The Former President of WCW Speaks with Back Sports Page
There are not many people in any industry could say they were the king and the best at what they did. In a span of four years, Eric Bischoff took World Championship Wrestling from losing money on a yearly basis to being the most watched show on cable TV. While accomplishing conquering cable TV, he also pushed Vince McMahon and the WWE to the brink of closing the doors.
Eric started with the AWA in the sales department and slowly worked his way up and became an announcer with WCW. In 1993, Bischoff was give the opportunity to try and take WCW to the next level and with Ted Turner’s blessing started to compete with wrestling superpower Vince McMahon’s WWE.
Eric’s story is well known by now. He got the green light for Monday Nitro and his story had been told by many. That is not the route Back Sports Page wanted to take on speaking with Eric. Why ask him to share the same stories to us that many have heard...
Mr. Bischoff was nice enough to carve out thirty minutes of his time to speak with Back Sports Page founder Randy Zellea to discuss his love for the behind the scenes aspect of TV production and the pro wrestling industry.
Q: Can you discuss when you developed your passion for Producing TV?
A: It’s Hard to pin point exactly when but it had to be when I was working with the AWA. When I was working with them I received my first real exposure to the inner workings of producing a TV show. I had never been on a set and I had no real understanding of the production process. Honestly, it really fascinated me. Just being in a production truck during a live or taped show was an amazing experience at that time. Learning the post production process was so much fun for me. While in the AWA as I would take care of my daily responsibilities in the sales side and then I would work nights and weekends just as an intern learning the production process. I learned everything from how to duplicate tapes to editing shows, to being an assistant director. All of these were steps that I had taken over a long period of time to learn the business from the ground up.
Q: Can you discuss the difference between producing a live TV show and a Pre-Taped show?
A: That’s really apples and oranges. Live production is intense and its time critical. That means when you are producing a live show, you are coordinating with the network, you must hit your commercial breaks on time and end the show on time when it is live. The logistics that go into a show are challenging enough. It doesn’t matter if its chess, the NBA or Pro Wrestling. It’s all critical and a challenge when it’s live and makes it more fun for me because of the adrenaline rush. You are basically flying or walking on a tight rope without a net because of the things I just talked about and the variables that take place during a live show. When you are producing live you have to prepare as if anything could happen. Unlike the NFL and other sports that have formatted time outs or things that could bring programming to an end. In wrestling you have to work through the unexpected especially during a live show. I love that. I love working under intense pressure. Post Production, as it doesn’t have the same adrenaline rush as being live, your still under deadline. The Pressure is there just in a different form. You have to get the show delivered at a cretin time and much like producing a live show, things could happen or you could discover problems on a show that was taped or segments that were produced and you have to find solutions in that particular time frame. They are both challenging but just in different types of ways.
Q: You were on the Steve Austin Show and you spoke about producing with Turner and the little details like not having a consistent camera crew. WWE did as they were all employed by them. Was that challenging not knowing who you were going to have show by show?
A: I’m glad you picked up on that. That’s one of the details at WCW that a lot of people did not realize. People always said during the Monday Night Wars that the only way we were able to compete was due to a large checkbook and deep pockets. That’s not very true at all. That is a false narrative designed to shape history. WWE had significant advantages over WCW and vice versa. One of the advantages and disadvantages of WCW had to deal with was being a member of Turner Broadcasting. The advantage is true you are owned by a network therefore they are more invested in you and you have more latitude in certain aspects. The disadvantage was our crew at times because when I started with Turner, they still had the NFL and the NBA. Turner had a significant sports tradition and we had to use only Turner production people. We were on the bottom of the list and if we were in the NBA season for example and the entire best camera and tech guys, production guys that we normally used were needed as they would go and be on the more important broadcasts. That left us in a tough spot because of where we were on the bottom of the pecking order. We got what was left over and sometimes need to scramble at the last minute and find freelancers we never worked with us before. The result would be ending up having a rotating door of production staff due to Baseball, the NBA and the NFL. That was a tough situation to be in. That was most of the time. We had a lot of people that never worked with us before operating hand held cameras. Specifically those guys were not used to or familiar with shooting the action in a wrestling ring, they are always a heartbeat and a half behind. When you shoot wrestling, you have to anticipate what is going to happen next and be slightly ahead of it as opposed to following as it happens unlike other sports. The results of that would be sloppiness and a lot of missed shots. The angles you would have liked to have were never really there because our cameraman were not used to what they were seeing or how to cover it. That was a big disadvantage that WCW had. WWE had years to develop and train their staff. WWE makes sure the production team got exactly what Vince McMahon was looking for and how he wanted it. He was able to build that, we couldn’t. We had the where do we go environment 75% of the time.
