Editor's Note: I wrote about the glut of WWE programming nearly two years ago and there is even more wrestling content out there than before. Do my words still ring true or has the WWE improved on its presentation?
Originally presented at Canadian Bulldog's World.
Orlando: Then love me, Rosalind. Rosalind: Yes, faith, will I, Fridays and Saturdays and all. Orlando: And wilt thou have me? Rosalind: Ay, and twenty such. Orlando: What sayest thou? Rosalind: Are you not good? Orlando: I hope so. Rosalind: Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?
As You Like It Act 4, scene 1, 115–124
Right now the WWE is reeling from Monday Night RAW’s low ratings for its October 12, 2015 edition. Granted, the show had stiff competition between Monday Night Football and Major League Baseball playoffs but it was the lowest rating for 2015, and given RAW’s overall ratings decline, it’s cause for concern. As the WWE searches for an answer to its ratings problem, it needs to look to the past and see if there is a way to compare the successful strategies of the past and see if they are applicable today. Everyone has an opinion on why the product may be in a slump right now. There are arguments that titles don’t mean anything anymore, that there are way too many repeats of the same matches, and that stars aren’t used properly. There is validity to each of these statements and I think that a lot of it boils down to one thing- there is too much wrestling product. Unfortunately the WWE is in a Catch 22 situation (or Catch 23 if your name happens to be Ricky and you live in Sunnyvale Trailer Park) as their business model is built on producing weekly content not only for cable television but for its own streaming service, the WWE Network. As much as wrestling fans may be loath to admit it, the industry has changed a lot in the last thirty-five years. Fans have some common complaints and while are some are valid, I think they’re based on ignorance of how much the WWE has changed. To understand the WWE’s current situation, we need to look at the evolution of wrestling TV programming.
Many moons ago, wrestling consisted of weekly one hour shows that aired on small local affiliates (often UHF stations). Promoters paid the local stations to air their programs with the idea that the TV exposure would lead to people buying tickets to house shows (which was how wrestling promoters made their money). TV programs consisted of squash matches with occasional matches pitting “name” (i.e. non-jobbers) wrestlers against each other. These matches almost always ended up in non-finishes or controversy, in order to advance an angle and get the fans to pay to see the wrestlers at their local arena. Most of the time, there was one show or a flagship show with a sister show. These syndicated shows aired new content and usually featured promos for upcoming house shows. Sometimes a promotion had additional shows but they often were nothing but repeats of the matches from the flagship or sister show. The result was that wrestling fans saw one or two hours of new wrestling a week.
This changed during the 1980’s as TV became more important and pay-per-view (PPV) became an important source of revenue. When NBC gave the WWF its own Saturday night show (Saturday Night’s Main Event), both NBC and the WWF knew that people weren’t going to tune in to watch squash matches. The WWF began airing top matches. Eventually Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) got in on the act and Clash of Champions was born, airing on Superstation TBS.
Before PPV’s, house shows were where fans went to see feuds play out in the ring and wrestlers vie for championships. As PPV became more important, the WWF and JCP used PPV as a place for fans to see feuds and championships play out. House shows were still important and titles still changed hands at them, but slowly, house shows became less important when it came to resolving storylines.
Arguably one of the biggest changes to TV and wrestling occurred during the Monday Night War when wrestling became so hot that TV stations offered incentives to promotions to air their shows. As mentioned earlier, before this, promoters usually paid a local TV station to air their show, hoping the exposure would translate to increased ticket sales at house shows. Now, promoters were being paid for their shows and at one point, even receiving ad revenue for their wrestling shows.
As history has shown, businesses will squeeze the last drop out of a successful product. Both RAW and Nitro were expanded from one hour shows to two (and at one point, Nitro was expanded to three hours). When Monday Night RAW and Monday Night Nitro were both going strong, TV stations lined up to feature more wrestling programs (at one point there was even legitimate talk of one of the major networks picking up a weekly wrestling show). This led to SmackDown! and WCW Thunder, two new wrestling programs that featured two hours of additional wrestling programming. Following WCW’s demise, the WWF split its roster into RAW and SmackDown! “brands” hoping to create two promotions that fans would follow with equal enthusiasm.
At one point, the WWE planned on running a RAW and SmackDown! PPV every month which meant that fans would be ordering two shows a month if they wanted to keep up with all of the storylines. However sticker shock, the WWF’s failure to build up existing stars, and poor booking led to fans losing interest in both brands. Showing a remarkable ability to ignore the mistakes of the past, the WWE continues to expand its programming, seemingly focusing on a quantity over quality approach to promoting. Monday Night RAW runs three hours and SmackDown! runs two hours. Despite its ratings problems, the WWE has helped the USA Network in boosting its ratings (which is why SmackDown! is slated to move to the USA Network, a definite step up from its old home at the Syfy Channel).
One can’t fault the WWE for providing the USA Network with more programming (It’s not as if they’re doing it for free). One cannot discount the WWE’s need for original programming for its WWE Network too. The WWE has put itself in a position where they need to produce a lot of programming. Unfortunately it’s debatable whether there’s a market for it.
This is evident by the evidence that less people are watching the product. One could argue that even during the heyday of the Attitude Era, it would be difficult to fill five hours of TV every week. I don’t agree with that. The difference between the Attitude Era and now is that 1) The Attitude Era had several megastars such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the Rock, the Undertaker, and Mick Foley (arguably Triple H) and 2) they had an amazing undercard that they promoted well.
While the WWE has some excellent stars now, it’s difficult to say that they have anyone who is the caliber of Austin, the Rock, the Undertaker, or Mick Foley. While the WWE has tried hard to build up megastars, they just haven’t succeeded. Those stars that came close to being megastars (CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Jeff Hardy) have either left the company or been sidelined with long-term injuries. As for the undercard, I think the WWE has one of the strongest undercards they’ve ever had but it’s just not promoted well. During the Attitude Era, just about everyone had something going on from guys like Spike Dudley all the way up to the main eventers. Now, an undercard guy gets a push for three weeks then jobs inexplicably, losing his momentum.
The WWE is also fixated on running the same matches over and over. This isn’t new. For years, they have run matches on PPV only to repeat them the next night on RAW (leading to the question why you should order PPV’s or get a WWE Network subscription). Unfortunately they’re doing this more than ever, proving the law of diminishing returns.
What’s the solution? Unfortunately, the WWE isn’t going to scale back programming unless the USA Network tells the WWE that they want less. If the WWE is committed to five hours of wrestling, they need to figure out how to promote better (I know, thank you Captain Obvious). Whether this means reducing the number of times they run the same matches, promoting the undercard better (which should be a no-brainer as a good undercard often leads to tomorrow’s main event stars), or adding NXT to RAW (which has been discussed but was shot down), they really need to make some changes.