Bryan Alvarez on TNA ratings patterns and why the creative team must be replaced

Originally published on October 19, 2010 in Figure Four Weekly

By Bryan Alvarez
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Coming off Bound for Glory 2010, TNA Impact did its highest rating on a Thursday night since January 21, 2010, a 1.37 with 1.9 million viewers. The rating was cause for celebration among most at Spike TV and TNA. But the overall number also blinded people to a disturbing stat, a badly declining ratings pattern throughout the show, and so it is that immediately after TNA scored its highest rating since January, I am again calling for the current writing team to be replaced.

It is no secret that I'm not a fan of Impact. I think it is largely a terrible pro-wrestling show. Obviously there are a lot of people who disagree with me. In fact, I can give you a number, approximately 1.5 million people in the United States. This is pretty much TNA's base audience on Thursday nights at 9 p.m. These people are going to watch Impact no matter how good or bad the show is. A small number of them will tune out if there is very strong competition on another channel, but in general, these are the super hardcore TNA viewers. I can tell you from experience that they are very passionate fans, and they get very upset if you tell them that Impact sucks. I can also tell you that as passionate as they are about TNA, they aren't passionate enough to spend money on the product to anything resembling what would be required for TNA to be profitable.

When people talk about the lack of growth in TNA, a lot of different factors are cited. The one I hear most often is that there is a lack of awareness of the product. Several former WWE stars who are now in TNA have noted that fans often ask why they're not wrestling anymore, as if they are completely oblivious to the fact that TNA exists. Others repeat ad nauseum in interviews that they just have to get people aware of TNA, and once they do TNA will be competitive with WWE. And of course you have people defending TNA's usage of B-level celebrities, saying that when, for example, JWoww gets mentioned on, that increases the awareness of TNA which could lead to more people sampling the product.

Here's the problem. The "lack of awareness of TNA" is a myth that should have been dispelled in January of this year. Lost in the story of the failed Monday Night War of 2010 is the fact that, for at least 15 minutes, the War was not a failure at all. On January 4th at 9 p.m. ET (meaning this doesn't count a single viewer of the West Coast feed), exactly 8,329,000 people were watching professional wrestling in America. To put this in perspective, let's jump back pretty much exactly ten years to October 16, 2000, during the waning days of the Monday Night Wars. Now granted, WCW was close to death, but they were still doing a 2.33 rating, and Raw was doing a 4.83. The combined audience for the night was 7.6 million viewers -- almost 1 million viewers less than were watching Raw and Impact on January 4, 2010. One month later, in what was considered a good week for Raw and Nitro at the time, the combined audience was 8.1 million, still less than the number of people watching Raw and Impact on January 4th.

Impact at 9 p.m. on January 4th was viewed by 2.9 million people. Last week's Smackdown on Syfy was viewed by 2.6 million people over the entire two hours. More people were watching Impact at 9 p.m. on January 4th then watched Smackdown on Syfy last week. For a more fair comparison, the difference between Impact's January 4th 9 p.m. quarter hour rating and the entire Smackdown season average for 2009-2010 was only 400,000 viewers.

This does not sound like a lack of awareness of TNA to me.

The bottom line is that the issue is not that people don't know TNA exists. The issue is that there are a lot of people that know it exists and think it sucks.

Impact this past Thursday night opened at a 1.53 rating and 2.1 million viewers. That means that 600,000 people who don't normally watch the show tuned in. Spike TV believed it was due to JWoww's appearance on the show, though that doesn't really make any sense when you consider that her quarter hour ended up doing the lowest-rated quarter of the entire two-hour block. Most likely, 600,000 people heard about Bound for Glory and Jeff Hardy's heel turn and were intrigued enough to check out the show.

Why would people check out a show that they had already given up on probably several times in the past? The answer, to me, has to do with the most infuriating thing about Impact. I can handle a bad television show that has no redeeming qualities. I enjoyed the first episode of Wrestlelicious, for example. I would watch Heroes of Wrestling again. I have fond memories of YAMMA. I wouldn't want to watch these types of shows every week or even every month, but as occassional stand-alone events I am able to amuse myself by sitting there in awe at the stupidity of it all. With Impact, it's different. The reason people are willing to come back here and there and give Impact another chance is because they have HOPE. TNA has a roster of great wrestlers. It could probably be argued that their roster is more talented than WWE's top-to-bottom. If you ignore the booking, Impact itself has a more exciting and dynamic feel than Raw. And because they don't script everything or put handcuffs on people, for the most part the interviews are much better and there is a greater variety of wrestling styles.

