Q&A: Guy Evans, author of “NITRO: The Incredible Rise and Inevitable Collapse of Ted Turner’s WCW”

More than two decades have passed since the demise of World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in March 2001 which saw a company go from standing atop the industry three years earlier to its remnants being purchased by the then-WWF for a bargain.

In 2018, Guy Evans released NITRO: The Incredible Rise and Inevitable Collapse of Ted Turner’s WCW featuring countless interviews with those making decisions behind the scenes, in executive roles, and those taking part in the day-to-day grind that witnessed the collapse of the company.

Evans has recently released an expanded version of the book containing four extra chapters, a foreword written by Eric Bischoff, and many other unique scripts and documents related to WCW.

Evans took time out to speak with POST Wrestling about the re-release and what lessons he has learned studying the business of WCW and speaking with so many people attached to the company’s successes and failures.

In studying WCW as deeply as you did and conducting so many interviews, what are some of the misconceptions about the company?

Initially, if you remember the aftermath of the WCW sale, it was common for fans, observers and performers alike to lament the downturn in WCW’s creative fortunes – and subsequently, the associated impact on its bottom line – as if to imply a simple positive correlation between them. In other words, WCW failed – according to this analysis – because of its poor programming, inability to create new stars, and/or inconsistent storytelling.

Occasionally, this analysis was expanded to include critique of WCW’s internal disarray, chaotic mismanagement, and relative disorganization as compared to the WWF at the time. In any event, it was often suggested that such internal factors could explain much – and perhaps even all – of the reasons for WCW’s downfall.

While certainly, it would be difficult for any objective figure to discount such negative internal trends – just look at the programming in the year 2000 (!) – the ‘NITRO’ book frames these developments within a much broader context. WCW did not exist in a vacuum – by virtue of its relationship to Turner Broadcasting – nor did it operate as a ‘standalone’ entity. Rather, it operated as one of 150 Turner subsidiaries, which itself is crucial in understanding its eventual demise.

Simply put, WCW’s financial performance, continued viability and ongoing existence hinged on more than the perceived quality of its shows. The content of ‘Nitro’, ‘Thunder’ and the like – while clearly deteriorating to absurd levels at the end – was ultimately not responsible for the shows being cancelled. If it were that simple – that companies prosper to the extent that its booking decisions are productive – WWE would long be out of business. On the contrary, WWE – as noted in the new expanded version of ‘NITRO’ – in fact has little incentive to produce compelling television. “The sheer profitability of the WWE model,” reads the book, “and the margin of error afforded by its effectively fixed revenue structure, renders useless any attempt to correlate creative success with financial performance – and viewers know it.”

Informed by over 120 interviews with former TBS/WCW employees and a wide variety of critical source materials (company records, reports, financial statements, etc.), ‘NITRO’ explores both the internal and external factors that explain WCW’s tumultuous story.

Was there a difference in perspective regarding WCW when speaking with executives on the Turner side as opposed to the day-to-day wrestling people and talent?

Absolutely. By the time work began on this project (late 2014), enough time had passed, I would argue, for the wrestling talent to reflect on the ‘Nitro’ era with a certain amount of perspective. While previously, a lot of the principal figures were under contract to WWE or TNA, the timing of the book allowed for a number of hard-to-get interviews to occur. Furthermore, some of the bitterness arising from WCW’s collapse had somewhat dissipated, particularly with respect to some of the production people, who in some cases, had previously ‘sworn off’ discussion of the subject.

Conversely, on the TBS side, there were some executives that still maintained a level of vitriol towards WCW – all of these years later! That wasn’t always the case, but there are definitely some examples that come to mind. There was perhaps a level of embarrassment that wrestling had ever been part of the programming schedule – and that it had performed so well – at least for a period of time. Some of that can probably be attributed to the wider stigma associated with pro wrestling, although that perception seems to have softened, on a more broader scale, in the years that have followed.

When you started on NITRO, who was the first person you reached out to that was deemed “essential” in telling this story?

Certainly, Eric Bischoff could rightly be classified as an essential source for this story. I first spoke to Eric in 2015, and he was kind enough to give me about 4 ½ hours of his time to answer an array of questions. I tried to respect his time by asking him about a number of areas that perhaps had not come up in previous interviews. It was a very productive talk which touched on both the positive and negative aspects of his tenure.

What was astounding to me was to witness Eric’s reaction to ‘NITRO’ upon its publication. As many of your readers and listeners may know, he quickly became a huge supporter of the book and helped it become very successful in reaching new readers. While he has stated publicly that there were aspects of ‘NITRO’ that were very difficult to read about himself and his involvement with WCW, I think it is rather commendable that he has maintained that perspective regardless.

How will Jamie Kellner be viewed as it relates to WCW’s demise and what did you learn when speaking with him?

