talk about. The topic at hand is ratings.

FK9: It's hard to look at the comment section of any post on TNAsylum lately and not find some mention of iMPACT WRESTLING's ratings. It's caused a lot of debate, a lot of arguments, with a number of contrasting opinions. And given the creative shift in the company last year and everything that's happened since then, there are two main schools of thought on the subject, with people either falling in with Team Prichard or Team Russo.

I don't want this to turn into a debate on the writing/booking of the product because, quite frankly, that's a whole different column in and of itself. But these issues do apply to what we're talking about, so let's examine them briefly.

Before Bruce Prichard took over as head of TNA creative, the product had for a number of years been booked by Vince Russo in a polarizing run that drew the ire of many fans, myself included. Not that Russo didn't have his supporters, but under his pen I constantly found the product frustrating to say the least. Angles and characters frequently made no sense, wrestlers turned face/heel so often as to render the turns damn near pointless, gimmick matches became overdone to the point of absurdity, matches were so overbooked that to call them clusterfucks was being polite, feuds rarely seemed to stay on track and often times would start and then end with no explanation, or would end in such a way that left the viewers unclear on whether they were actually finished or not, etc, etc, etc...

Then along came Bruce Prichard. And with the artist formerly known as Brother Love at the helm the product slowed down its breakneck pace, became less cluttered and more coherent, actually started employing logic and common sense, narrowed the focus to a fewer number of talents so as to better spotlight and more effectively elevate them. And so on, and so on...

The differences between Russo and Prichard are innumerable, as are the results they've put forth. Personally, I think the product as guided by Prichard has been leaps and bounds better than when Russo was steering the ship and I know I'm not alone in thinking that. Dixie Carter has stated that people in the company are very excited about the path they're currently on and she gets lots of feedback from fans telling her that this is the best the show has ever been. But Russo has always been pro wrestling's resident lighting rod when it comes to the subject of ratings, and the bottom line is that for all the criticism he draws (much of which is richly deserved), the numbers don't lie, and we can't deny the fact that more people were watching the show when Russo was writing it.

So for our first topic, I have to ask... why do you think that is? 

Talon: It’s not the criticisms such as the constant alignment turns, title switches or that type of stuff that made Vince Russo so successful with ratings. It was his understanding that professional wrestling is more than two guys in the ring cutting a promo or having a match. He understood that professional wrestling needs sizzle to its steak.

The sizzle I am referring to is what the Attitude Era was built on. The characters, the storylines and the “OMG” moments are what a lot of pro wrestling fans want in their TV show. The reason the Attitude Era was so popular was because of the “OMG” moments such as Stone Cold giving The Corporation a Beer Bath, the Undertaker sacrificing people, Val Venis getting his willy chopped off. The characters were cool, the storylines were shocking and compelling and a lot of the “OMG” moments made your jaw drop.

Pro Wrestling today is a lot more toned down than the Attitude Era. The characters aren’t really characters anymore. There is a major contrast from Mankind, Kane, Goldust, Godfather, etc, etc, and guys like AJ Styles, Kazarian, Christopher Daniels and Bully Ray. Pro Wrestling today is much more realistic than the Attitude Era, which was a lot more over-the-top and colorful. Pro Wrestling today isn’t cool anymore.

Vince Russo had a lot of faults in his writing, but he knew that a lot of fans think wrestling is more than wrestling matches. The pro wrestling audience today is much different and smaller than the pro wrestling audience of the late 90’s. There is a reason that TNA’s demographic skewed towards the older audience. That audience watched the Attitude Era and that audience enjoyed the similarities between the Attitude Era and what Vince Russo was bringing to TNA.

I didn’t agree with a lot of Russo’s writing traits but I completely understand why he did what he did. The problem is that Russo’s product is completely ratings-driven. Because of that, the ratings did well but the remainder of the product suffered.

