1,000 raw nights
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I willingly suspend my disbelief in order to enjoy entertaining performers tell stories
WWE Reaches a Programming Milestone
On Monday, January 11, 1993, that all changed. The WWE's usual Monday night program on the USA Network was called Prime-Time Wrestling and featured taped matches and discussion-type segments with Vince McMahon and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, among others, in a studio setting. It was great if you were a big fan, but could often be decidedly low-key and, well, boring. If you turned on the USA Network on January 11, 1993, though, you turned into the first episode of WWE's Monday Night Raw. Instead of talking heads in a studio, there was a cheering crowd. Instead of taped matches with a top-level wrestler against a nobody, there were pay-per-view quality matches between stars. Instead of what we were used to, it was live. "Raw" was the perfect title for the program because the energy instantly made it into something completely different than WWE had ever aired before. That first episode of Monday Night Raw was a few days before my 13th birthday, and Raw became a memorable part of my teenage years as the wrestling product that exploded in the 1980's matured and became gritty, risque, and, yes, cool.
The WWE had a few years to go before Monday Night Raw truly matured, though. When the program first started in 1993, the WWE's talent roster was filled with characters who were usually given gimmicky roles or jobs. There were plumbers, clowns, race car drivers, and garbage men who certainly made it difficult at times to be a wrestling fan. The cartoonish characters were an odd fit on the WWE's new prime-time program. At first, they aired live from a ballroom in the Manhattan Center in New York City -- an intimate theater right on 34th Street that was so small that WWE personnel had to make several trips in a elevator with pieces of the ring so that they could assemble it upstairs. Raw had a gritty logo, it was loud, there was great energy in the tiny theater, and despite the cartoonish characters, there were also some legendary talents like Shawn Michaels and Bret "Hitman" Hart having great matches every week.
On Monday, July 23rd, the WWE and the USA Network will celebrate an historic milestone as they broadcast the 1,000th episode of Monday Night Raw from the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri. The 1,000th episode is also the beginning of a new era for WWE and USA as Raw moves to a three-hour format, with a new start time of 8:00 PM (7:oo PM Central). With 1,000 episodes and counting, Raw is one of the longest-running television programs of all-time and the WWE is quick to brag that there have been more original episodes of Raw than popular television series such as The Simpsons, Gunsmoke, Lassie, and Monday Night Football. Critics love to point out that many talk shows and game shows have aired more episodes than Raw, but any way that you look at it, the WWE's accomplishment is impressive. Not only does 1,000 episodes show impressive staying power in the cruel world of entertainment, but Raw is a weekly, episodic series that normally clocks in at about 2 hours, 15 minutes each week (there is often an overrun of Raw's final segment into the ensuing program). With July 23rd's 1,000th episode and shift to a three-hour format, the sheer amount of original programming created each week by WWE deserves notice.
Monday Night Raw has long moved out of the intimate Manhattan Center (although I often think it would be fun to see WWE broadcast every once in a while from the theater). In the mid-1990's, a combination of the cartoonish characters of the time and defections of some of the WWE's biggest stars to the rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW) promotion of deep-pocketed Ted Turner resulted in financial setbacks for Vince McMahon's company. To cut costs, Raw would broadcast live every other week instead of each Monday, taping the next week's episode following each live broadcast. The WWE lost some of its most famous wrestlers -- Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Razor Ramon (Scott Hall), and Diesel (Kevin Nash) most notably -- to WCW and Turner's promotion decided to challenge McMahon and the WWE in another way. WCW was given its own Monday night, prime-time cable program on Turner's TNT network -- Nitro. The head-to-head battle between the WWE and WCW turned the late-1990's into a golden age for professional wrestling fans, and the real-life weekly Raw vs. Nitro feud would later be known as the "Monday Night Wars". The Monday Night Wars wasn't simply good for wrestling fans, they were a boon to cable television operators. At the height of the Raw vs. Nitro battle, well over 10 million Americans watched professional wrestling every Monday night.
With Monday Night Raw facing competition from WCW's Monday Nitro, the WWE realized that changes needed to be made. Professional wrestling was at its peak and almost always among the highest-rated programs on cable television each week. The talent defections to WCW and the success of WCW's Monday Nitro on TNT actually led to WCW surpassing the WWE as the number one wrestling promotion in North America in the late-1990's and in the weekly ratings battle, Nitro began beating Raw, helped by the fact that Nitro was live every week while Raw was only live every other week. When a live Nitro was broadcast head-to-head against a taped Raw, WCW would often use cutthroat tactics to lure viewers away from the USA Network such as giving away the results of the WWE matches. For 84 straight weeks, WCW Monday Nitro defeated WWE's Monday Night Raw in the head-to-head Monday night ratings battle.
