How do you sum up 20 years of a TV show as widely diverse as the 20 years of TNA iMPACT!? It has aired at 3pm and 11pm and all times in between. It’s aired at one point or another on every day of the week other than Sundays on six networks and digital platforms ranging from Twitch and YouTube to RealPlayer and BitTorrent. Across over 1000 episodes and nearly 5000 matches, it’s a gigantic, sprawling piece of work. You can zoom in on the early FSN days or Dusty Rhodes’ time with the book or Vince Russo’s crash TV or Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff upending everything TNA was or the days of freefall on Destination America and Pop or the broad stability of the AXS era, and within all those times you’ll find examples of the best and worst of TNA. Examples of stirring captivating television and examples of utter trash that gives the very concept of wrestling a bad name. To think about that 20-year TV run is to think about the fullness of all that is and has been TNA Wrestling.

TNA iMPACT! launched on Fox Sports Network at 3pm ET on Friday June 4, 2004. As misguided as TNA’s original weekly PPV strategy was, it hid a more difficult truth – there wasn’t an excess of television stations willing to jump in bed with pro wrestling since WCW Monday Nitro went off the air. For two years, TNA soldiered on, often with sub-10,000 people buying their weekly PPVs, trying to build up enough footage and credibility to sell a TV show. Eventually, after two years of that failing model, TNA realized they needed to get on TV by any means. While they did have the syndicated Xplosion show since the very early days of the company, that didn’t have nearly the reach for TNA to grow and expand so TNA struck a deal with FSN.

TNA paid for a weekly Friday afternoon timeslot on a 52-week deal. The unusual time for two reasons: paying for time on a Friday afternoon was cheaper than in prime-time or on the weekend, and it also meant TNA was substantially less likely to be pre-empted by the pesky sports part of FSN’s name.

To match their television ambitions, TNA brought in a number of old well-known TV stars like Randy Savage, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and DDP but despite being a modest ratings success especially for the timeslot, TNA’s FSN deal ended after the initial 52-weeks leaving TNA facing down a summer without TV in 2005 as they sought a better home than paying for air on FSN. The internet was then TNA’s home long before the concept of broadcasting online was even remotely viable. As TNA shopped around for a new deal, instructions on the TNA’s website informed you how to download a torrent client and watch iMPACT! online (before also being available through RealPlayer after the first couple of weeks were a natural server load disaster).

Fate handed TNA a saving grace.

WWE Raw was returning to its old home of USA Network that October, leaving a big pro wrestling hole in their current broadcaster Spike TV. WWE and Spike’s relationship coming to a bitter, resentful end only benefitted TNA as Spike took a punt on TNA and put them in the old 11pm ET Velocity timeslot on Saturdays. TNA immediately began outperforming Velocity, regularly attracting 800,000 to 1 million viewers each week. This stabilised TNA as an organisation and led to the company’s longest sustained period of growth. They would get a prime-time special in November 2005, move to Thursdays the following April, move to prime-time later in 2006 and expand to two-hours in 2007.

Along with expansion came some of the biggest stars in pro wrestling history to help bolster the ratings. Sting, Kurt Angle, Booker T, Christian Cage, Scott Steiner, and Mick Foley (and everybody else under the sun from the Bashams to Test to Rikishi) all signed for TNA from 2005 to 2008. TNA would establish a rock-solid role as a strong number two in the pro wrestling space as the combination of homegrown acts like AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, The Motor City Machine Guns, James Storm, Bobby Roode, Abyss, Eric Young and Christopher Daniels would help complement the star power to give a diverse mix of past and present. TNA finally reached the point all would hope for, the TV show was regularly attracting 1.3m to 1.9m viewers, and the company reached profitability for the first time around 2008 or 2009.

You would think they’d be content with this; you would think a strong profitable number two with a consistent reliable television audience would be enough but pro wrestling could never leave the 90s behind. The mentality of the Monday Night Wars loomed large over the way everybody thought (and still thinks) about the industry. The only way TNA could ever be considered truly successful was if they were in direct competition with WWE. Never was success on their own merits enough, only success in comparison to WWE. And compared to WWE, TNA was way behind. So they needed a big swing. A big swing that would change the trajectory of the company forever for the worse.

Monday, January 4, 2010.

The biggest episode of TNA iMPACT! ever. The biggest non-WWE episode of pro wrestling there has been since WCW went under. The night Hulk Hogan came to TNA. 2,190,000 people watched iMPACT! that night. 2.9 million people tuned in when Hogan arrived at the top of the second hour. We live in a different television world now, but people would kill for those numbers. But for as much as this was a success in isolation, TNA was trounced going head-to-head with Raw. In their head-to-head quarter hours, Raw did anywhere from 3-4 million more viewers than TNA did.

TNA would do the very opposite of strike while the iron was hot. There wasn’t a new episode of iMPACT! for ten days after the January 4 success, and back on Thursdays at that. TNA would finally go head-to-head with Raw full time in March but it was short-lived. TNA didn’t even see the initial success of their January 4 episode again, they were beaten to a pulp, tucked their tail between their legs and retreated back to Thursdays after only nine weeks. Ego wounded, Hogan and Bischoff proved they didn’t get TNA. They didn’t understand what fans liked about it, they didn’t even try to. They removed the six-sided ring, hot acts like Beer Money took a back seat, AJ Styles and Abyss were repackaged into phony versions of Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan while the presentation of women’s wrestling – one of the biggest success stories of TNA over the three years prior – regressed to Attitude Era levels. TNA’s identity was demolished and while still maintaining strong ratings due to the enhanced star power of Hogan, Ric Flair, Jeff Hardy and Rob Van Dam, it did lasting damage to who TNA was.