All of these positives are rendered moot by the idiotic booking and frenetic nature of Impact. This is not an opinion. This is a statement borne out of hard data, Thursday's rating being a prime example. It would be one thing if the rating pattern, which saw the show fall from a 1.5 to 1.2 over two hours, was an abberation, but it's not. With rare exceptions, the pattern is an ongoing collapse.

I enjoyed the first 45 minutes or so of Impact. Sure, there wasn't a shred of wrestling on the show during that period, but to me, the amount of in-ring action on a show is not the most important factor in determining whether a show is any good. To me, the determining factor of whether a show is any good is if it's any good. Meaning, if you only have five minutes of wrestling on a two-hour show, but the remaining one hour and 55 minutes of non-wrestling is great, it's a great show. On the flip side, if you have a show that features one hour and 45 minutes of wrestling in a two-hour program, and that wrestling is all horrible, the show sucks. Wrestling shows are good or bad based on the quality of what is presented, regardless of what that is.

The first "wrestling match" on Impact was Tara laying down for Madison Rayne in what was actually an angle disguised as a three-second wrestling match. It was god-awful, and not just because Eric Bischoff, in ten years, learned nothing about the Finger Poke Of Doom spot and the wonders it does for business. Not that the Knockouts title is going to make a difference anyway, but still. My patience was beginning to wear thin. We then got another thirty straight minutes of talking. I should note that if a single person actually did tune into Impact to see JWoww, after an hour and fifteen minutes of talking – particuarly fifteen minutes of that going head-to-head with the real Jersey Shore – those people were long gone by the time she came out. I thought to myself at the hour and fifteen minute mark that this was the period where there had to be a giant exodus from the show, because if this wasn't my job that was the point where I'd have completely given up.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the ratings pattern and found that the show dropped from a 1.43 to a 1.35 during that segment and never recovered. (For those imagining, I was not surprised at all.) In fact, it fell steadily from that point forward. Earlier I said the show closed at a 1.23, but that's not entirely correct. The two-hour period ended there, but the main event of the show went 15 minutes into Reaction from 11-11:15 p.m. and did a 1.15 rating. Keep in mind that Raw sometimes adds 1 million viewers for their main event overrun periods at 11 p.m. TNA not only didn't add anything close to that, but their main event, which they spent two hours building towards, where Mr. Anderson and Rob Van Dam fought to determine who would face the newly-turned Jeff Hardy for the TNA Title, lost 110,000 viewers.

Celebrating over the biggest rating since January misses the most important point about this show. It is such an important point that TNA ignoring it is the biggest example of why they have no chance of success with the current group of people in charge. The fact is this: TNA did its highest rating since January because 600,000 new viewers decided to give them a shot after Bound for Glory and Jeff Hardy's heel turn. By the time the show was over, statistically, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE WAS GONE.

The importance of this fact cannot be understated, because it's the single biggest reason that TNA cannot garner any sort of real momentum. The story of the Monday Night Wars was that a bunch of new people -- well over a million, in fact -- gave TNA a chance, and within a matter of weeks the programming was such that they gave up. That is the story. And despite the massive failure that was this war, TNA didn't change ANYTHING. The same booking committee is still in charge, and here we are nine months later with the EXACT same thing happening all over again.

Now, granted, this is an awful lot to write about one week's rating, especially during the week that it occurred. Maybe they'll do another 1.4 this coming Thursday and by mid-November have 2.1 million viewers consistently watching the show. Personally, I believe that this story will be just as valid in mid-November as it is today, because the fact of the matter is that the same booking committee is still in charge, and since the same thing happened last week that happened in January, I am confident – overly confident, in fact – that this same ratings pattern will continue unabated.

Here is an interesting fact. As noted, Thursday's Impact rating fell off at 10:15 p.m. and never recovered. Guess what happened on October 7th? Same thing. Show fell from a 1.44 at 10:15 to a 1.32 and never recovered. September 30th? Fell from a 1.25 at 10:15 to a 1.21, then to a 1.10 and a 1.08. September 23rd? Fell from a 1.06 at 10:15 to a 1.04, then down to a 1.03 and a 1.0. September 16th? Fell from a 1.33 at 10:15 to two straight 1.12s and a 1.10 to finish.