JSO: I believe Russo's success with the viewership/ratings all boils down to the fact that he's able to think like a lot of the masses do. Whether it's television or just life in general, people often say, "This is boring. Nothing ever exciting happens around here." And so Russo's philosophy has always been to ensure that people experienced a certain level of excitement in some form on a regular basis. He's admitted so many times that he writes wrestling for non-wrestling fans.

That philosophy remained unchanged during Russo's tenure as head writer in TNA. Granted the wrestling industry had declined significantly in terms of overall popularity with the general public, but there was still a solid audience that enjoyed Russo's crash TV style that TNA's ratings were fairly higher than what they are right now with Prichard at the helm. As Talon pointed out, it was mostly those older viewers that likened those similarities with the wild nature of the Attitude Era. A lot of it was just chaotic entertainment with recognizable names, unique storylines and gimmicks galore.

Despite all the criticisms brought up, the shows were still interesting nonetheless. Russo was always known as a creative individual and there's no denying that he had a lot of great ideas. His ability to effectively finish those storylines/angles was obviously questionable, but that wasn't necessarily his main concern as long as the numbers were there.

Shelbin: I think it's interesting that TNA had constantly, under the Hogan/Bischoff regime, strived to appeal to the casual fans and they had a writer in Vince Russo whose style was perfectly suited for this. It's a style over substance philosophy that was so evident during the Immortal takeover storyline where all logic was thrown out the window and basically replaced with a shock and awe approach. This approach, as we have seen, does draw viewers but it's also proven that it doesn't substantially grow the viewership over a long period of time.

We can debate why the ratings were better under Vince Russo but let's not overlook the fact that the viewership numbers under his watch peaked at 1.3 and rarely ever exceeded that. Vince Russo, in six years, with a roster that arguably featured more star power than does the current roster, produced a television show which drew ratings that were stagnant for most of those years. I think it's important to also note that Bruce Prichard replaced Vince Russo partly for this reason.

FK9: I think what this all boils down to is that Russo's main concern was always ratings first and quality second. Because of this, the ratings were higher under his tenure, but as Shelbin pointed out, they never really rose beyond a certain point, probably because (among other reasons) the overall quality of everything was so shoddy.

I'm reminded of something ROH employee Kevin Kelly said last year when Prichard first took over. He said, "Prichard is a 'big picture' guy, whereas Russo lives and dies by the quarter hour ratings," and I've found that to be very true. Russo has always written shows based on what he believed was going to draw the most viewership regardless of what that might be, how ridiculous it seemed or how it effected the product as a whole. Often times shows booked by him would come off as a huge mishmash of random segments that didn't seem to fit together in any logical way, but would nevertheless draw pretty good viewership. And on the other side of the coin, Prichard seems more concerned with how each segment is going to impact storylines and effect the show as a whole -- an approach which has seen ratings level out in the 0.9-1.1 range.

This, I think is where the main difference between them lies. Russo was about instant gratification. His whole approach was dictated by what he felt was going to work right now, what he felt was going to draw ratings right now; how that would effect things a week from now or month from now or a year from now didn't seem to concern him very much, hence the lack of continued ratings growth, IMO.

What Russo was doing pretty much had them treading water where they were and not moving in a positive direction, whereas Prichard seems primarily concerned, not with what's happening right at this moment, but with where the company is going to be in, say, 5 years. Under Prichard's direction the product has shown far more building towards the future with more well thought out long term storylines put in place and younger stars being elevated in a more effective and natural way, in sharp contrast to Russo's all-sizzle-no-steak approach. It hasn't payed dividends in the ratings yet, but it's something that I feel will put TNA in a better position to capitalize on ratings in the future.   

Unfortunately, none of that is a sure thing, and just because the seeds are being planted it doesn't mean they're going to grow when it comes to viewership. Plus, this method can be slow and drawn out, and as we've seen in the comment section in recent months, some people don't have the patience for it. They see the ratings down, cry havoc and call for Prichard to be replaced due to a lack of immediate results.

Where do you guys fall on this issue? Should they consider taking a page from Russo's book and go back to doing what might draw in any given quarter hour, but doesn't necessarily help them beyond that or stay the course creatively in the hopes that the results will be worth the wait when they get them?

