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WHAT: What did you think of Vince Russo's booking?


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This seemed like a natural next step. At first, I was just going to do a daily WOTD post, but the board is still growing, and I didn't want anyone thinking they couldn't put in their two cents on Sting because he was Wrestler Of The Yesterday or whatever. So, I thought I'd vary things up a little. We did "Who?" with Sting. Today, we'll do "What?". Tomorrow we'll do "Where?" Monday (I don't do windows or weekends), we'll do "When?" Tuesday, we'll do "Why?" Wednesday, we'll do "How?" Then, we'll repeat the process.

 

So, the title of this one pretty much explains itself. What did you think of Vince Russo's booking? I personally think it was crap from start to finish and did a lot of irreparable long-term damage to pro wrestling.

 

Russo Argument #1: "He helped the WWF beat WCW and they had their most success ever under him."

I would disagree. While he was one of many contributing voices at the time, he was fortunate enough to be writing in a time when both Steve Austin and The Rock became red-hot stars, and they were destined for superstardom with or without Vince Russo's booking. Wrestling is a character-driven business. WCW's ratings and downfall had little to do with the resurgence of the WWF. While the fad audience the NWO drew did find a new toy in the Attitude era, WCW was still competitive for most of 1998 before shooting themselves in the foot with countless bad booking decisions in 1999. Russo was a guy who was in the right place at the right time. Also, comparing the WWF product in 1998-1999 to WCW's product in 1999-2000 shows that there were more factors at work in the WWF's success than Vince Russo. The fact that they were able to stay successful for another two years after he left shows that they were capable of succeeding without him.

 

Russo Argument #2: "He found something for everyone on the show to do."

This is one of the strongest pro-Russo arguments, that he gave angles to people in the midcard. I don't know that "finding something" for everyone equates to "finding something good" for everyone. Russo was known to do so many turns and swerves and big angles within a typical two-hour show that it would be hard to remember them all the end of the evening. He also didn't think wins and losses mattered, an attitude that has carried over to today's fanbase and made it very hard by extension for WWE to push new guys on top. He created a major "top this" mentality that had him constantly trying to put out a new segment more creative than his last segment, and as a result, you'd see someone like Rick Steiner turn 2-3 times in one PPV, as he did in 2000. He also didn't really play to the strengths of the wrestlers he was trying to push. Chris Benoit in late 1999 is the best example of this, because Benoit was a serious wrestler and he's pushing him amongst top guys in a setting that makes Benoit look like a fish out of water. He wasn't able to adapt to his talent, but rather he expected his talent to adapt to him. There's also the countless forgettable angles and logical plot holes that accompanied all of his busy-body midcard angles. Remember Beaver Cleavage "breaking character" in the middle of RAW? Or Hawk attempting to commit suicide by jumping off of the Titantron?

 

Russo Argument #3: "He wasn't given a fair chance in WCW."

Russo was given free reign in October of 1999, but complained that Standards & Practices were killing him because they wouldn't let Roddy Piper make jokes about overweight women. It's not like those jokes were going to affect the ratings anyway, but whatever. They were squarely in his corner and truly believed he had the goods to turn the product around until they started noticing more and more problems in his booking. He was booking to settle vendettas as much as anything. He did countless segments bashing Austin for refusing to work a program with Jeff Jarrett. He debuted the Oklahoma character, which made fun of Jim Ross's Bells Palsy condition. He had Kevin Nash dress up like Vince McMahon in the worst parody of all time. He was settling scores. The buyrate came in for Starrcade '99, and it was the lowest of the year, and that's when Bill Busch knew he had to take action. Granted, he replaced Russo with an even worse group of has-been bookers who didn't have the right view, either, but it was obvious at this point Russo wasn't the guy. Problems started again the second time around when he put the World title on both David Arquette and himself, and again used on-air time to air his grievances against Hulk Hogan. The ratings still weren't improving, the buyrates still weren't improving and the product was abysmal.