Although WCW was coasting in the ratings battle, there were internal problems within the company, as well as major shifts in WCW's parent company (first Turner Broadcasting, and acquired later by AOL Time Warner). Plus, the stars that had defected from WWE and helped WCW grow in popularity had become stale along with WCW's storylines. WWE featured younger stars and a much edgier product. The fans who had grown up with Hulk Hogan's Rock-N-Wrestling Connection cartoon in the mid-1980's -- fans like me -- were now 16-to-25 years old and the Hulkster wasn't cutting it anymore ("Brother!"). On Monday Night Raw, acts like Shawn Michaels and Triple H's D-Generation X group were not only pushing the envelope, but often ripping the envelope up, lighting the pieces on fire, and tossing gasoline on the flames. And they were doing that with funny, edgy language and scantily-clad women nearby.
In 1998, Vince McMahon brought Mike Tyson into the WWE to serve as a special guest referee at WrestleMania XIV. Tyson was in the midst of a lengthy suspension after infamously biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear during a fight and was one of the most popular, controversial, and unpredictable personalities in the world. Tyson's involvement excited casual fans just as much as the hardcore fans and resulted in more attention than usual from mainstream media sources such as ESPN, particularly an episode of Monday Night Raw where Tyson was confronted by the WWE's biggest star, Stone Cold Steve Austin. The night after WrestleMania XIV, for the first time in 84 weeks, more people tuned into Monday Night Raw on the USA Network than WCW's Nitro on TNT. It was the beginning of the end of the Monday Night Wars. Nitro won the ratings battle against Raw just a handful of times in 1998 and then never beat the WWE again. For the next two years, Vince McMahon and WWE owned WCW in the ratings. By March 2001, McMahon literally owned his former rival after Turner Broadcasting decided to cancel all wrestling programming on their networks.
The Monday Night Wars ended over a decade ago, but Monday Night Raw continues as a weekly presence, and, as the expanded three-hour format beginning July 23rd shows, remains a favorite for the programmers at the USA Network. In 2000, WWE accepted a lucrative contract from Viacom to move Raw to TNN and then re-branded TNN as Spike TV, but in October 2005 Raw returned to the USA Network with a special episode called "WWE Raw Homecoming". While ratings are no longer at the levels that they were during the Monday Night Wars, Monday Night Raw remains one of the most popular weekly programs on cable television even with formidable head-to-head competition such as Monday Night Football during the NFL season.
For me, I find it hard to believe that I've been watching Monday Night Raw for nearly 20 years. I'm not sure how many of the 1,000 episodes that I have seen, but as a fan who literally grew up with the program, some of the biggest moments in Raw's history end up as markers for my own life. I vividly remember the fact that the very first episode of Monday Night Raw took place less than two weeks before I attended my first-ever WWE pay-per-view event live, the Royal Rumble in Sacramento. I recall flipping back-and-forth between Raw and Nitro during the Monday Night Wars, leaving the channel on the program that featured the wrestlers I liked best or the storylines that I found most interesting. When Mike Tyson and Stone Cold Steve Austin had their big confrontation and it ended up on ESPN's SportsCenter, I felt proud in a way, because I had seen it on Raw as it happened. In 2003, I watched faithfully in the weeks leading up to WrestleMania XIX because I was excited that I'd be attending the WWE's biggest event of the year, which has turned into professional wrestling's version of the Super Bowl, when it took place in Seattle.
On many of those 1,000 nights, I've watched entertaining interviews, exciting matches, and compelling storylines. I've never sat in front of the television while watching Monday Night Raw thinking "This is fake" because I know what it is. I willingly suspend my disbelief in order to enjoy entertaining performers tell stories -- sometimes with their words, but mostly with their bodies -- and I have no more trouble suspending my disbelief than I do when I sit in a theater and watch a movie. I don't confuse professional wrestling with professional sports. I don't search for the score or wonder about any win-loss record. The WWE calls what they do "sports entertainment", and to me it is a form of storytelling, often incorporating athletics, that never attempts to be something that it isn't. And, yet, oddly, it can become something more than what it is.
