Last week AlternativeNation.net brought you Part 1 of of our interview with Eric Bischoff, where he discussed the narrative in the WWE Network’s new Monday Night War series, his plans for WCW had his deal to buy the company gone through in 2001, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall’s WCW contracts, being in talks with a wealthy Las Vegas venture capitalist just before going to TNA about launching a wrestling promotion, WCW and WWE’s announce teams, and why he hired Johnny Ace during WCW’s dying days.
Today we bring you Part 2, where Eric discusses Vince Russo’s opinions on analyzing wrestling ratings, how a John Cena heel turn would compare to Hulk Hogan’s, Global Force Wrestling, if Randy Savage really burned his bridge with the WWE, the similarities between Vince & Stephanie McMahon, David Arquette’s WCW title win, Ready to Rumble, Triple H’s leadership abilities, and much more. You can read Part 2 transcribed in its entirety below, and you can also listen to audio. Also check out our recent interviews with Kurt Angle, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Jeff Hardy, and Hornswoggle.
I’ve seen guys like Vince Russo and Glenn Gilbertti talk a lot about minute by minute ratings to wrestling shows, and they have said that the trends show that the talking segments draw better than the matches. Obviously that’s from them seeing it, I haven’t seen those numbers myself, outside of a few wrestling shows. Having at one time run the largest wrestling promotion in North America, how close did you follow the minute by minutes, and did you notice any trends when it came to matches and talking segments? Did it ever affect the push of a wrestler?
There’s a saying you may have heard many times before, it would be good to revisit it as we venture into this topic: numbers lie, and liars use numbers. I can look at ratings, whether they be minute by minute or quarter hour, and I can twist and turn them if I am talking to people who really don’t know what they’re doing, and who really can’t understand exactly what they’re hearing, or don’t really have access to the information, or don’t have the experience to counter argue it. I can take minute-by-minute numbers, and I can make them tell you any story I want you want to be told. It’s bullshit.
Now, you can look at quarter hour over an extended period of time, whether it’s a month, 3 months, or 6 months, and you can identify a trend. You can find some consistency, if everything else is consistent around it, and you can start to determine what might really be working, and what’s not working. You may be able to do that on a show to show basis, but anybody who takes the position that minute by minutes define a character, or define a format, or a define a story, either don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, or they have just enough knowledge to be dangerous, which is generally the case, or they’re full of shit, and they know it. It’s insane. The other part of your question was, did it ever influence me? No. It was one single piece of information, that’s all it was, one single piece of information that may or not have relevance in the context of an analysis of what you’re doing. But anybody who would sit down and say, ‘Oh the minute by minutes say that Joe Blow is doing great, and the talking segments are better’ is full of crap.
I will also tell you that I’ve been involved in a number of research projects, where you watch focus groups that are very well identified, and chosen, and you have large cross sections of qualified audience. I’ve sat on the other side of a two way mirror where I can literally watch them watch a show, and I’ve done this a number of times with very sophisticated research companies by the way, that ever major network uses, and watched that wrestling audience turn a dial either to the right, or to the left, based on what they liked, and how they were told to react. ‘So if you like what you see turn it all the way to the right, if you love it. If you kind of like it, turn it about halfway up. If you hate it, turn it all the way to the left.’ You sit in front of a group of 50 people, who are real wrestling fans, not a bunch of guys who are a member of one particular website, who have one particular way of looking at things. But you have a cross section of people who are weekly viewers, who watch once a month, who watch a little of this, a little of that. Some have strong feelings one way or the other, you get a good sample audience, and you sit and watch them in a room, and you watch those dials all be filtered into one dial test. You can sit back and look at their reaction superimposed on the actual images in the video that they’re looking at. Every single time I’ve done that, long talking segments tanked, they freaking tanked. Now, is anybody out there, including Vince Russo or Glenn Gilbertti, or Eric Bischoff, smart enough to outsmart really sophisticated cross section research, done in real time with proprietary technology that allows you to see it in real time? My answer is no, it’s just not.