 

Russo Argument #4: "The average fan doesn't want to sit through a match longer than three minutes."

The beautiful thing about pro wrestling is that the promoters and bookers can create their own average fan. Russo was notorious for pandering to the lowest common denominator, getting people to watch wrestling as a Springer-esque freak show. The whole idea behind Crash TV was that the show would be so bad that you couldn't turn away because there was a perverse pleasure in watching it. When you book a product that doesn't respect itself or its fans, the average fan is going to be the type that enjoys that sort of thing. It's a total self-fulfilling prophecy. When you book a product that encourages intensity, athleticism, storyline continuity and payoffs, those are the sorts of things the audience is going to like, because that's the sort of audience you're going to draw. Now is a good time to mention that a researcher did a survey of the wrestling audience for WCW in 1999 of a huge cross-section of fans asking what they wanted from the product. The most popular answers were that they wanted less skits, less NWO, more wrestling and storylines that made sense. Russo went in the exact opposite direction, giving them more skits, more NWO, less wrestling and illogical storylines. The average WWF fan and average WCW fan were in some ways two different beasts, as previous surveys of WCW's audience had also indicated that they were mostly devoted sports fans. Russo tried to beat McMahon at his own game -- sports entertainment -- and Vince McMahon can NOT be outdone there.

 

Russo Argument #5: "He gave women a fair share in a male-dominated industry."

Sable was indeed a bigger ratings draw than Steve Austin in the first half of 1999, but Russo has often tricked himself into thinking that he used women as anything but eye candy. Hell, WWE doesn't have the most sterling reputation in terms of treating women with respect, but they have at least tried to make people like Stephanie McMahon and Trish Stratus actual wrestling characters who happen to be women. Even Sable was never really a character, and she was easily the most successful woman during his tenure. Women have truly never gotten their fair share in a male-dominated industry, and I won't argue that point, but I will argue that they fared any better under Russo than anyone else.

 

Obviously, my thoughts here are strong, but you may disagree or have things to add. What's your take on Vince Russo and his impact on wrestling?

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Guest The Man in Blak

Russo's greatest strength and weakness was a sensitivity to the lowest common denominator. In the WWF, Russo was the man for scripting the provocative storylines that allowed the company to attract a very popular demographic at the time (note the emphasis), which was the Jerry Springer "Crash TV" fanbase. He bridged the gap between the WWF and the casual fan, which had grown ever since Hulk Hogan left the federation.

 

Fortunately, the WWF had enough people with wrestling smarts to bail him out on the other half of the business. Russo's crazy storylines drew in the casual fan, but it's the wrestling kept them hooked. The WWF was the retailer, the manufacturer. Russo was the marketer, the guy to dress the product up and sell it to the masses, and - for a time - he was perfect in that role.

 

The problem is that Russo never adapted to the change in the audience. There was a small boost in WCW when Russo came aboard, a small crackling of energy from a paradigm shift, but Russo could never sustain the fire; he could get people to walk through the door, but the product was never good enough for them to keep coming back.

 

Part of that lies in WCW's complete incompetence when it came to the wrestling business. WCW never had anybody on "the other half of the business" to bail out Russo. Even worse, they made Russo the "de facto" guy for both sides by putting him in complete control and Russo was way out of his depth. So far out of his depth that he overcompensated with his strength - provocative, Crash TV writing - until it became a weakness.

 

But part of that lies in the fact that Russo never showed himself to have another gear; he was seemingly incapable of doing a regular storyline without massive swerves. Wrestling, like many other entertainment businesses, is fluid and dynamic; Crash TV was the ace up Russo's sleeve when the market wanted it but, when they moved on to other things, he never changed his approach to draw people back in.

 

I don't think Russo single-handedly killed WCW, as much of the damage was done before he ever walked through the door, but he certainly was a contributing factor in its demise.