In nearly 20 years and 1,000 episodes there have certainly been some terrible wrestlers or crappy storylines or bad episodes, but there have also been nights like November 14, 2005 when over-sized men with frightening physiques and stunningly beautiful women in garish costumes opened that night's episode standing on the ramp where the performers walk to the ring. With tears streaming down their faces, the stood silently as the bell rang ten times and a tribute video set to Johnny Cash's "Hurt" played over clips of the life and career of Eddie Guerrero. Guerrero was one of my favorite performers of all-time. He was undersized and unlike those who make it to the very top of the WWE and win the WWE Championship, which isn't a real championship won through competition, of course, but more like an Academy Award for wrestlers -- a sign that you have made it, you are respected, and you are recognized as one of the best. Guerrero was funny and entertaining and had some of the best matches of anyone and he overcame years of demons in order to be one of the WWE's top stars. Alcohol and drug abuse had nearly cost him his life in a car accident years earlier and, at one point, he was fired by WWE because of his substance abuse problems. However, Guerrero cleaned himself up and worked his way back into the company in 2002 and became the WWE Champion in 2004. On November 13, 2005, however, he died of a heart attack in a Minneapolis hotel room. The next night's episode of Raw opened with the WWE performers paying tribute to Guerrero and, after the video played and the ringside bell tolled ten times in his honor, the thousands in attendance in Minneapolis chanted, "Eddie! Eddie!". That night, all of the storylines were tossed aside and there were no heroes or villains ("babyfaces" or "heels"). Instead, Eddie Guerrero's friends and co-workers gave short, emotional testimonials about the man they knew and loved, and several of his closest friends went out and had good old fashioned wrestling matches, just like Guerrero was best at, in order to pay tribute to the fact that Eddie loved his job and that wrestling was his life (his father was one of Mexico's most famous wrestlers and Eddie followed his three older brothers into the business). To many, that might have been just a program listed on that night's TV guide, but to me, it was Monday Night Raw at its most raw -- emotional and touching. I don't ever want to have to see another episode like that, but I'm glad that I saw the one that I did, if that makes any sense.
Everyone has different tastes, so fans of WWE will enjoy Monday Night Raw for different reasons and have their own favorite moments. With 1,000 episodes, the one thing that is for certain is that there is no shortage of moments. Of course, the biggest professional wrestling stars in history have appeared on Raw, with wrestling generations ranging from Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair to Shawn Michaels and Bret "Hitman" Hart to The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Triple H to John Cena and C.M. Punk. Many huge stars from other forms of entertainment have appeared on the show, as well, whether they be from films, television, music, or sports. Remarkably, since Raw first emanated on January 11, 1993 from the Manhattan Center, episodes of Monday Night Raw have been broadcast from nine countries and nearly 200 different arenas and over 600 million homes in 145 countries will be able to watch the 1,000th episode at some point this week in 30 different languages. Instead of the intimate confines of the Manhattan Center, Raw now comes to viewers live each week from packed arenas. As cool as it is to see tens of thousands of fans screaming, chanting, and waving hand-made signs during an episode of Monday Night Raw, perhaps the coolest setting for Raw wasn't an arena. WWE, a longtime supporter of the U.S. Armed Forces, created the Tribute to the Troops in 2003 for soldiers serving overseas. During the winter holidays, WWE stars traveled to bases to visit troops serving far away from home, and it led to yearly broadcasts either as an episode of Raw or Smackdown. The Tribute to the Troops episodes resulted in unique settings for Raw with crowds filled only with soldiers, many of whom were carrying their weapons along with their homemade signs, or wearing Santa hats as they watched the show from tanks draped with camoflauge netting. Tribute to the Troops episodes of Raw took place at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan (2005), Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq (2006), and Camp Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq (2007).
Fortunately for us, we don't have to travel to Afghanistan or Iraq to catch the 1,000th episode of WWE Monday Night Raw this Monday, July 23rd. I'm looking forward to attending the event in person at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis -- my first WWE event in several years -- and will recap the experience, along with some great photos, next week right here in AND Magazine.
If you can't make it to St. Louis, the 1,000th episode of WWE Monday Night Raw will come to you, live, this Monday, July 23rd (8:00 PM/7:00 PM Central) on the USA Network, where episode #1 made its debut in January 1993. Since this is the 1,000th episode and the shift to the new three-hour format, WWE is pulling out all the stops. The show will kickoff at 8:00 PM (7:00 PM Central) with WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels returning to reform D-Generation X with Triple H. After weeks of silence, former WWE Champion and UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar makes his first live appearance in over three months to respond to a SummerSlam challenge from Triple H. The relationship between Daniel Bryan and AJ will go to the next level with a live wedding, and we all know that live wrestling weddings always have a surprise. Raw will also feature many of the legends responsible for the program's success and most memorable moments, specifically Bret "Hitman" Hart, Mick Foley, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. And, in the main event of the 1,000th episode of Monday Night Raw, John Cena will cash in the Money-in-the-Bank contract that he won less than two weeks ago and challenge C.M. Punk for the WWE Championship.
A pre-show special will stream live on WWE.com and WWE's official YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/WWEFanNation) directly before Monday Night Raw, beginning at 7:30 PM (6:30 PM Central). Fans can also visit YouTube to watch the very first episode of Monday Night Raw from the Manhattan Center on January 11, 1993 (http://youtu.be/oozq-oOgdjI).
It should be an exciting and fun three hours full of legends, yesterday's stars, historic moments, and new memories as WWE Monday Night Raw broadcasts its 1,000th episode live on Monday, July 23rd, beginning at 8:00 PM (7:00 PM Central), only on the USA Network! You can find out more information at WWE.com.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.