Talon: Firstly I would like to clarify that while the actual ratings pretty much peaked at the 1.3 level, the average viewership of Russo’s regime was 1.7, 1.8 and even 2 million at times. In 2011, they never went below 1.358 million viewers. In 2012, since Russo left, TNA has gotten over 1.5 million viewers only twice while getting under 1.35 million fans eight times so far in 2012.

Also while short-term, the jump in viewership hasn’t been clear, the yearly viewership average has consistently grown throughout the years with 2011’s being the highest. There was viewership growth, but you would have to look at it from a distance to see it.

As for the current ratings, TNA has had some unfortunate luck. Starting in March their viewership dropped to the 1.4 range. They switched time slots that eliminated their power hour and introduced a brand new hour that hadn’t been tested. The Viacom-DirecTV situation hurt them for a few weeks and in the Fall, they will be getting some tough competition with the NFL. While there has been a drop, every time TNA gains some viewership momentum, something happens that slows them down.

TNA has a two year contract with Spike TV. I figure they have one year to “rebuild” and a second year to show real momentum. TNA needs to impress Spike to remain in business. From what I’ve heard, Spike understand that TNA needs time to rebuild and they have supported them. The company doesn’t need to play with fire so close to negotiations though.

I believe if Pritchard and Co. continue to produce a compelling TV show distinct to their brand, they will grow their audience over the long term. Right now they are rebuilding their company to make it more efficient from all aspects as opposed to just ratings. Will the viewership be back to Russo’s levels by the time the clock starts ticking? I don’t know!

JSO: I think it's absolutely vital for TNA to stay the course. They have stumbled upon the right mindset and approach that makes the current product look much more professional than in previous years. For the first time in a long time, there's a purpose in everything they are doing right now. I don't feel they can turn away from that and go back to their old ways just because of this whole ratings game week-after-week. Yes, the ratings have been disappointing since Prichard took over and some fans complain about the slow-paced creative direction, but that's what happens when things finally shift over to new territory after years of being in the fast lane, so to speak. That's just the way it is.

As Talon mentioned, TNA has experienced a number of unfortunate circumstances that affected their momentum at times. The great thing, though, is that they have a very supportive partner in Spike TV. I think the shows as of late have sort of opened a lot of eyes in terms of how much the product has been improving – even for those stubborn critics that refused to believe it. It's going to be an uphill battle to achieve the high viewership numbers they want, but I also believe that if TNA continue to put out consistently entertaining shows (and hopefully remain live) they will eventually reap the fruits of their labor. If you build it, they will come.

Shelbin: In response to Talon's viewership numbers under Vince Russo, it is true that some shows drew more than 1.7 million viewers, but those were few and far between. Very rarely during his six years as head writer, did he sustain those numbers for long periods of time. Russo's approach certainly drew an audience - some might argue that he successfully kept a core group of loyal viewers - but did he grow enough of an audience in six years to keep the status quo going forward?

As for Bruce Prichard, I think it's imperative that TNA begins the process of changing the company's perception among the pro wrestling world and the removal of Vince Russo was an important first step. It's clear by looking at the numbers immediately following Russo's departure that many viewers followed him out the door but, in my opinion, that's a small price to pay for a much-needed clean slate.

Although the ratings have dropped since Russo's departure, the company under Prichard's watch has improved in so many aspects. He's put in place a system that has transformed a company once described as a family-run business to a smoothly functioning sports entertainment/pro wrestling promotion. More importantly, a television product that had been criticized, perhaps unfairly, for so many years by some of the most influential wrestling sites has gone through a metamorphosis under Prichard's tutelage, generating what appears to be a complete 180 by those same sites.

You might think it's insignificant but I truly believe that word of mouth will play a crucial role in the growth of Impact Wrestling. With this in mind, it's important that Dixie Carter entrusts Bruce Prichard with the task of taking the company to the next level. It's also important that she affords him the same courtesy, patience and loyalty that she did Vince Russo.