 

One other part of the "irreparable damage" that you didn't mention - Russo's over-emphasis of the television rating versus the pay per view. Sure, the Monday Night Wars turned a new focus towards TV ratings, but Russo was so caught up in the ratings and drawing in the casual fan that he actually booked the PPVs - the real money - to lead into the free television shows.

 

When the product was at its peak (late '97, '98) and casual buzz was at its highest, its roaring success could conceal the ground that the WWF lost by this strategy. When the buzz wore off, it became hard for the WWF to recover because they had already trained their audience to see the PPV as just another cog in an ongoing storyline, rather than the climax. The PPV is the biggest medium for the wrestling half of the business, and Russo sacrificed it all for an increase in short-term success.

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One other part of the "irreparable damage" that you didn't mention - Russo's over-emphasis of the television rating versus the pay per view. Sure, the Monday Night Wars turned a new focus towards TV ratings, but Russo was so caught up in the ratings and drawing in the casual fan that he actually booked the PPVs - the real money - to lead into the free television shows.

 

When the product was at its peak (late '97, '98) and casual buzz was at its highest, its roaring success could conceal the ground that the WWF lost by this strategy. When the buzz wore off, it became hard for the WWF to recover because they had already trained their audience to see the PPV as just another cog in an ongoing storyline, rather than the climax. The PPV is the biggest medium for the wrestling half of the business, and Russo sacrificed it all for an increase in short-term success.

I think you are confusing Russo with Bischoff here. Actually, I think WCW with the NWO at its height was a worse offender of using ther PPV as a shill than the WWF. How many times did a WCW PPV end with "Tune into NItro to find out or leave a PPV with a cliffhanger"?

 

I think the WWF took their cue from WCW in this regard.

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Guest Some Guy

Russo booked PPVs in WCW as if they were free TV shows, not just to build up to them.

 

I think the thing that encapsulates Russo perfectly is the "Rock: This is your Life" segment. It had a great start with two great mic workers delivering and no satifying ending. That's has Russo booked everything, there was never a blowoff. Feuds never really ended conclusively, rather the guys just moved on to someone else.

 

He didn't seem to grasp that wretling is about selling PPVs and putting asses in seats. By booking the PPVs as though they were just a commercial free episode of Nitro he killed the buyrates. He may have given evryone storylines but somehow Chavo the Amway salesman wasn't exactly lighting up the box office.

 

The only instance of Standards and Practices killing a gimmick that was over was the West Hollywood Blondes, which wasn't even Russo's idea. Russo tried to recreate the WWF Attitude in WCW but tried with guys who couldn't pull it off like Jarrett. He for what ever reason decided that JJ should be the focal point of hte show despite the fact that he had never been over in either of his 3 stints in WWF or his prior stint in WCW. The only time he came close was suring his anti-woman gimmick in 99, anyone could have gotten booed by the 30 women in the audience with that material. And he tried push WCW in the direction that the WWF was pushing itself away from, so WCW looked like they were way behind the curve and really looked dated, it was sort of like WCW circa 94 all over again.

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There's also the issue of sponsorship. Wrestling didn't have the best reputation anyway, but the image of the WWF Russo was selling to the masses wasn't one many advertisers wanted associated with their brand. While the PTC backlash and the sponsors leaving happened after Russo left, a lot of the controversy happened because of angles Russo wrote, specifically Mark Henry getting a blowjob from a transvestite. WWE did flounder for the last two months or so of 1999, trying to continue the Russo formula, but when they realized the new talent they were getting in from WCW was mostly guys whose biggest strengths were shown bell-to-bell, they made some moderations. I thought they had a great formula in 2000 -- sure, there were still hangers-on like The Godfather, but he was in the opening match and popped the crowd and the wrestlers who followed him weren't going to have to break their necks to top him and put out something good. The product was fun and there were tons of fun characters, but the belts were pushed as the centerpieces of the storylines and they were elevating pretty much anyone who got a pop. That mindset didn't last long, as we well know now, but it just goes to show that the WWF, as always, were the trendsetters in the industry and WCW was trying to present a watered-down version of what the WWF was doing two years before, only without the strong characters and main eventers who were willing to bust their asses.

