Russo brought back to WWE, role undefined
At first assigned creative director role, but then scaled back after his ideas were rejected by staff
Cover Story from Torch Newsletter #711
June 29, 2002
By Wade Keller, Torch editor
Vince Russo was rehired by Vince McMahon last week to oversee the creative direction of both Raw and Smackdown. Within a day or two, Russo's position had already been scaled back to a role as a mere "consultant."
Russo was McMahon's writing partner during the years when the WWF went from a distant second to WCW in the Monday Night Wars to the dominant leader. He was instrumental in the storylines that made mega-stars out of Steve Austin, DX, The Rock, Mick Foley, Triple H, and a heel Vince McMahon. He spoke out against the "yes-men" McMahon had surrounded himself with and pushed for major changes in attitude and edgy content that eventually led to unprecedented success for the WWF.
He is also the person who left the WWF for WCW, not giving Vince McMahon an opportunity to make a counter-offer to retain his services. He shocked McMahon by calling him one day and telling him he had just accepted a job with WCW and he was starting with them the following week. Russo had asked for a raise from $350,000 to $1 million once Smackdown was added to his duties. McMahon hadn't gotten back to him for weeks, so Russo shopped his services elsewhere.
Russo's tenure in WCW was largely disastrous, although whose fault it was has been the subject of spirited debates. Some argue that Russo was handcuffed by Time Warner's stringent content policies and didn't have the infrastructure that the WWF provided or the stars to allow him to work his magic. Others argue that Russo, without McMahon's editing and input, was lost.
The rehiring of Russo indicates that Vince McMahon is in dire search of a solution to the continued diminishing interest in his product. Raw and Smackdown ratings continue to drop, attendance is dismal, and buyrates are at multi-year lows. The trade media and mainstream media are picking up on the situation, as a wire story originating in Variety this week documenting the drop in TV ratings was published in several major publications.
Rehiring Russo may have been partly a p.r. move - giving WWE a chance to tell investors that they had just rehired the writer who helped take them to the promised land. That approach, though, would be uncharacteristic of McMahon. When Russo was co-writing Raw with McMahon, and delivering record cable ratings with his shows, McMahon never gave Russo credit in public. It was "his" (McMahon's) show, and anyone who contributed was just "an interchangeable cog" in the well-oiled machine he created. That lack of recognition is one of the main reasons Russo left the WWF in the first place and didn't bother to give McMahon a chance to make a counter-offer to keep him.
The decision to rehire Russo was seen as a vote of "no confidence" in the current writing team. Just a couple of weeks ago Brian Gewirtz was put in charge of writing Raw and Paul Heyman was put in charge of writing Smackdown. Stephanie McMahon was in charge of overseeing the writing of both shows. Vince McMahon, as always, set the course for the writers as far as the top storylines went and checked off on the final scripts, making any changes he believed would improve the shows.
Russo was rehired to be head creative director, in a new position somewhere above Heyman and Gewirtz, but answering to Vince McMahon and Stephanie McMahon.
Late last week Russo met with the creative team and members of management, revealed his ideas for how to turn around WWE (apparently ideas he would not explain in detail until he had been hired, lest they not be stolen from him without being hired as a way to get back at him for the way he abruptly ended his previous stint). Sources say the ideas were so poorly received that within hours, Russo's role had been changed from a hands-on creative director to a hands-off creative consultant. Triple H was said to be especially upset with the ideas expressed by Russo, and Stephanie McMahon was said to be instrumental in convincing her father to give the current writing team more time.
There have been mixed signals regarding Russo's reaction to the sudden apparent demotion. Some say that he basically quit, but other indications are that he will remain around as a shadow booker of sorts, waiting in the wings for a call when and if the current writing staff fails. In other words, the current writing staff has a certain amount of time to fix things, and if they don't, Russo will replace them.
The hiring of Russo was not a decision made solely in reaction to Steve Austin's departure. Russo and McMahon had been in talks for several weeks. Informed sources tell the TORCH that Russo had sent feelers to McMahon through a friend of his at WWE headquarters, Jimmy Monsees. Monsees told Shane McMahon of Russo's interest in speaking with his father. Shane then arranged for a conversation.