Q: Did that change at all over time or was it like that the whole time you were there?
A: It was that way when I started and it was that way when I left. If Turner still had wrestling, it would probably be that way now. I inherited it and there was no discussion because of the corporate structure of Turner and what the company goals were. There was no way I could advocate and push to try and hire my own staff. That would have never been an option for me.
Q: Lets jump around a bit, Did you find it hard to get involved and be accepted to be involved with non wrestling projects when you were told to “Take a Vacation in 1999”?
A: The fact is I never really did much when I left in 1999. It was September 10th 1999 when I was told to take a vacation. I had two years left on my contract at the time. I was pretty tied up under Turner Broadcasting. There really wasn’t anything I could do. Surely nothing to do with wrestling, truth is I didn’t really need to do anything. I had a guarantee income and I had been working very hard for six or seven years straight for 16 and 18 hour days. Seven days a week. I had a good income with time left on my deal. It was all the same except I didn’t have to go to work. I really didn’t try to do much during the initial period after I left wrestling. Then I went back shortly after with a new deal which gave me much more latitude in terms of working with other projects and that’s when I really stuck my toe in the water. It’s a double edge sword when your bio is 100% wrestling in terms of your experience. People generally look at that in two ways. Either they really understand the complexity of the product and admire it for what it is. They understand that there is no script, with no real actors who are working with formats and create a phenomenal product. They will look at you as a good show runner and a great producer. There are other groups who look at it not so fondly and it’s hard to get by that. We and I mean both Jason Harvey and I were able to overcome that with the help of Jason’s stature in Hollywood. We were able to overcome the negative stigma of pro wrestling and take advantage of the positive association on what wrestling can be and how much it parallels so many other realms of entertainment especially now that non-scripted entertainment is such a big thing now days. It depends as I gave a long winded answer it’s a matter of circumstance.
Q: When did you become friends with Jason Hervey?
A: We became friends early on during my days at Turner. Jason was still working on the Wonder Years and he had friends at WCW. He would show up and Jason was a big fan of pro wrestling from the time he was a kid. He grew up a big fan, his whole family was. Shout out to the Hervey family. We became closer as that developed he came around more because of his friends in the company and we became great friends and even better business partners.
Q: What are some of your current projects?
A: The Most recent project is called Outlaw country, its going be on WGN. It’s an UN-scripted reality show. I don’t want to give too much away as it’s about a credible group of law enforcement professionals who deal with riles and western communities. It’s a cool as hell. It’s a great show I have been watching the dailies and all the promo spots. The show has been promoted on SONS OF ANARCHY. We have a special surprise for the Fan base of the shows. Jason did a great job as did everyone on the team to make this successful. We had a great cast and I wouldn’t want to be on either side of the equation. The bad guys scare me as do the cops so it’s pretty cool.
Q: Tough Question, Do you miss wrestling at all?
