Ever since I’ve started my column, right here at TJRWrestling.com (cheap pop) I have seemed to concentrate on WWE. This wasn’t a deliberate policy it’s just that most of the column ideas I had tended to skew towards the Stamford based company.

I was very keen to change that up this week and wanted to focus on TNA.

I’m well aware that those three initials strike dread in to the hearts of a lot of wrestling fans but I have always had a soft spot for the company and the performers. Without question they have had more than their fair share of problems and issues over the years. Some bad luck, some self inflicted but I can honestly say I have enjoyed the product more often than not over the years I have been watching. In addition, I have been to every TNA tour of the UK and enjoyed myself immensely each and every time. It has been a great pleasure to see them grow from their debut in the London area at Brentwood Leisure Centre in front of 400 people in 2008 to seeing 8,000 rabid fans packed into the world famous Wembley Arena this past January for the first ever Impact taping outside of the US. And what a great idea that was by the way. That atmosphere made TNA look the most credible they ever have and you still see shots of that crowd in TNA promotional videos. It was a clear home run and I look forward to a repeat this January.

As alluded to in my intro, a lot of wrestling fans have long ago lost patience with TNA. To be fair, I can’t blame them. Impact went through a spell of being largely difficult to watch. There were always green shoots of hope but often they were buried under mounds of Wrestlecrap, frankly.

But over the past few weeks and months things have begun to change. It’s been slow going for sure but the evidence of these changes was first seen at Bound For Glory last year, or more accurately, the aftermath of the event. We all groaned when Bobby Roode was denied what should have been his crowning moment in winning the world title from Kurt Angle but with hindsight, the whole Roode/James Storm saga could not have worked out much better. Those swerves (And I mean that positively, not in the Russo sense) early on in the saga laid the foundations for what has been a very good title reign by Roode and also established James Storm as the chosen one in waiting for the company.

But that was just the start. After those events started to play out, Impact largely continued on the same path. Even after the long overdue dismissal of Vince Russo, we seemed to have his philosophies continue to play out on screen, something very few people outside the Russo household would want to see.

But then around 10 weeks ago, things shifted dramatically. Impact seemed to really change focus and the changes were obvious immediately. The programme has been much improved to the point where these last two months, for me, have been the best run of wrestling programming since the halcyon days of the Smackdown Six.

And the best part is, it is clear that this level of programming is here to stay. What TNA are doing right isn’t stunt booking. When we had the Nexus angle and the Summer Of Punk II in WWE in 2011 these made for great shows but essentially, they were one off stories executed well. Raw’s existing framework didn’t change so when these stories inevitably ended, we were back to square one. By contrast, TNA have changed the whole framework of their show. It’s not one angle that will eventually end and leave us cold again, it’s a whole philosophy change that I believe sets them up to maintain this momentum for a long time.

But what’s changed? Below I go into details on the elements that I believe TNA have put in place to turn the good ship Impact around. Some are more obvious than others. Some are simple things that the internet fans have been crying out for TNA to implement for years. Others are fairly brave and take some balls by TNA to try. So in the words of Jeremy Borash himself, let’s take em for a spin.

Advance Booking and long term planning

To me, this one is key and something TNA clearly started to focus on running up to Bound For Glory last year.

Since the implementation of the Bound For Glory series last summer we have seen TNA announce or plan their World Title Challengers long in advance of the PPV itself. The best example this year is James Storm winning the right to face his former Beer Money cohort Robert Roode in the cage at Lockdown almost two months before the PPV itself. This is good, long term planning. I would also eat my hat if the inevitable Storm title win over Roode at Bound For Glory hasn’t been planned for the best part of the last 12 months. It enables TNA to focus on the goal and build their weekly programme accordingly which is always the way to go for any scripted entertainment show. The week to week booking philosophy that we see so often will eventually fail. Every time.

In the shorter term, we are now consistently seeing Impact matches announced and built the week before. And not just the main events either. This is key to sustaining any momentum on a weekly basis. Hell, the Bully Ray Vs. Joseph Park rematch was announced two weeks hence. When was the last time we saw that happen? It’s a simple idea but it’s a smart one and not done nearly enough nowadays.

Pushing The Right Guys

And by this, I don’t just mean the guys us Internet fans are clamouring to see. Let’s face it, if we were given carte blanche to book TV shows they would be fairly horrible in terms of sustaining audiences. Think your casual Impact viewer would want to see an hour long Davey Richards Vs Roderick Strong main event?