I’ve never seen research that has come back to suggest that talking segments outperform wrestling segments. They’re necessary, don’t get me wrong, they’re absolutely necessary, and sometimes I’ve done them, and they’ve run too long, but they don’t outperform wrestling segments when the action is good. If the action doesn’t have a story behind it, or the characters don’t have good characters, if there hasn’t been any build and there’s not a good format, if it’s not a three act structure to the show, if there’s no overextending arc that takes the viewers on a ride and makes them want to come along on the journey, then yeah, a wrestling segment can suck. But if you do everything else right, there’s no way a talking segment is going to outperform good wrestling, unless you don’t know how to produce good wrestling.
You mentioned focus groups as being a big thing you focus on when it comes to gauging what’s working and what isn’t, but what about the crowd? To me that’s something that’s really interesting, because obviously WCW at times were running at Disney. WWE today deal with kind of an interesting thing, because the product has been so boring for so long that you’ve got certain fans who are just trying to get themselves over, then you’ve got internet fans, it’s kind of very fragmented now. How did you listen to crowd reactions, and how did that play a part for you?
It’s a big part of it, it is another very useful piece of information, very useful, much more than minute by minutes. (Eric pretends to gag), even after [talking about that] it makes me angry, it’s so stupid, but I’ll get off of that (laughs). It is a very, very important thing, it’s real time research, and it can be very difficult to analyze, because crowds are different. Let’s take the soundstage crowds and set them off to the side, because that’s a whole different conversation. Even at the peak of Nitro, and the Attitude Era, that followed Nitro, by the way, even at the peak of the time, 97, 98, 99 for the WWE. Chicago had a little different feel than Miami, LA was certainly a big difference from a New York City Madison Square Garden crowd, Philadelphia was different from Boston, Boston was different from Minneapolis. So the experience of having played in front of those crowds, and written and produced and performed for those audiences, and their unique kind of geographical preferences, would sometimes shape, to a small degree, how you presented the product. Because the crowd’s reaction to what you presented is such an integral part to the message that’s received by the viewer that home.
I always use this as an example, imagine Ali vs. Frazier, the Thrilla in Manilla. It was an unbelievable, spectacular event, but imagine if those two same guys fought in a local YMCA. (Laughs) It’s not the same thing, the spectacle is a part of the show, the audience is a part of the show. I think Elvis Presley said it best, the best part of any show is the audience, it’s not the guy on the stage, it’s the audience, and the way they react. That’s what validates what’s going on, on the stage, and in wrestling’s case, it’s what’s going on in the ring. Imagine the greatest wrestling match you’ve ever watched. I don’t know what that is for you, let’s just pick Hogan vs. Rock, the PPV that they did, and the phenomenal reaction that they got. Imagine those two guys wrestling in front of 300 people and half of them are drunk. The people sitting at home would go, ‘Huh? Why am I watching this? I feel like an idiot.’ Conversely, when you get a giant crowd that’s engaged, and emotional, you kind of feel like you’re at a party, with 15,000 of your friends, just having a blast, and whether it’s concisely or subconscienly, you’re sitting at home by yourself or with a friend drinking a beer saying, ‘Wow, I wish I was there.’ That’s the importance of a good crowd.
Where are we today? To be honest with you, I don’t watch a lot of WWE, I don’t watch a lot of television period, unless it’s something that my company is producing, or something I want to research, and see what’s working, I just don’t. I do check in from WWE from time to time, especially if I hear that something is going on with someone that I know personally, then I will. But it’s hard now, with the WWE audience, the ‘CM Punk’ crowd, and chanting his name. They want to be on the show, they want attention, and that does take away sometimes from the product. I feel bad for the talent when that happens, because the guys in the ring are the ones that suffer the most, I mean the business suffers the most, but the guys in the ring are the ones that are suffering on the front lines, and that makes me feel bad for them.
