The long-beleaguered Impact Wrestling, which had been hunting for a new American TV deal, announcing a new destination last Friday. Starting on January 11, the two hour eponymous weekly Impact show moves from Thursday nights on PopTV (formerly the TV Guide Channel) to Fridays at 10:00 p.m. ET on the Pursuit Channel.
You may be wondering: What the hell is the Pursuit Channel? Here’s what their website’s “About Us” page says:
In early 2008, Pursuit Channel was founded by Rusty Faulk for the betterment of our outdoor community. With this founding commitment to the outdoor industry, it has propelled Pursuit Channel into the most widely distributed hunting, fishing, shooting television network in America. Our goal is and always will be to create a permanent home for the outdoor industry. Pursuit Channel is the only outdoor network delivered in satellite providers DISH and DIRECTVs Basic package which serves what some call the fly over country, while we consider it the Heart of America.
Outdoor fun like...professional wrestling. Great!
Pursuit is in a little over 30 million homes, less than half of that of Pop. It’s Impact’s fourth network in just about as many years, as the two-hour wrestling show has now migrated from Spike (now Paramount Network) to Destination America in January 2015, then from Destination America to Pop a year later, and now Pop to Pursuit. Each time, the move has been to a smaller network; Pop is in more households than Destination America, but that’s due to its past as a listings channel and averages fewer viewers. As a result, Impact’s audience has dropped at about the rate you would expect with each move. Pursuit is the nadir so far, and in a more significant way that it might seem on the surface: Impact Wrestling’s parent company, Anthem Sports & Entertainment, already owns part of Pursuit, which suggests that the promotion had no other real options. Meanwhile, this week, Dave Meltzer reported in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter that there was an attempt to sell the company to the team behind the upcoming All Elite Wrestling promotion “a few months ago.” That would be also around the same time that a mysterious meeting between Impact Wrestling leadership and WWE was reported.
The Pursuit move comes about six months after what should have beenthe start of a rebirth for the company. Show quality had been steadily improving after Anthem installed the current regime and June’s pay-per-view event, Slammiversary, was arguably the best PPV of the year. Impact’s weekly TV programming continued to be strong afterwards, too, but instead of getting a boost from the strong buzz that the show had online among hardcore fans—and it’s not like anyone other than hardcores are watching at this point, anyway—viewership quickly went into a freefall.
For most of the run on Pop, Impact’s audience hovered between 250,000 and 400,000 viewers according to Nielsen. Within weeks of Slammiversary, that figure dropped under 200,000; by October, it was a trend. When Pop moved the show from 8-10 p.m. ET to 10-to-midnight, the first show dipped under 100,000, and they’ve been in the 105,000 to 140,000 viewer range since. At this level, even with Nielsen’s scientific polling, very few actual humans abandoning the show can lead to big dips, percentage-wise, in the reported audience. But those Nielsen numbers are the currency on which the television business runs, at least until someone devises a better system.
Impact Wrestling has been the subject of many past doom-and-gloom stories, but the woes of its TV show this time around felt different, and were received more with sadness and frustration than the usual rubbernecking. Back when the company was owned and run by a bunch of fuck-ups, they fucked up constantly. It no longer is, and yet these good shows, stocked with likable talent and put together by a much more adept front office, were failing all the same.
Its issues finding and keeping an audience aside, Impact’s behind the scenes and onscreen turnaround has been remarkable, especially given how bad things had gotten in the years before that. News of the Spike cancellation was broken by TMZ in July 2014, just a few months before a new contract was due. That cancellation came less than two weeks after former Impact and WWE television writer Vince Russo, who had been secretly consulting on the shows, accidentally emailed notes intended for announcer Mike Tenay to wrestling reporter Mike Johnson. (You can imagine how much the collective wrestling internet has laughed at that story in the last four-and-a-half years.) After several lame-duck months, Impact started on Destination America with a memorably awful “almost-live” show from the Grand Ballroom at the Manhattan Center.
It was immediately obvious to anyone watching that show that a lower budget was in place. The lighting was almost nonexistent, production issues were numerous, and everything felt homemade in all the worst ways. Perhaps most amusingly, the director accidentally cut to a close-up of one wrestler’s (Tyrus, now a Fox News pundit, somehow) groin in the middle of an angle. As a result, the broadcast didn’t feature the segment’s climax, in which announcer Jeremy Borash slapped top heel EC3. (Amazingly, this was not fixed for the YouTube upload of the segment.) The show also featured national ads from sponsors like Bodybuilding.com and 1-800-LOVE-GOD. It was clear that this was no longer a major league enterprise.
The Destination America run also started with a slew of shoulder programming, including an enhanced replay of the main Impact show. Those were gone within weeks, making it obvious that the network was not exactly thrilled with its new partners. Before long, the Discovery-owned channel exercised an option to get out of the contract early. This was after another email-related blooper in which Dixie Carter, who was then Impact’s owner and president, accidentally CCed the head of the network on an email calling the management “dummies.”
The echoes of the Spike deal’s slapstick end were hard to miss, but they weren’t Impact’s first flirtation with management not knowing how to use email. Court records from a past racial discrimination lawsuit against the company appeared to show Carter—who is not the late “Designing Women” actress—having a contact entry with the wrong email address for a long-time employee, using a domain name that they never owned. Impact also stirred up public discontent by vaguely threatening legal action against sites that reported the cancellation. This led to Meltzer, who broke the story, publishing the internal Discovery memo announcing that the promotion’s deal wasn’t being renewed because numerous network sponsors had asked for their spots not to air during Impact. In the middle of all this, Destination America also made a trial deal to run Ring of Honor’s weekly wrestling show alongside Impact. Impact was blindsided by the announcement.
And Pop? Well, Pop president Brad Schwartz spoke to the Miami Herald after the network’s deal with Impact Wrestling was announced, and he was so bullish about it that it was almost poignant. “So what’s rare in television today is a show that does one million viewers,” he said, noting that he hoped for Impact to hit or exceed 1.3 million viewers per week on his network. “What’s rare in television today is a show that you need to watch on your television set, and you need to watch it this week. Those are two very, very exciting things to us.”
While audience at the end of Impact’s Spike run was just under 1 million viewers, the Destination America stint closed out at about 300,000. In other words, the Pop deal was never going to end well. About the best that can be said about it was that this last run lasted about three years. That’s especially impressive since the company almost disintegrated amidst a sea of unpaid bills and lawsuits in 2016 before Anthem, one of the promotion’s creditors, foreclosed on Carter. It’s more difficult, though, to find reasons to be excited about Impact’s future, even if you can find Pursuit on your TV dial. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Impact has proven remarkably hard to kill in the past, and they should be stable for now since Pursuit is a sister company. But it’s tough to see much of one beyond that.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.