With respect to the cancellation of WCW from the Turner networks, much of the speculation around this decision has surrounded Jamie Kellner’s supposed hatred for the genre (or some variation of the same). Therefore, it has been implied – or in some cases, explicitly argued – that Kellner (TBS’ incoming CEO in March 2001) simply did not want wrestling on TBS or TNT, irrespective of its financial performance, historical lineage, or future viability.

Even if we accept this notion as accurate (Kellner responds to the claim in the book, incidentally), it was actually immaterial to his decision. According to Brian Bedol – co-founder of Fusient Media Ventures (the investment group supporting Eric Bischoff’s takeover attempt in 2001), a key (and previously unknown) provision in the Fusient deal effectively sealed WCW’s fate. This is significant.

Rejection of this specific provision – outlined fully in my 6000+ word chapter covering this topic – allowed Turner Broadcasting to both ‘kick-off’ its rebranding efforts (culminating in TNT and TBS becoming distinctive entities) while enabling WCW’s losses to be ‘written off’ through a process called purchase accounting. As stated in the book, “in the post-merger environment, the new conglomerate was able to ‘write down’ money-losing operations, essentially eliminating those losses because of their irrelevancy moving forward.” In other words, a condition of the Fusient purchase agreement was integral to everything that happened thereafter.

The release of the first edition was right around the staging of “All In”, which begat All Elite Wrestling, do you sense elements of the “spirit” of WCW in the AEW product?

By virtue of its presence on the old Turner networks, the involvement of many former WCW production staffers/on-air talent, and its occasional posturing towards the WWE, it could be argued that AEW is a ‘spiritual successor’ (of sorts) to WCW.

It will be interesting to see if the company can achieve growth of its audience in the coming years, if indeed that is the overall goal. AEW has certainly cultivated a very loyal, dedicated and knowledgeable fanbase since its inception. While personally, I would love to see an expansion of both the AEW and WWE audience (and ultimately, a resurgence of wrestling’s cultural significance and/or relevance), the extent to which that is possible – given the changing economics of wrestling and the level of societal change since the Monday Night Wars era – remains in question.

In a world of emerging streaming platforms and rights fees continuing to escalate, is it a given that WCW would have survived in the modern media landscape, or were there elements that could not be overcome?

I posed this question to Dick Cheatham, a former group controller at TBS. As Cheatham says in the expanded hardcover edition of ‘NITRO’, “I know there’s a school of thought that says, ‘if only the suits knew – given the rights fees that wrestling gets today – maybe they would have stuck with WCW’.

“No – wrestling had to go.

“Their deal wasn’t based on rational thought about the audience, or the numbers, or what was possible.

“It was simply, ‘no – we don’t like it’.

“I remember in every one of the strategic plan presentations we had with executive management, the take coming from people like Terry McGuirk was, ‘this is not the kind of company we ought to have associated with us’. After all, we were the ‘world leaders’ in news and entertainment, and we can’t be part of that, right?”

Why is this book such an important one for those that want to learn about the history of WCW?

With respect to the WCW-WWF wars, this entire phenomenon occurred during a very interesting time period. The extent to which the media and cultural landscape of the ’90s precipitated (and later supported) wrestling’s ‘boom period’, for example, is a great story in and of itself. I wanted to capture that era – within the context of WCW, of course – and take readers on a journey back to that time.

As noted, ‘NITRO’ contains input from a wide spectrum of former TBS/WCW employees (over 120 in total), including Eric Bischoff, Jamie Kellner, Harvey Schiller, former TBS President Bill Burke, Stuart Snyder, Kevin Nash, Diamond Dallas Page, Kevin Sullivan, Vince Russo, Buff Bagwell and many more. There are also a host of quotes from auxiliary people who at some point, interfaced (directly or indirectly) with WCW – even Mark Cuban, for example!

“It’s the first ever peek inside the corporate boardrooms,” writes Eric Bischoff in the new foreword for this edition, “where the real decisions were made.”

Can you tell us a bit about the second edition of the book and what has been expanded upon?

The new edition of ‘NITRO’, now in hardcover, contains four bonus chapters, a new foreword from Eric Bischoff, dozens of new tidbits, an expanded image section, show formats and scripts, and over 100 footnotes to the original story. It can be ordered now at WCWNitroBook.com or alternatively at Amazon.

(Psst: If ordered through WCWNitroBook.com, POST Wrestling readers can get 20% off with the promo code ‘20’ – for a limited time!)

On that note, I would like to thank the readers and listeners of POST for nominating ‘NITRO’ as the best book of 2018. It was quite the honor and I greatly appreciate it!

And finally, I would like to congratulate John and Wai on their well-deserved success with the website. Before the recent ‘boom’ of wrestling podcasts – and the associated audiovisual content that followed – they were pioneers and innovators in the space. Each has provided thousands of hours of information, entertainment, analysis, and humor to a very loyal audience. Well done to both!

NITRO is available at WCWNitroBook.com and Amazon – as Evans noted, POST Wrestling readers can receive a 20% discount using the promo code ‘20’ for a limited time.