You mentioned Hogan and Rock in particular, and talking about the crowds, with those two the fans were crazy, and the crowd was great, because of those guys. I think now, the wrestling product is just not drawing that crowd any more, so you’re really left with the people who will watch no matter what, and those people are miserable watching it (laughs), so unfortunately you’ve got what’s going on. Hopefully it changes though, and that’s something I want to ask you about. Obviously WWE still do fantastic when it comes to their big shows like WrestleMania, but in general the Raw audience has been down. What do you think it will take to make wrestling relevant again? Do you think it will just take making a more compelling show, and not really having to change the whole model of professional wrestling? Or do you think the whole format just completely have to change, in order for wrestling to go to its next boom period?
Look, if I had the answer to that, I’d be living in a really nice house on a beach in Maui somewhere. I’d be phoning it in, and making a lot of people really wealthy, so I don’t have an answer to that, but here’s the truth as I see it. Whether it’s wrestling, or Sons of Anarchy, or Game of Thrones, whatever it is, it is first and foremost great story. It’s great characters that people really relate to, and it’s a great presentation. So does wrestling have to completely change everything? No, you don’t completely change anything. It wasn’t long ago when everybody pounding what they thought was the final nail within the industry of scripted television. You couldn’t sell a sitcom, you couldn’t give the away, you couldn’t sell drama, not even an action series on scripted television, because reality was so popular, and that’s where the audience shifted. Everybody put their eggs in the reality basket, and guess what happened? Reality got saturated, and then all of a sudden great scripted dramas started to emerge, thanks to networks like HBO, Showtime, and shows like Breaking Bad.
15 years ago when scripted television was on its last legs, and writers in Hollywood were looking for buildings to jump off of, nobody would have thought that that ever would have ever happened. But what happened was out of necessity, and trying to carve out a niche and survive, somebody that was smart started creating really great story, with really compelling characters. And it wasn’t a new formula, that formula has existed since Shakespeare, but everyone got away from it, and everyone got away from it long enough that when it came back, all of a sudden it felt like it was new again. I think something like that will probably happen with wrestling. I don’t know when, where or how, I wish I did, but at its core wrestling has always been great story, great characters. You’ve got to put that in context, what Dick Van Dyke was back in the day is what’s different from what Modern Family is now. But within the context that we’re speaking right now, it’s been great story, great characters, and a great presentation, and wrestling will find its way again.
But it’s not until producers, and writers, and decision makers, and people who have the vision and ability to manifest their vision, commit to great story. You have to create anticipation within that story, if the element of anticipation is not there; it is not going to work. You have to get the audience to want to look forward to the outcome of that story. If they don’t look forward to the outcome of it, then you’re wasting your time. So you’ve got to check the story box, you’ve got to commit to the story; you’ve got to check the anticipation box. Any story has to be real enough, and believable enough, that whether you’re watching wrestling, or a feature film with a $200 million budget, or you’re watching a porn, it has to have enough of a story that the audience can suspend their disbelief and enjoy it. If you can’t engage the audience because what they’re seeing is kind of believable within the context of their expectations, they’re not going to buy it.
Imagine if you went to a $100 million budget action film, and right during the most intense scene of the entire movie, you saw a boom mic dropped down into the shot. You’d go fuck, he just took me out of the moment! That’s unfortunately what happens so much in wrestling today, not enough commitment is being made to make those stories believable, which enables suspension of disbelief. So you’ve got story, anticipation, reality, you need surprise. You need to keep the audience off balance. When the formula becomes so saturated within the viewer, that they know what’s going to happen, you lose them.
You have to keep the audience off balance, and you have to do that within the context of everything else. But you need surprise, from all of the research that I did right before Nitro, that’s when my perspective really crystallized for me, there was one common denominator in that research when it came to people who identified themselves as wrestling fans. The one thing common denominator was that they really enjoyed about wrestling over other programming, was that you never knew what was going to happen. That’s one of the things that really compelled me to do things that had never been done before when I launched Nitro: Lex Luger, giving finishes away, going live, going backstage, having action take place on the backstage lot. All of those things had never been done before, and by doing them I created that feeling, ‘Holy crap, I’ve got to watch that show to see what’s going to happen.’ Then the last one obviously is action. It’s a wrestling show, you’ve got to have great action. Nowhere in that 5 element formula, story, anticipation, reality, surprise, and action, is there talking segments. That’s just a thread that kind of ties all 5 of the other elements together, but when you make that the kind of format heavy element of your show, you’re way off the mark.