FK9: Yes, viewership was higher with Russo writing the show, yes, they did show ratings growth (albeit at a snail's pace), but what continually hurt his run was his seeming inability to get the pieces in place to foster that growth. Sure, once in a while he'd hit on something that worked and manage not to screw it up, but I can't even count the number of aborted storylines and ill-conceived pushes that plagued his run as head of creative, and after a while that stuff starts to build up and hinder the results you get. It breeds a lack of confidence where the fans are concerned, so that they don't even take the company seriously anymore, and I don't know about you guys, but I grew really sick and tired of casual and hardcore fans alike treating TNA like the redheaded stepchild of the wrestling industry (not that I really blamed them at the time). This is the perception that Russo's mentality of doing anything for ratings created; maybe it attracted some fickle casual viewers, but it didn't breed loyalty in those viewers, because they started leaving when he did.

What Prichard has done essentially is force TNA to take a step back so they can take two steps forward later. Frankly, I'm not satisfied with the ratings where they are either, but the thought of veering from the course now gives me an uneasy feeling and would be another knee-jerk reaction the company can't afford anymore.

But it's not as if nothing they do is garnering viewership. I think it's the general consensus that, while we all love wrestling, just wrestling on its own doesn't get the ratings we're after. Compelling storylines and strong characters are what make wrestling matches mean something and that's generally what most people tune in to see these days, and we've got some good examples of this right now. In recent months we've seen the Claire Lynch angle draw upticks in viewership at times, but the major one people are talking about right now is the Aces & Eights angle. 

TNA have been featuring this storyline heavily as of late, often building entire shows around it and I can't blame them. Shows with an emphasis on the Aces & Eights tend to draw better than the rest lately, and when that faction doesn't appear I often see remarks in the comment section such as "No Aces & Eights = no ratings" and other stuff like that.

It's kind of stunning actually how so many people have latched onto the Aces & Eights as some kind of bastion for TV ratings, I guess because it's one of the first things hit upon by the new creative team that's proven capable of getting those viewership numbers moving up. I maintain that something like this wouldn't have been as effective if it hadn't been for all the groundwork laid by Prichard for months prior, but that's beside the point.

Thoughts on the Aces & Eights angle... why is it viewed as a ratings magnet by so many people and why has it been as successful as it's been thus far in garnering viewership?

Talon: The answer to this one is simple: people like their mysteries. The Aces and 8s is the latest in mysteries and because of the scope of the angle, the viewership is higher.

Traditional intrigue or mystery in storylines where there is a big reveal, end up garnering large ratings. The McMahon Explosion angle, the post-BFG 2010 Immortal show, the segment where James Mitchell revealed that Abyss shot his father three times in the back. You build up a mystery well enough and the answer will give you a pop in ratings.

Right now, TNA has four or five storylines running. Storylines are different than angles. Storylines involve elements “beyond” the traditional wrestling world. The storylines we are getting are: Madison Rayne’s crush, the Joey Ryan thing, Joseph Park’s character development, the Claire Lynch stuff and of course the Aces and 8s.

Only the Claire Lynch storyline and the Aces and 8s storyline are big enough in scope and feature big enough stars that they are making an impact in ratings. For example: the Claire Lynch storyline had a lot of intrigue behind it. Daniels and Kazarian were accusing AJ and Dixie of having an affair. The face of IMPACT Wrestling having an affair with the President of the company was huge. The storyline really had some momentum until after the reveal. It was at this point that Dixie’s character was really out of the picture and the storyline turned into a “pregnancy” angle between the top face and an unknown character. The storyline still has feet, but is nowhere near where it was when Dixie was involved.

The Aces and 8s storyline has a lot of momentum behind it. I think long-term and casual viewers find it compelling. Turning on IMPACT will see a pack of masked men attacking the top faces in the company like Hulk Hogan, Sting, Kurt Angle and more. People want to know who is under the masks, who is behind the group and what wrestler is letting them into the arena.

