The brand split is commonplace these days in pro wrestling, but it was an idea that Eric Bischoff had for WCW 23 years ago.
Bischoff has been on the record stating that his original plans called for WCW to fracture the company and produce an nWo Nitro and a WCW Thunder. He didn't want to actually do this at all, but a mandate from Turner would leave them no choice, as the production of Thunder was thrown in their laps.
"I get asked about that a lot and I haven’t really had to think about it," Bischoff told Fightful. "Really, the last four / five months when people have really asked me to try to explain why. Because I did. When we were mandated—it wasn’t a request. We fought it. I didn’t fight it hard enough as I probably should have in retrospect, but I don’t have that luxury any more—we were mandated. Ted Turner said, “Go do this.” TBS said, “I’ll put it on the air, but I don’t want to pay for it.” Nobody wanted to pay for it. We had to pay for it out of our own budget. We had to pay to put a show on a network. That’s called a “buy-on.” Those bitches never work out. They don’t. Buy-ons never work. But, we did it because we had to. The initial thought, because by the time the Thunder mandate came to us and we resisted it for as long as we could and Ted finally said, “Just go do it,” by the time we pulled the trigger and started developing it—that was the reasons I brought in Bret Hart. ‘Cause we saw the possibility coming down the road. It’s one of the reasons we expanded the NWO beyond the point of making any logical sense at all because we knew we had to have a roster ready when and if that Smackdown opportunity matured we had to be able to split Nitro & NWO and Thunder & WCW"
It didn't take long for Bischoff to realize that the vision he once had for a split roster and unique shows was not going to happen. Though the AOL Time Warner Merger wasn't official for two years after the debut of Thunder, Bischoff still looks to that as a point of issue. The unique rosters hadn't taken shape as of yet anyway.
"About a third of the way through that process, after we signed Bret Hart—and my time line isn’t that clear to me right now I don’t have all the stuff written down—but, probably a couple months or so, somewhere in there after we brought Bret Hart in is when, now with an AOL merger coming into the fold along with the Time Warner merger that I think had just been completed or was still processing on some levels—all of a sudden now we were forced to completely redo our budgets and our books in the middle of all that. That was the beginning of what became a very frustrating, and ultimately the led to the end of WCW in many respects," Bischoff stated. "Your listeners or your viewers at this point, anybody that reads this, doesn’t necessarily have to believe me because obviously I’m trying to defend myself to a degree or explain a situation. There’s a guy by the name of Guy Evans who wrote a book called [NITRO: The Incredible Rise and Inevitable Collapse of Ted Turner’s WCW]; Guy, who’s a legitimate journalist, and I separate that. I don’t mean to be derisive towards people who maybe didn’t go to journalism school. It doesn’t mean you can’t write, think and have opinions about things, but here’s a legitimate journalist who did the research and interviewed over a hundred people who were associated with the decision making processes, including outside of WCW. Meaning Turner executives from finance committee and the accounting and the legal departments. All of whom didn’t report to me. They may have handed a dotted line to me, but they reported to other people in the company. They are the ones who will substantiate a lot of what I’m saying in their own way."
As Eric noted, some won't accept the blame pointed towards the impending AOL Time Warner merger, and Bischoff seems okay with that because he thinks there were already issues before 1998.
"So much of the problem starting before Thunder was really everybody within," Eric said. "The frustrating part of all of this for me was the fact that so many people—people that read, think they know about wrestling, analyze it, write about it, try to convince people that they know what was really going on when they didn’t. They weren’t there. You can’t imagine how in 1998, when I had a budget that had been approved in the fourth quarter of ’97, I’m given that budget—first of the year, I start managing my business based on that budget. Half way through the year, after I’ve made a lot of commitments, by the way, all within the parameters of a budget that was approved by Turner finance ultimately. Now, half way through the year, they go, “Well, nah. We can’t do that. We want you to do these ten things instead.” All of which had to do with increasing my expenses and cutting my budget and the ability to continue doing things at the level I was doing them before. That’s when the wheels started coming off. They started wobbling at first, then one of them really started wobbling, and the rear view mirror started shaking and all of a sudden that one falls off. It’s not long, once you lose one wheel, the other three go pretty quick.
The former WCW President is not a fan of brand splits, at least as they're executed today. For Bischoff, much of the implementation defeats the original purpose of splitting them to begin with -- to establish stars and prevent overexposure. Based on what he told us, he thinks that WCW would have fallen victim to that as well.