Speaking of unpredictability, you turned Hulk Hogan heel, at a time where he appeared to be getting a bit stale. Right now John Cena’s at a position where a lot of fans that are clamoring to see him turn heel. The reports that come out are that WWE are hesitant because they think it might hurt merchandise sales, and things like that. You turned Hogan heel, your top star, how did that affect merchandise sales? Like how were nWo shirt sales compared to Hulkamania shirt sales? I’m just curious from your perspective, with Hogan.
You’ve got to put everything in the proper context, there were no nWo shirts for sale before I turned Hulk Hogan heel. One disadvantage I had when I launched Nitro, compared to WWE, is that they had very sophisticated licensing and merchandise, WCW didn’t have any. This is one of the reasons I had to guarantee contracts, because if I didn’t guarantee how much money somebody was going to make, there was no chance in hell they were going to make enough to live off of if it was in part based on licensing and merchandising that didn’t exist. It is it is, and was what it was, based on what I inherited, when I inherited it. But it was also an advantage, because I didn’t have to risk the same type of financial impact that for example WWE might be analyzing, ‘Okay, what happens if John Cena merchandise goes away?’ I didn’t have that challenge, because I wasn’t making any anyways. I had nowhere to go but up.
How much involvement did you have in the development of Ready to Rumble? I actually love the movie, some people don’t, but I think the characters come from your home town in the movie, so how much involvement did you have?
Initially I sold the idea. Initially I was the person that [talked with Warner Brothers executives], there were a couple of writers I sat with and went through the script with, and developed it, in very early stages. I kind of put the deal together with Warner Brothers and Turner, Time Warner at the time. So I was pretty involved in the very beginning of it, and was in fact asked to play myself.
The Titus Sinclair character?
[Joe Pantoliano], he went onto become an actor on the Sopranos, and had a really great career. I was originally asked to play myself in that role, and had every intention of doing so, but that’s when the transition happened with me, and I left WCW and it obviously went in a different direction, but initially I had quite a bit of involvement, but that only lasted a couple of months.
Speaking of Ready to Rumble, I know you’ve talked about David Arquette winning the belt, but I’m not sure if you’ve touched on this. It’s been said that it was Tony Schiavone’s idea for Arquette to win the belt. Do you recall that at all, that it was Tony’s idea?
For Arquette to win the belt?
Yeah, for Arquette to win the belt.
No, this is the first time I’ve ever heard that.
That’s what Russo says, that Schiavone suggested the idea, then Russo ran with it.
Well, isn’t that interesting, that he doesn’t want to take responsibility for it (laughs), so he passes the heat to Schiavone. That’s just downright hilarious. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that, that’s great.
Whose idea was it to bring in Elisabeth to WCW, and how did Randy Savage feel about it at the time?
I can’t tell you how Randy felt, I can try and remember Randy’s reaction from my point of view, and it was positive. I think Randy and Liz, if I recall correctly, had clearly gotten over their personal issues, and gotten on with their lives. But Randy still had a deep affection for her, in a close friend kind of way, so there was no jilted husband wife animosity resent or jealousy, there was none of that. If anything, Randy was probably even moreso protective of her, like a big brother would be, like a good friend would be. As far as whose idea it was, I believe it was Hulk’s, to be honest with you.
Speaking of that, what was the Hogan and Savage friendship like during WCW? Was it a keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer type thing? Or had they mended fences at the time?
Yeah, it was Hulk who said man, you’ve got reach out to Randy, Randy’s really miserable, he doesn’t want to just be an announcer, he’s got this huge Slim Jim deal that will come with him. It was Hulk, and I remember taking the phone call, I was changing planes in Detroit. Some things I just remember vividly, that was one of them. He called me and said you’ve got to talk to Randy, kind of laid out the situation, I got his phone number and the rest his history. Once Randy got there, they were pretty tight.