Russo, since his departure from WCW, remained in Atlanta where his wife and two children had settled during his WCW tenure. Having run a video business before getting involved in wrestling, he used that experience to open a "CD Warehouse" franchise in Atlanta. He was turning a profit just one year into the operating the business, but nothing near what he made in his stints in the WWF and WCW. He earned $350,000 a year during his last year with the WWF, and a similar salary in WCW. Although he found some semblance of peace working at "CD Warehouse," he was making closer to one-tenth his previous salaries. Friends say he wanted financial security.
In addition to financial motivations, with WWE business struggling, and a desire to prove that his first stint wasn't a fluke and that his WCW experience wasn't his fault, it stood to reason he would be interested in returning to wrestling. Also, his children were miserable in Atlanta and wanted to move back to Long Island, N.Y. Even though his parents lived in Florida, he wanted to move back to the Northeast, also. He never liked Atlanta, either.
During his time away from wrestling, he had written a draft of a book called "Welcome to Bizzaroland: Screw Pine Valley, this ‘Rope Opera' is for Men!" The 210 page manuscript, detailing his experience working with Vince McMahon, had been shopped around to various publishers over the past month or two. Sources familiar with the book's content say there is nothing in the book that would cause McMahon to hire Russo "just to shut him up" or stop the book from being published.
The book marches through Russo's early years working as a radio show host and dreaming of working for Vince McMahon some day. It details the path he took through being a writer for WWF Magazine to eventually being invited into a booking meeting by Bill Watts to eventually telling Vince McMahon "it's him or it's me" regarding his creative team rival Jim Cornette and Vince choosing him, to writing Raws with McMahon during Raw's hottest run to date, to Russo's eventual burn out and disappointment in McMahon's callous attitude toward his expressed desire to have more time to spend with his wife and two children, to his decision to jump to WCW.
Although the book is said to be by no means a puff piece on his time in WWE, there is apparently nothing in it that Vince McMahon would "fear." Russo doesn't drop any bombshells regarding illegal or immoral conduct on the part of Vince McMahon or his kids. It defends McMahon when it comes to the circumstances surrounding Owen Hart's death. It even backs up the story that Vince McMahon went into Bret's dressing room after the Survivor Series '97 finish with the intent to "let Bret hit him."
The book is also kind to the top WWE stars, including Triple H, Rock, Mick Foley, and Steve Austin. If anything, if McMahon had read the manuscript of the book, source say it might have done more to open the door to a Russo return than close the door.
Russo was part of one of the most prosperous eras of WWF/WWE history. McMahon, going through tough times now, may long for the days of 7-plus quarter hour peak ratings and lavish praise from the mainstream media for being a "creative and business genius." Since then, McMahon has blemished his reputation with the XFL, the WCW buyout, and shaky start to the "brand extension." With Rock off making movies most of the time and Steve Austin gone, McMahon may be reminiscing about Russo's ability to help him create stars out of talents McMahon frankly wasn't particularly high on at first.
Hulk Hogan is suing AOL Time Warner and Russo personally for defamation of character for unscripted comments Russo made against Hogan. AOL Time Warner gave Russo their blessing to work for WWE even though the lawsuit is stil oustanding and Hogan works for WWE.
Politically, Russo's reentrance into WWE wasn't greeted with enthusiasm. Many wrestlers who worked with him in before are sour on him (while others like him). Jim Ross, one of McMahon's current top lieutenants, was one of Russo's main adversaries. He has been one of the main people who downplayed Russo's contributions to the WWF after Russo left. With Ross's main ally (Austin) departed and Russo back, rumors immediately began that Ross would be scaling back his duties.
Sources say Russo's "big idea" was do an "invasion" type angle with Eric Bischoff, Goldberg, Bret Hart, and Mick Foley (his original plan also included Shawn Michaels as part of the mix). The angle would be presented in shoot fashion, as if the new force was taking over one of the two programs. If Austin and WWE were to mend fences, or if the Austin departure has been part of an elaboroate work (which some believe is possible), he could also be part of such an angle.
As it now stands, no one is quite clear where Russo stands. The writing team appears to be the same as it was two weeks ago, and Russo was not present at this week's King of the Ring or Raw. His future with WWE remains undetermined.