Hogan and Bischoff left and then the floodgates burst.

The reputation of the brand was shot, and ratings began to flag. Through a combination of worse ratings and secretly bringing back unwanted writers (and accidentally outing them in an errant email), Spike TV opted not to renew iMPACT! in 2014. All the homegrown stars and big name acts that propped TNA up began to leave. Hogan, Flair, RVD, Angle, Sting, Styles, Joe, Sabin, Roode, Young. Names that had formed the backbone of the television show for so long, gone. TNA entered freefall.

A year at Destination America, known mostly for hunting, monster and ghost shows, never matched the heights of Spike TV, despite promises to do so. Occasional additions like Bobby Lashley or Drew Galloway couldn’t make up for what was lost and TNA were off Destination America after a year (and once again partially due to an errant email). TNA would spend three years on Pop, known for soap operas and Schitts Creek, but once again the magic was gone. Once TNA left Spike, roughly 700,000 of their regular viewership – already a lot lower in 2014 than the peak of the show – went with it. 1.4m people watched the episode of iMPACT! where Dixie Carter was powerbombed through a table in August 2014, the Destination America run in 2015 averaged 382k.

iMPACT! would spend a year on unknown hunting network Pursuit before eventually landing on corporate owner’s AXS TV where they remain to this day, the second longest channel the show has been on other than Spike. The heydays on Spike are a somewhat distant memory now, but the fear of being booted off a network at any given moment is gone. There are lessons we can learn from the arc of this show. Identity matters. Reputation matters. When the idea of what TNA represented was gone, so were the people that cared about it. And when the people that care about it are gone, what do you have left? What do you build off? Who do you rely on? Wrestling punditry is obsessed with the mythical casual fan. A faulty premise, usually designed to use an imaginary person to attack a wrestling product. Casual fans matter a lot less than core ones. People showing up because they remember Hulk Hogan from the 80s or 90s will leave the second Hogan is no longer there. People showing up because they like and care about what you’re doing will be with you for the long haul.

Across the 20 years of iMPACT!, a couple of big themes stand out. The first is presentation. If you tuned into the very first episode of the show, you immediately saw something different. You saw a six-sided ring, you saw tunnels on either side of the building, you saw many green lasers, and you saw the Fox Box. Wrestling presentation has become very homogeneous, only mild differences truly differentiate most wrestling products. But from the very first episode of iMPACT!, there were a number of different things that would catch your eye as a new take on how wrestling is presented. This expands through the history of TNA.

They were the first national company to take women’s wrestling seriously, making the Knockouts division a defining feature of the company to great success.

They were the first national company to present cruiserweight style wrestling as a main event act, making AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, Chris Sabin and Josh Alexander some of the company’s biggest success stories emerging from the X-Division to become main event players.

They leaned into cinematic matches before that became passe, with the Broken Hardy Saga being one of the few post-Spike breakthrough stories.

iMPACT! might be the only consistently actually funny pro wrestling show, with moments like Paparazzi Productions, multiple funerals, Swinger’s Palace and more being fondly remembered.

They partnered with international companies to give US audiences their first exposure to some of the best Japan and Mexico had to offer, and even if this had thoroughly mixed results through the years it still provided a gateway for US fans to the broader spectrum of wrestling.

These are the things that people remember fondly about TNA, not trying to reproduce the same old thing but rather attempts to forge their own path.

The other big theme is invention and reinvention.

At its core of why it’s mattered over the last twenty years, iMPACT! has been the place where you can see young wrestlers develop into complete acts and where older wrestlers get a second chance to be something new. Whether it’s AJ Styles and Samoa Joe or Bobby Roode and James Storm or Awesome Kong and The Beautiful People or The Motor City Machine Guns and Generation Me or Josh Alexander and Jordynne Grace or Ace Austin and Chris Bey, iMPACT! has always been the home to some of wrestling’s most promising performers as they’re on the cusp of becoming something special. Few places have a better track record of helping those people develop into the finished article, that’s part of why there’s so much material for TNA to subtweet every little thing that ever happens in pro wrestling. There is a little bit of TNA being where it happened first, that invention is core to the spirit of the show.

And then reinvention.

TNA is the land of second chances. Everybody understood that Bobby Lashley had boundless potential, it was his 2014 run in TNA where he could finally realise it. Everybody understood that Drew Galloway could be a World Champion, it was TNA where he finally got that chance on top. Nobody even knew Steve Maclin was good before he got the chance to show it in TNA. Gail Kim got the opportunity to show she’s one of the best women’s wrestlers in North America. Eli Drake got to hone an act that beat for beat has made him WWE’s hottest rising star. Kurt Angle got a whole second act of his career. Big Bill got his redemption arc. EC3 got to transform his character. Sting got to be a weird freak with Joker Sting. Matt Hardy got to explore his Broken side. There’s a long, long list of successful pro wrestlers who would have been much worse off had TNA not provided the platform and freedom for them to find and reinvent themselves after WWE had already written them off. A place like that is invaluable in pro wrestling.

Without iMPACT! over the last twenty years, so many wrestlers would have been dumped onto bigger platforms before they were ready or fallen off of bigger platforms never to be seen again. The show’s ability to lift up or catch those as they need it should be its defining impact.

Listen to Voices of Wrestling’s TNA history podcast: You’ve Got To Be Kidding Me

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