They had their issues in the past, quite clearly, but they would often joke about it. It wasn’t like it was simmering on the edge, getting ready to boil over at any moment, that was not the case whatsoever. Now Randy being Randy, and I loved working with Randy and I miss him dearly, but Randy was an intense, wound up, super tight kind of guy. He would look for the hidden meaning, or the underlying intention about anything. If you said good morning to him, he would wonder what you were really thinking. It was just the nature of who he was. So there were times that the competitiveness reemerged, but for the most part it was a pretty friendly relationship.
Did you get any indication from Randy that he had burned his bridge with the WWF? Especially with the Slim Jim deal that you mentioned, because obviously he never went back there. Were you privy to any information about this?
No, I think the general attitudes, and feelings – I don’t want to suggest I know Vince McMahon, because I don’t. I’ve met him, I’ve worked with him, I’ve had some good conversations with him. I have what I think is a pretty good perspective and read on him, but by no means do I really know him or understand him completely, but I think at his core, Vince is a very loyal person. He understands the nature of the business, and the mentality in it. There have been so many times where people who have left, or left under good circumstances, or in many cases have done things that were pretty shitty to him, he’s brought them back, and given them a soft place to land. But, you don’t know that, until you land there (laughs), you don’t know until you come back. For the most part, I think the feeling was that once you leave Vince, and go to the competitor, that you had burned a bridge. I think in retrospect that’s not true, clearly, but at the time I think Randy’s perception was that it was over, it was done, and Vince would never bring him back.
Speaking of Randy’s brother, Lanny Poffo, he talks a lot about WCW paying him six figures a year, not doing any matches, I’m sure you know the whole story. What’s your perspective on the Lanny Poffo contract, did Randy ask you to put him under contract?
Yes. Randy took less money in a renegotiation, and made sure that Lanny got it, and that’s the truth.
What are your memories of working with Kevin Dunn?
I didn’t really interface too much with Kevin Dunn when I came to work. Occasionally, if there was something was was complex that needed quite a bit of rehearsal, and discussion, in a preproduction kind of way, I would interface with him as part of a group. I had no one on one with him, really the only conversations we had beyond rehearsal or preproduction notes were at the end of the show when the talent and some of the key production people would get together at the bar, Kevin would be there.
What are your memories of the segment on Smackdown where you kissed Stephanie McMahon?
(Laughs) That one I kind of remember because people keep sending it to me and going, “Wow, what were you thinking!?” So it’s kind of hard to forget it. My sense was that it was very unplanned, that it was kind of a spontaneous idea. It was weird, no doubt about it. That was not really part of my character, being a womanizer to that extent, or someone that would do that. I was always kind of a manipulative, smarmy, scamming, scheming, power hungry Ken doll. I was never the guy that was out trying to get laid (laughs), as a character. So it was kind of weird from that perspective. It was even more weird to have Vince McMahon directing the scene (laughs), that really made me feel awkward.
I came to learn really early in working with Vince, that he would never ask you to do something that he wouldn’t do himself. I really believe that to this day, and I believed it early on, and it became very apparent to me. Having watched some of the shit that he did, positions he put himself in as a character, things he let people do to him, I knew going in going in that he was a guy who was willing to put his money where his mouth was, so to speak, and he would never ask you to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Once you realize that, then you kind of cut through all the nonsense, ‘He’s trying to make me look bad.’ That stuff never occurred to me, to very honest.
The thing with Stephanie was a little too close to home, it was awkward, but it probably should have been. But once we got through the scene, and we were in the backstage area, it was fed live to the crowd, and I could hear the reaction of the crowd. I said, ‘Damn, this could be awesome. There’s some meat on this bone, there’s some story here. We could have fun with this.’ Just as quickly as it happened, it got dropped, and that was the end of it. I thought, okay, but, it was odd.
Did you see qualities in Triple H and Stephanie that made you think they could lead WWE one day? Because Kurt Angle told me a couple of weeks ago that Vince told him that Triple H is in charge now, obviously a blanket statement though.