Even as recently as early this year TNA strapped the rocket to the back of the wrong guy time and time again. Gunner. Garrett Bischoff. Crimson. All pushed hard to some degree, all rejected by the TNA audiences for one reason or another and deservedly so. But in recent weeks we have seen a change. The previously mentioned former Beer Money duo are the most obvious examples this year of TNA giving strong pushes and main event slots to guys that are ready for the pressure and more importantly, ready to be embraced as main eventers by the fans. Austin Aries is another fine example. One only has to look at the treatment given to Aries in previous TNA runs to see that this push simply wouldn’t have happened in previous years. And what a push it is by the way. Breathtakingly simple yet effective.

Other names that spring to mind are Bully Ray who has been on fire ever since Team 3D came to an end and to a much lesser extent, guys like Magnus who finally seems to be on track to the sort of role his talent deserves.  Kazarian too is a fixture of one of the biggest stories in the company right now, if not the main focus. Hell, even Joey Ryan is being brought through in a meaningful, storyline driven way.

Keep this up please TNA. No more Baby Bischoff main events.

Structure and pacing

Again, this point encompasses both long term and short term improvements. In terms of the episodes of Impact themselves, TNA finally seem to be giving segments space to breath. Admittedly, it’s still not perfect but it’s a big improvement. Going all the way back to their early days on Spike, TNA has been consistently guilty of trying to do too much in each episode, rushing from one segment to the next and as a result, nothing felt important. This is changing now and you can see that most key items in the show are given the chance to feel special. OK, the matches are still too short for the most part but at least the narrative now has room to grow and that’s vital to ensure the viewer remembers what they have seen to ensure they watch again the following week.

In the longer term, the pace of storylines has slowed down for the better. I go back to the Roode/Storm saga. This has been a real slow burn and if they meet at Bound For Glory it will have a full year of build behind it. Similarly, the storyline involving Dixie Carter, AJ Styles, Kazarian and Chris Daniels has developed much more slowly than we are used to and it’s been far more effective for the most part. Sure, the last few weeks have made us scratch our heads but I really like how TNA have drip fed developments to us. In years gone by, this storyline would have been blown through between PPVs. The final example is what happened to Sting recently. At the end of an episode of Impact we see Sting attached by a masked gang. Wrestling logic dictates that the cliff hanger will be resolved the next week. Not this time. The protagonists in the feud were not even present and it’s only this week that we get a minor development to move the story forward. I like this a lot. Not everything has to be rushed.

Keeping things fresh with new talent

One thing TNA has never been shy about is bringing in new talent. Be that indie darlings like Samoa Joe and Nigel McGuiness or WWE veterans like Christian Cage and Kurt Angle. Obviously some of these additions over the years have had a better reception than others but in recent weeks TNA has given us a number of wrestlers that the mainstream hasn’t been exposed to before. Between the X-Division tournament and the Gut Check segments we have seen Jigsaw, Joey Ryan, Alex Silva and others given a spotlight on Impact. Not all will catch on of course but if even a couple do then that can be considered a win. And in any event, it’s just nice to see something different other than the usual suspects.

Making the title belts important. No, vital.

In WWE and TNA in recent years, the title belts have been nothing more than props or ways to engineer feuds. Not so in TNA over the last nine months. The titles have been rebuilt to be the focus of the whole company. Starting with the World Title, the combination of Bobby Roode’s long reign and desperate desire to keep the belt, matched with a strong revolving door of challenges has meant that when he loses that belt it’s going to be a huge deal and if they pick the right person to beat him (If you hadn’t guessed, I’m convinced it will be James Storm) then that guy is made also. This is how championships in wrestling should be used.

Not only that but the form of A-Double, The Greatest Man That Ever Lived, Austin Aries has brought the X-Division title back from the dead. His record breaking reign and credibility as a wrestler did a lot of good but for me, it is the way he was reluctant to give up the belt for a shot at Roode that made the strap seem even more important. If this was Raw and Aries had been offered that choice he wouldn’t have considered it for a second. It would have been discarded in one segment. Instead it took Aries a whole week to make a decision and even then he was torn. It just painted the belt in such a good light that it was important enough to think twice about.