"Well, it wouldn’t have worked," Bischoff admitted. "It would have been better for some of the top talent that we relied upon. For example, when Thunder kicked into gear—and I think that’s one of the things that killed it immediately. It’s why I have some pretty strong opinions about brand splits and why they’ve been unsuccessfully attempted ever since, a couple of periods of time where they looked like they might work, but for the most part it’s not been a successful concept anywhere, including WWE, in my opinion. Once you have talent appearing on one show and on another, your top talent—let’s just for discussion, not argument, say that the top 25% of your roster draws 75% of your revenue. Whatever that formula is. Your stars draw the money at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter what the business is. If it’s music, tv, movies, it doesn’t freakin’ matter. For the most part your stars draw 75-80% of your revenue. But, when you see those same top stars twice a week, “Ehh, maybe I’ll watch ‘em tonight. If I don’t watch, I’ll watch ‘em Thursday. Oh, shit, I got busy Thursday.” Before you know it, you’re diluting your own talent pool. You’re over exposing them and you’re over exposing their stories. You’re over producing because you have to keep that story alive across two prime time shows instead of one. I didn’t realize it while it was happening or I possibly would have attempted to change it if I could have. But, you’re killing yourself, and it would have been easier for some of the top talent. They would have felt better. It’s not that they minded working. But as a talent I would much rather keep my stock high, my credibility high, I would rather keep my audience wanting me to come back so they could get more as opposed to over indulging them. This would have still about as much. If they weren’t at TV, they would have been at a house show. If they weren’t at Thunder, they would have been somewhere else wrestling. It’s not that they would have been home drinking pina coladas and chasing their wives and girlfriends around a pool. They still would have been working. They just would have not been overexposed."
Today, WWE's brand split has been implemented for four years to often varying results of success and execution. Bischoff isn't convinced that they do it well, as NXT is the only program that looks any different from the others.
"NXT has to be because of the nature the venue that they produce it in. So, you’re not gonna be able to get a show, even if you want one, that looks and feels like RAW or Smackdown. Again, NXT was born, and still is, a developmental division of WWE, if you will. Yes, they’re putting it on television, but this is younger talent, fresher talent, they get to try different things, they’re not held to the same kind of standard, the filter is somewhat different than the filter on RAW and Smackdown. So, take NXT off to the side. It’s different because it has to be by virtue of what it is and more importantly where they shoot it. If you look at RAW and Smackdown—different colored lights. Right now, June 1st, fairly exclusive talent. That could change in a week, a month, or six months. I see that starting to happen already. Hopefully it doesn’t. Hopefully I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong plenty of times. So, I’ll invite this one. What we’re seeing right now is a show where talent, once again, can kinda go back and forth. We’ll see how that works. Hasn’t worked yet. But, beyond that, beyond this semi-exclusivity of the talent currently, one show’s red, one show’s blue. It’s the same people producing it. Of course it feels the same. It’s the same people, not writing it necessarily, but they’re from the same team of people that are writing it. All of whom have been trained, developed and made their way up the food chain presenting story and content to the head filter. Why would anybody expect it to feel different?," Bischoff wondered.
A brand split for WCW is nothing but a hypothetical now. Thunder launched at the beginning of 1998, and four and a half years later, WWE had purchased WCW and ECW and kicked off their own brand split. Would a split have caused more top talent and opportunity for WCW? It's interesting to look back at how different WCW would have been with a split implemented, but Bischoff says the "what if" is too much of a journey to go down.
"Then the opportunity that would have created—and I get a lot of heat, deservedly so, not trying to evade it, deny it, make excuses for it—yeah, a lot of that talent we brought into the NWO was less than star caliber. Yes, they were. But, those people would have been part of a roster, and had a more important role, had there been a NWO exclusive show and a WCW exclusive show, two separate brands. It’s a hypothetical rabbit hole. Once you go in, you can’t come out. Like Hotel California for rabbits. Who knows, you know? Had the merger not occurred, had WCW, like so many other companies—another book if people really, really want to understand and be able to talk about WCW, it’s impact, it’s history, the good, the bad, the good decisions, the bad decisions—read Guy Evans’ book and then read a book by an author by the name of Nina Munk. She wrote a book a long time ago called “When Fools Rush In.” She’s not a wrestling person. She’s a journalist. She wrote a story about the merger. So, it wasn’t just WCW that got hacked, slashed and mistreated as a result of everybody’s dream of increasing what is referred to as [IBEDA] within their respective divisions. So that their stock options would be worth even more money than if they had been hadn’t quite meet those [IBEDAs]. It was all driven, I don’t want to say by greed, but it’s the market. It’s what people do in publicly held companies. But, there was such a mad rush to get that [IBEDA] up to, I think it was something like 18-20%, which in previous years where we were considered successful it was 10% or 11%, we had to do it by robbing Peter to pay Paul and unfortunately WCW and a lot of other companies were Peter and got robbed by Paul. Had that not occurred, there’s a lot of dominos that wouldn’t have fallen the wrong way, in my opinion. But, we’ll never know if I’m accurate or not accurate, full of shit or not. We’ll never know," Bischoff said.
You can see Fightful's full interview with Eric Bischoff at the top of the page, but you can also check him out with Conrad Thompson on his 83 Weeks podcast each Monday on Westwood One. For bonus and ad-free episodes, you can also subscribe to Ad Free Shows.