When I was there, clearly Triple H had Vince’s ear to a degree, and I would be careful even to this day to quantify just how much of Vince’s ear anybody has, at any given moment, because Vince is a very strong, opinionated, experienced person, who has a great feel for things. He has a long track record of success, and failure, all of which he’s learned from. So I think he’s willing to listen to key people around him, I’m sure Triple H is one of them, as is as Stephanie, and I know Kevin Dunn is, and there may be others that I don’t even know about.
My impression is, this is obviously remote, I haven’t been there in a long time, does Vince has confidence in Triple H? Clearly, we’ve seen manifestations of that in the last couple of years, and Triple H is living up to Vince’s expectations I’m sure in many regards. But when I was there, as far as being in on the inner circle, Triple H was more talent than he was Vince’s right hand man. Vince was very, and probably still is, demanding of Stephanie. I think there’s one thing that I saw in Stephanie that made me think that she probably at some point could be Mini Me (laughs), so to speak, and I don’t mean that derisively, but she has a lot of Vince’s same personality traits and characteristics.
She’s super intense, she has an incredible work ethic, she is very strong willed, and she knows what she wants, and what she likes. I saw that when I watched her produce segments, I saw that when I watched her produce my segments. I watched that when I had her rehearse me over and over and over again, until she heard an inflection exactly the way she wanted to hear that inflection. That part of her personality is very similar to Vince’s, it was very very particular, so I saw indications of that early on, but I didn’t have an occasion to see that same thing out of Triple H, because he was probably 75% talent, and 25% in the circle so to speak.
What are your thoughts on Global Force Wrestling, and the news coming out that they are going to air a New Japan Pro Wrestling show on PPV in January?
I wish [Jeff Jarrett] the best, and I say that honestly and supportively. I hope that it works, I think people that are in the wrestling industry now, and people who wish they could break into the wrestling industry, and a lot of people that are watching wrestling, all hope that there is something more out there. So from that perspective of course, I want it to succeed. But the truth is I don’t know enough about New Japan Pro Wrestling any more, the New Japan Pro Wrestling that I used to work with when we were putting 80,000 people in the Tokyo Dome, is an entirely different company than it is today. So I just don’t know, the wrestling business in Japan is completely different today than it was back when I was heavily involved. So I just don’t know enough about it quite frankly to have any feel on how successful, or not successful, it could possibly be, but I have my fingers crossed, and I’ll be cheering him on.
What’s coming up with Bischoff Hervey Entertainment, do you think you could do another wrestling themed show again, like the celebrity wrestling one you did with Hulk? Also what other projects does Bischoff Hervey Entertainment have coming up?
Unfortunately the television industry often requires complete confidentiality when you’re in the middle of producing a show, because the network, the ones who write the check, they want to break the news, and the promotion, on their time frame, and certainly not on Eric Bischoff and Jason Hervey’s. We are currently working on a show right now for a major outlet that will probably start seeing in a couple of weeks, that we’re really, really excited about. We’ve had three seasons of Devil’s Ride with Discovery, it’s been very successful, and we’re looking forward hopefully to a 4th season on that. We’ve probably got 6 different shows right now in various stages of development, with various networks, so we’ve really got a lot going on, in regards to television.
Bischoff Hervey Entertainment also owns a significant portion of a company called MX Gaming. MX Gaming is a celebrity branded online waged, and social, slot machine, and gaming company, where we take established celebrity brands, for example we’ve got: David Hasselhoff, Hulk Hogan, Dennis Rodman, James Dean, Joe Frazier, Chuck Frazier, Missing In Action. We’ve got a brand new graphic novel project that we’ve acquired the right to called Hell Paso. All of those are being developed and distributed as waged casino style games over in Europe, around the world, outside of the United States where it’s not legal. We’re also converting the same titles to social gaming platforms, and we’ll be making that formal announcement really soon once the site is up and 1000% functional, and that’s a really big step for us. As far as doing another wrestling show, contractually neither Jason nor I can get involved in any wrestling related project, but that window is coming to a close in the next 4, 5, to 6 months. So once that contractual kind of limitation is no longer there, you never know, never say never.