 

As for the point when PPVs and TV shows started running together, I think it happened in November of 1995 when WCW put Hulk Hogan v Sting, one of the easiest guaranteed big money matches they had, on free TV just to beat RAW in the ratings, since they were coming off of a hot Survivor Series with a Bret Hart title win. By 1996, you had World title changes happening on free TV, which never would have happened even a year earlier.

 

While I think it's good to give midcarders storylines, I don't think Russo went about it in the right way. Simply put, you want everyone on your show to have heat, but if everyone is a huge superstar, then no one is really a huge superstar. When you oversature the midcard with angles, the main event loses a lot of its luster, and it's the main event that's expected to sell the next show.

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Guest Bruiser Chong

Man, this one got in-depth quickly. I'll just throw in my two cents for now. In retrospect I hate Russo's booking, but at the time, I obviously liked something about it, since I had been fading away from pro wrestling until the Stone Cold era was born.

 

You could argue that my interest was regenerated not because of his booking but because of the array of new people on my TV screen every week. Wrestlers were no longer stagnant or fighting over issues that no one in their right mind should care about. Yeah, Russo's angles pushed the envelope, but after a dry spell of storylines (a pirate steals Bret Hart's leather jacket, anyone?) in the WWF, I think a change needed to be made.

 

This may not have been a call for Russo, since in the end, all they needed to do was get more with the times, push new people and produce angles that hadn't been done in the company previously.

 

One thing that I wasn't too fond of from the outset was the raunch factor that they incorporated into their product. I'm not sensitive about these things, but up until that point, wrestling had always been something that my whole family could watch. It had been a long-running tradition that my uncle would come over with his kids and their friends for every PPV event. We'd order pizza, my mom would make dessert, and we'd have a great time, regardless if the show sucked (and there were plenty of them, since the peak of our tradition took place during the New Generation era).

 

Russo's booking and insistence on making the product like an offshoot of Springer essentially killed one of my most beloved traditions. The PPVs began to start at 8 P.M., instead of 7, and thus, they ran a bit too late for everyone's liking. My uncle began to lose interest and eventually, only came for big shows like Wrestlemania. Once my uncle stopped coming, my mom had no reason to stick around for the shows. My brother, who'd never been a huge fan to start with, also felt no reason to watch the PPVs. So because of the later starting times and more risque storylines, what had once been a big family tradition transformed itself into me watching every PPV alone.

 

Change is an inevitable factor in life, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that the WWF got a facelift when it did. It needed one. Looking back, though, Russo didn't have to be the surgeon.

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I think we should mention that without three characters... Stone Cold, The Rock, and Mick Foley (hell, you can leave off Mick if you want to).... it would not have mattered what Russo did. These three had the charisma and the mic skills to carry the storylines regardless of how ridiculous or convoluted they may have been.

 

Russo's impact relied on these guys to get it over. Without them, none of us would even know Russo's name. He would have been insignificant.

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Guest Some Guy

I'd throw in DX too. They were probably number two in influence behind Austin in 98. I was in high scholl then and everybody was crotch chopping at one another. They never really had a defining storyline in the HHH era of the group but Russo's writing was evident (pissing on motorcycles, invading WCW, mooning people, having girls show their tits, etc...)

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Guest Some Guy

I didn't say they were the reason, but they did have a huge influence on teenagers and kept them watching in between Austin/Vince segments. Russo came up with other characters that were entertaining enough to keep 16 year olds watching, like Val and Godfather.