Even the tag team titles have gained renewed focus in recent months through being used as an important part of a main event angle.

Using realism the right way

When Hogan and Dixie Carter started saying they were going to pull back the curtain and put the backstage shenanigans on air, I groaned. I thought it was a terrible, terrible idea. Who wants to see how a wrestling show is made, on a wrestling show? But to TNA’s credit, so far, the segments they have shown have been innovative and entertaining. For the most part they have moved the narrative forward in a strong and realistic way. The best example I can think of is 6 weeks or so ago with Hogan in his office, having a back and forth with various title contenders to see who should get the shot. It was staged reality, not a peek into booking meetings like I expected. As long as they keep this as staged reality and continue to allow us to suspend our disbelief then I’m all for it.

Variety is the spice of life

Impact recently has been a clear variety show. You have had segments and storylines clearly defined as being separate. The Ray/Park storyline has been self contained. As has Aries/Roode. As has the Fortune based soap opera. When you compartmentalize a show like that you aid the structure and give something for everyone to enjoy. If you don’t like Gut Check then fine, check out Jeff Hardy vs. James Storm in the Bound For Glory series. Want something a bit more hokey then we have Abyss’ return for you. It reminds me of the self contained stories we got in the Attitude area and it allows everyone up and down the card the chance to be in their own spotlight rather than be time filler in The John Cena Show. Doing it this way is the only way to make new stars organically.

Clean finishes

It wasn’t long ago at all that you could count the number of clean finishes in a months worth of Impact on one hand. It wasn’t good. Nobody got over because everything was tainted, everything was equal because everybody always had an out for a loss. It was a mess and viewers became attuned to this, knowing each match would end in a screwy way. Not so anymore. Clearly there has been a conscious effort to offer more clean finishes each week. It’s still tough to get into the matches as they are usually too short but at least it leaves us with a clear sense of who is going places in the company and who isn’t. That illusion of competition in what is a scripted show is key and with using more clean finishes, TNA has enhanced that significantly.

Using the legends correctly

In 2010/11, how many guys were getting the spotlight that were clearly past it? Sting, Hogan, Flair, Nash, Hall, The Nasty Boys, Val Venis, Orlando Jordan and others who have seen better days were either given spots on the roster they didn’t deserve or worse, in the case of the first three named, were given main event slots constantly at the expense of fresh, young talent when they had long ago lost the drawing power that a spot like that requires. It made for horrible, stale angles and a sense of frustration that talent was being wasted that could have freshened up the whole programme. I’m sure the talent in question felt this frustration even more acutely than us fans. Watching TNA now as compared to 2010 is night and day. The main event scene now is built around Bobby Roode, James Storm, Austin Aries, Bully Ray, Kurt Angle and AJ Styles. Heck, even names like Jeff Hardy, RVD and Mr. Anderson are taking a back seat to the new guys. Without a shadow of a doubt it’s a big improvement and it’s great to watch Impact knowing that you wont be zoning out after the first hour.

At the same time, guys like Sting and Hogan are still around and you know what? Their roles work. They are used sparingly and to enhance the programme. Hogan as GM is actually going really well. Sure his promos are often clichéd nonsense about raising the bar and such like but he brings gravitas to the role and on screen, he really gives the impression that the job matters to him while staying well out of any on screen storylines – for now. He is acting just like a good GM character should. And while it looks like Sting will be remaining in the ring, it looks like he will be feuding with some incoming invaders. I will reserve judgment on this until it plays out but at least he is leaving the world title picture clear for the younger guys. I am fairly certain he has won the belt for the last time and of course, that’s a good thing in 2012.

Wow, that’s a lot of positive in this column. And to be fair, TNA deserves it. I have no idea who is setting the tone for the new Impact. It could be Dave Lagana, it could be Bruce Pritchard, it could be Dixie Carter. It could be a combination of the three. But whoever it is, I just hope they stick to their course because they are making a better, more consistent programme than any time in the decade the company has been in business. In time I also hope this new direction is rewarded with improved TV ratings and PPV buys although nobody should panic that it hasn’t yet. Things like that don’t improve over night. If TNA can add maybe 0.3 to their weekly average a year from now then that would be a tremendous result.

Thanks for reading.

You can email Paul Erling at paulerling@hotmail.co.uk and follow him on Twitter @PaulErling.