A: It’s not a tough question at all. I have been thinking about it all morning now that I am developing a wrestling related project, I do miss it. I miss the creative process and the pressure that comes with it. I also miss the adrenaline rush because it makes me feel alive. There are things I really do miss about it and other things I do not miss about it, things like the travel. There are others who have done it longer then me but still have traveled a lot. I feel I have traveled more than a lot of people should ever have to in one lifetime. Like I said before the creative, the pressure and the challenge those are the things I really miss. I also really miss the struggle to find a way to present the product. I think if I look back over the last 15-20 years, my mission while running WCW was to change it. I wanted to find ways to improve it, find risky ways of doing it and I did. Everything from moving the product to the MGM studios in Orlando Florida and produced our shows to pioneering a new format for Monday Nights which forced WWE to imitate our formula. That really restricted a very soft property in WWE and changed their future. They followed our lead and format. Our new approach to presenting wrestling saved WWE in many respects. I am very proud of these things. In TNA we introduced a legitimate amount of Reality TV experience as we were able to bring The Reaction Show that was bringing in over a million viewers per episode in at 11pm on SPIKE TV. That had never been done before. Segments within a show we created and produced changed the way the fans felt about the product they were watching on TV. Unfortunately, we were not able to sustain it for a lot of different reasons outside of Jason and my efforts. The thing was nobody had done that before. One time we were down in Nashville, we were there for media and we went out for dinner. It was late around 7pm as we went to a small restaurant with a small TV. We were able to watch our show and we were so proud of it. A few days later a friend called asking us if we were watching RAW. I told him I was and we noticed they were shooting with what we like to call a 7D. A 7D is a style of camera which has never been used for pro wrestling. It had a very dim look to it. We introduced these 7D reality segments into TNA and it was about a month later WWE was trying to do the something, and when I say tried, they did the same thing. I feel that I innovated or had a part in innovating those concepts. It is great to know that those things exist today. I miss that, I miss finding a new way to present the product and making it relevant.
Q: I have to ask you about the internet back in the late 1990s you were very involved with doing chats on Prodigy. It seemed like you did a great job of keeping your finger on the pulse of the internet. Was that your goal with working with Prodigy and Bob Ryder?
A: Well I appreciate the credit for saying I had my finger on the pulse of the internet media evolution. That’s not really true; I had a relationship with Bob Ryder who had his Prodigy show. I respected him before he started working for WCW and the way he covered pro wrestling. I did participate in the chats because I felt really comfortable as I knew he didn’t have an agenda. He did a great job and wasn’t looking to bury wrestling or the people in it and that was very important to me. Bob was very loyal and did a great job of being the opposite of what the dirt sheet writers were. Bob was very fair and that is why I participated in the chats online. I didn’t feel it gave me any type of advantage of any sorts because I didn’t put the focus on the internet as maybe I should have at the time. At that time I didn’t follow and realize how significant the internet would become in the wrestling industry.
Q: Did you feel there were any challenges about going to WWE? You had a long career against them for a long time. Is there any Resentment?
A: I really didn’t have any challenges. By the time my attempt to acquire WCW fell apart and Time Warner decided they didn’t want anything remotely associated with wrestling near their networks. Once that happened and really cut the cord. It was in my rear view mirror and didn’t care or think about it too much. It didn’t hurt if that makes sense and not to sound too dramatic. There was no residual for me. It was over. I had made my money and gained a large amount of knowledge. It was time for other projects. It wasn’t until I got a call from Vince McMahon and thought this would be very cool. I said “Hey Vince nice to finally to talk to you instead of talking about you”. It was great and I felt great from the first call to my last appearance with the company. With the exception of the travel I had no real issues.
Q: Was there anything that you learned from WWE that you were able to contribute and help shape TNA?
A: Nothing. I wish I could make something up that sounded good but WWE is a very sophisticated well oiled structured organization with great talent who has been there for a long time. I don’t care if it was the people in wardrobe, or the makeup crew there are so many people who have been around for such a long time and excellent at their jobs as well as loyal to the company. That was something you could not compare with in TNA. There wasn’t even an opportunity to say this is how we do it over there. I couldn’t even get them to do things like we did it in WCW in the early 90s. It wasn’t a knock on anybody. That was just the info structure of the company between the budget, the talent and the vision of the people that they had working there. It was like going to be a designer at a Car company in Detroit and then going to work at an auto body shop. You just show up and the job because you can’t really compare the two.