 

I was just thinking back to how much talent they had then who could have been stars now that they've wasted (Val, D-Lo, TAKA, Gangrel, Headbangers) and how many guys came through who should have been used better (O'Hare, Raven, Page, Goldberg, Awesome, and all the cruisers) It's pretty pathetic actually that they refused to come up with anything productive for them to do or booked them totally wrong.

 

Russo didn't really create main event stars (who drew money) but he did give a bunch of guys stupid characters that people still remember. As opposed to now where they don't create main event stars who draw and the mid card has no characters that people will remember.

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Guest Bruiser Chong

I think we should mention that without three characters... Stone Cold, The Rock, and Mick Foley (hell, you can leave off Mick if you want to).... it would not have mattered what Russo did. These three had the charisma and the mic skills to carry the storylines regardless of how ridiculous or convoluted they may have been.

I agree with this, just because we saw what happened with ridiculous storylines that pushed the boundries of good taste and didn't involve talented wrestlers/characters.

 

That isn't to say that the Rock could have gotten over a necrophilia angle, but it probably wouldn't have bombed as badly as it did.

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Then again, would the Rock even need a necrophilia angle? Most of the Rock's feuds were contingent on his mic work. Rock talks trash. Someone answers. Rock talks his opponent down. Feud.

 

Now... compare that with HHH and allof the stupid angles he has been a part of in a futile attempt to make him interesting.

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Guest The Man in Blak

Here's a theory:

 

Assume that Vince Russo had never been given the job of writing storylines in the late 90's for the WWF and that the WWF had continued as they had until today.

 

If Russo was hired for the first time today and wrote the same stuff that he did in 1998, do you think it would be popular?

 

I personally don't think so. The social climate in 1998 is a lot different than the current public sentiment, and many of Russo's sensationalist plot twists probably would have been booed out of the building today...and that's why I think Russo's skill as a writer is very overrated. He had exactly one approach to many of his writings - an approach that was in line with what people wanted in 1998, but one approach nonetheless.

 

I think you are confusing Russo with Bischoff here. Actually, I think WCW with the NWO at its height was a worse offender of using ther PPV as a shill than the WWF. How many times did a WCW PPV end with "Tune into NItro to find out or leave a PPV with a cliffhanger"?

 

I think the WWF took their cue from WCW in this regard.

I can't really recall that many blatant instances from 1998-era WCW, but that doesn't mean that they didn't happen (it could mean that I've just slept since then :) ).

 

I think that you could say that WCW was more guilty of absolutely terrible upper card booking. Many of those early nWo PPVs would finish in a complete screwjob, somebody would turn "nWo", and chaos would ensue. Sure, the reaction to that nWo turn would happen on Nitro, but that's no different than any other post-PPV reaction that would typically inhabit the post-PPV Nitro.

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Guest Some Guy

Here's a theory:

 

Assume that Vince Russo had never been given the job of writing storylines in the late 90's for the WWF and that the WWF had continued as they had until today.

 

If Russo was hired for the first time today and wrote the same stuff that he did in 1998, do you think it would be popular?

 

I personally don't think so. The social climate in 1998 is a lot different than the current public sentiment, and many of Russo's sensationalist plot twists probably would have been booed out of the building today...and that's why I think Russo's skill as a writer is very overrated. He had exactly one approach to many of his writings - an approach that was in line with what people wanted in 1998, but one approach nonetheless.

 

 

I agree with you. 7 years is a long time in pop culture. But saying someone isn't a good booker/writer because what they did wouldn't work now is unfair. The storylines from the 80s wouldn't work today, but they were successful. Russo's wouldn't work today but it was successful for a time.

 

In 1998 the country and world were a different place. The country is far more conservative now one could argue that Vince Russo was part of the reason for the shift. His writing set off the PTC and while they over-reacted, they were right about the content of the shows being way over-the-top and inapropriate for young kids. Hell, even Mick Foley, who part of the show said that he wouldn't have allowed his kids to watch if he wasn't on. And Mick is not exactly a conservative.

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