Unfortunately, the Aces and 8s group hasn’t been as big a part of IMPACT the past two weeks. Last week, they didn’t show and this week they only showed in short backstage segments. If TNA is investing so much time into making this their main storyline then they need to give them a bigger presence on the show.

JSO: I'm definitely enjoying this Aces & Eights storyline. Why has it been so successful? Well, I think the biggest advantage is that the shows are live. The group's initial attack on Sting during the closing minutes of the post-Slammiversary episode of IMPACT was genuinely shocking because there were no spoilers or anything like that. It got a lot of people buzzing afterwards and trying to guess their identities.

Then, what seemed like a simple vendetta against Sting and Hogan got even more interesting when they started targeting anybody and everybody in the company, babyface or heel. Not to mention the group expanded in numbers from the original trio at the beginning. I think that's when it dawned on the audience that this was a major storyline unlike any other in a long time, and that's why they have been so intrigued by it – hence the increased viewership. I mean, the 7/26 episode directly following the "total nonstop anarchy" on OFN drew the highest rating of the live summer run to date at close to 1.6 million viewers.

What makes this storyline so compelling is based on a number of factors:

- concentrated focus (center of attention in most of the important segments and matches)
- potential targets (anybody, including the Gutcheck wrestlers or TNA personnel)
- twists and/or surprises (James Storm accusations and the creepy terrorist-like messages)
- pacing and direction (long-term investment)
- mystery (identities/motives/mastermind/etc.)

The kicker to all this is that there are still so many possibilities they could go with for the endgame of the reveal and such. I think that further heightens the suspense and the audience is going to continue to tune into the show every week primarily to see the Aces & Eights' next move. It's up to TNA to keep that momentum rolling and deliver the goods with this storyline.

[SIDE NOTE: Shelbin mentioned that certain person from the comment section, so I had to shock him. Since he won't be able to type until he regains his fine motor control, I'll go ahead and wrap us up here.]

FK9: I've always been a fan of what I like to call the "umbrella angle", an angle/storyline that's so big that it causes a huge ripple effect that encompasses the entire show, and that's what we have here. Other examples of stuff like this are the original NWO angle, the Main Event Mafia (though I hated that one) and the Nexus invasion before the WWE writers screwed it up. Done right, storylines like this can create a lot of excitement with the shockwaves they generate throughout the entire product. When you see damn near everyone on the show talking about something like it's a big deal, the fans are going to perceive it as a big deal, and with any luck, they're going to pay more attention when these guys show up.

Unfortunately, while they're trying to push the Aces & Eights faction like it's huge news, they have a lot of other things that need to be featured as well, and that can be a delicate balancing act. This is my main complaint about the way this Aces & Eights angle has been executed. It hasn't been just pushed as a hugely important thing or the most important thing, but the only important thing. Specifically, things like PPV hype and focus on Austin Aries' world title reign have been deemphasized in order to make this faction look like the be-all-end-all. This, I felt hurt Hardcore Justice and its main event when the focus shifted onto those things and the role the Aces & Eights played was comparatively minimal, and I'm afraid it's something I see continuing.

For me it just feels like the scales are being tipped too far to one side here. Yes, the Aces & Eights seem to get ratings when they're featured, but it's important not to neglect those other things in the process, otherwise there could be a backlash once it's finished like we saw when the Main Event Mafia angle mercifully concluded. The MEM had been portrayed as the only thing worth caring about on the show for a year straight, so when that faction was finally done the fans had no reason to care about anything else on the show and the ratings suffered for it.

TNA need to be careful not to fall into that trap again. Go ahead and milk the Aces & Eights for all the ratings-grabbing power they have. Just make sure you don't neglect everything else on the show that could potentially draw ratings in the process. 

Well, that about does it. I'd like to thank Talon and JSO for joining me for this column. And Shelbin, once you stop drooling into the carpet and manage to stand under your own power again, let me know. I have to get those electrodes back from you. I need them for some personal business I've got going on down in my basement involving a lot of screa...... uh... well, I've... I've said too much. Until next time.

Peace. Out.

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