This is a ridiculously consistent pattern. There was not even a single aberration in five straight weeks. When people tell me that they think Impact is good, I am baffled and wonder by what set of criteria they are applying this label. Any other two-hour entertainment product in the world that had a consistent turn-off factor at the 75-minute mark would not be considered good. Imagine the review a movie would get if Roger Ebert noted that a fair percentage of the audience walked out halfway through it. Imagine what would happen to your average network television show if, during the pilot episode, a substantial portion of the audience tuned out halfway through and the final quarter of the show was the lowest-rated of the night. In fact, you don't have to imagine. I'll tell you. That movie would be skewered and that television show would be canceled, regardless of whether it had further episodes in the can or not.

How about some examples? In the past month alone, both Lone Star and The Outlaw were both canceled. Lone Star, which ran at 9 p.m. on Fox, did poor ratings the first week and lower ratings on week two. The conclusion was that most people weren't interested going in, and many that tuned in for week one didn't like it enough to come back for week two. It was promptly canceled. This is what happened with Impact over several weeks in January, and what continues to happen with Impact over two hours on a regular basis. The Outlaw was also canceled. This NBC show did a 1.0 on week one, and even though viewers were down 11 percent on week two it managed to hold steady with another 1.0 rating. Steady, however, does not equal success on NBC. Canceled.

"No network, cable or otherwise, wants to see declines from a show week to week," said one television source. "Let alone inside the content of a show."

Raw has been declining week-to-week, people will say. This is true, as the show goes head-to-head with a strong season of Monday Night Football. But Raw is still pulling 4.5 million viewers per show, sometimes as high as 5 million, and it is a rare week when the second hour of Raw shows a decline from hour one. In fact, when it happens, a couple of times per year at most, it is a pretty big story. People will note that Raw also has a consistent 10:15 p.m. drop. Also true. However, unlike with TNA, those people who drop come back for the main event en masse. Nobody I talked to in WWE could even remember a time when the quarter-hour ratings for the entire show fell consistently throughout the evening, or a time when the main event was the lowest-rated segment on the show. If this ever happened, a WWE source deadpanned, "it’d be a bad day the next day." Yet for TNA and Spike TV, Thursday's rating was cause for celebration.

To me, opening at 2.1 million viewers and closing at 1.6 million is not cause for celebration. What I would like to see is TNA opening at 2.1 million viewers and closing at 2.5 million. Frankly, even that should not be cause for celebration because that's what any other television show anywhere in the known world would be expected to do. TNA fans should not hold Impact to a drastically lower standard just because they are fans of the show. That is counterproductive. They should demand, at worst, the same standard of quality as any other successful television show, which includes a writing team that can do what any other writing team anywhere else on television would be expected to do, that being sustain or grow the viewership over a two-hour period. They should particularly demand this of TNA, since this writing crew clearly would rather be television sitcom writers than wrestling bookers.

I once ranted about a gold boat on one of our radio shows. Basically, TNA fans like to claim that the reason I complain about TNA all the time is because I hate the company and want it to die. This could not be further from the truth. As a fan, the best house show I ever attended was a TNA house show in Kent, Wash., and if I could see the talent in TNA utilized in such a fashion every Thursday night at 9 p.m. I'd be as happy as a person could be. From a business standpoint, our website is so much more successful now than when I only published a print newsletter that it's not even funny. If the Monday Night Wars of the mid-'90s were happening today, I cannot even imagine the level of success we'd achieve. I would have enough money, I said on that radio show, to buy a boat made out of solid gold, and tie it to palm trees in my front yard here in Seattle. There is literally no good reason, either as a fan or businessperson, for me to desire that TNA cease to exist. This is the entire reason I get so upset – because TNA has a world of potential and the continual failures and ongoing disaster that is TNA Impact is infuriating.

If TNA fans really loved TNA, instead of complaining about people who dissect Impact they should take a close look at the hard evidence which very clearly points to the Impact booking committee being the single biggest hindrance to the further growth of the company. You will notice that I have not mentioned the name of any single individual on the writing committee. That is because to me it does not matter who the head writer is as long as that person is producing a successful product. If the person pulling the strings is causing TNA to dance its way towards success it would not matter to me if that person was Kim Kardashian (who, given the near-inexplicable success of her show and the strong and consistent increase in ratings season to season, might be a better Impact booker than those presently writing for TNA). Instead of complaining about "biased journalists" or people "holding a grudge," TNA fans should look in the mirror and realize that their blind support of a terrible product will do far more damage long-term than addressing the very serious issues at hand. The current booking committee has been given chance after chance and show a continued inability to produce a television program that either sustains the interest of new viewers or causes the current viewers to spend money on the product. Therefore, they have failed at at every measurable aspect of their job. If TNA is ever going to have a real chance to succeed, this committee must be replaced.

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