Q: A lot of people know you have your own Beer Company. I am in the New York Area, when could we see Buffalo Bill Cody Beer in the North East?
A: Probably not for a long time. It’s a unique brand and it’s made for a niche market. It’s considered a craft beer and craft beer represents 6-7% of all beer across the USA. It’s considered a craft beer but our brand is the only besides of Samuel Adams that is historically brewed. Buffalo Bill Cody clearly resonates with people who are into the west especially the Rocky Mountain region. Obviously the Northeast is not our target market in that sense. Right now we are working our way into Texas but that is a real tough state to crack. Same with Florida and some of the south east states as there is a big cowboy culture. Maybe someday we could be in the north east but that would be our last stop.
Q: Any particular Matches you promoted or seen in person you could consider your favorite matches?
A: Too Many of them to remember. When I was in WCW a lot of the cruiserweight matches early on were and probably still are in some respects some of the best matches I had ever seen on TV. While working in WWE, I saw some phenomenal PPVs. Anything Shawn Michaels was involved with was simply amazing to watch. I also enjoyed a lot of Triple H’s PPV matches as they were fun to watch for many reasons. There are way too many to pick one out. I think for me there were more moments then matches to me that have stood out. Without a doubt during the Bash at the Beach in 1996 when Hulk Hogan turned heel has to be the moment within a match to me. Again so hard to just pick one or two in when it comes to matches and moments.
Q: You were involved with the ECW One Night Stand Show. Your history with Paul Heyman is documented in your book as far as wanting to trust him etc. What was it like being in an ECW atmosphere and at that show?
A: It was a blast for so many different reasons that might not have been as much fun for someone else. Mostly because of my personality and I love that adrenaline factor. That night I was the guy the audience was trained to hate. They hated me and the character I was playing. In reality that is not me, that night I was playing a role. I’m glad that they were able to react to the role I was playing and I had a lot of help from people like Paul Heyman who legitimately used to tell all the guys that were barely making money or not making money at all that Eric Bischoff is evil. He is trying to steal all of ECW’s talent and trying to put us out of business. The work I had to put in compared to others was different but man as we spoke of before I loved the adrenaline and that atmosphere. I think a big part of that was the room we were in as the Hammerstein Ballroom was a very tight room. There were only about 2500 people in attendance for the show. You also have to remember this wasn’t Paul Heyman’s show. This was a WWE produced show and Vince McMahon was in charge of the event. With that said I never felt at any point it was a real hostile environment because it was a WWE event.
Q: How would you feel about being asked to enter the WWE Hall of Fame? What you consider doing it?
A: The Hall of Fame Question has been asked a lot and I don’t mean to be coy but I really don’t know how I feel about it. Obviously it would be a great honor and to me it and to me it would be validation. I would be overwhelmed for many reasons but there is a part of me I would have to reconcile with. There is a part of me that believes the HOF should be about the wrestlers. I don’t mean the guys who jumped in the ring once in a while who helped further a storyline or a gimmick. I’m talking about the guys who struggled for years as they slept in their cars and sacrificed so they could reach that level of success and greatness they earned. I would feel awkward to be honest. If they did a HOF for wrestling executives then I would be all over that. I just don’t see myself in the category as some of the other people in the Hall of Fame. I would be excited if they offered me a ticket to see it live because it’s one of my favorite parts of Wrestlemania . I really shouldn’t say that because the focus should be the action in the ring, that’s what it’s all about. The thing is being honest I look forward to the Hall of Fame because you get a sense of real emotion and you see how much it means to some people. Look at last year with guys like the Warrior. He got to heal honest wounds and seeing that drama is what appeals to me in this business.
Q: Eric, Thank you for the time
A: Anytime man this was fun!!