May 12, 2019
- INTRODUCTION -
Pattern recognition goes hand-in-hand with being a WWE fan. After years of consistent viewing, it’s easy to spot the various formulas, cliches, tropes, and unwritten “rules” of any WWE broadcast.
One of the more obvious formulas plays out in "opening segments": a character enters, cuts a promo, and then another character interrupts to cut their own promo, and then another character interrupts to cut yet another promo, and on and on it goes until, finally, an authority figure books a match.
The dialogue and interuptions are often transparently manufactured, stilted, and unnatural, each performer attempting to hit their marks, convey their identities, connect with the crowd, and lay the path for the show’s main narratives.
The audience's pops during such segments have become increasingly muted in recent weeks.
The interruptions are meant to be a surprise, but they’re not because fans know the interruptions are inevitable.
Also, it’s not difficult to anticipate who may interrupt given there are a limited number of recurring fueds. The element of surprise, which is partially the intent, is entirely absent. If the interruptions were completely random (which they sometimes are) the surprise wouldn’t read as excitement. It would read as confusion (as it often does).
"Why would they come out now?" is not a good feeling. Neither is, “Ugh, c’mon, let’s get this fifteen minute promo over with”.
Yet these are the two most consistent emotional responses to such segments.
While this formula certainly isn’t the primary cause of RAW & SmackDown’s low ratings, it’s worth examining whether or not it’s an effective formula, and how it might negatively affect the entire broadcasts.
- WRESTLER INTERRUPTED -
First, let's consider the believability of an opening segment's structure.
The conceit of such scenes suggests RAW, a three-hour, choreographed, heavily edited television show on a major network goes to air at 8:00 pm without its card already booked (and I'm not talking about the real-life “last minute adjustments" McMahon is known for; I'm saying we're supposed to believe it's possible RAW doesn't have a first and last match booked…at all…that the show starts and Vince McMahon and the USA Network really don’t know what’s going to happen).
We're not supposed to think about this paradox.
And yes, many of us don't, either due to conditioning or indifference, but that doesn’t mean the illogic of these scenes doesn't affect our viewing experience.
A ridiculous fallacy sets the tone for the night.
How does that not have negative, often unforeseeable consequences on the quality of the overall show?
This structure leads to a sense of randomness that contributes to confusion, not the playful sense that "anything can happen".
The intent is to capitalize on the idea of "being live" and imbue the broadcast with intensity and intrigue. One of the many reasons such scenes fail to achieve that end is because so many other segments and matches are transparently "booked" (i.e. other portions of Vince McMahon's show have been meticulously planned out...so why wouldn't his first and last match?). The sense of liveliness is interrupted not only by the contradiction of scripted backstage segments that come later, it’s interrupted by the stiff delivery of superstars in the moment.
We watch wrestlers challenge and insult each other, and then Vince McMahon books the show "on the spot", but it's written and performed in such a predetermined fashion that it's impossible for it to feel spontaneous.
Such scenes serve as a roadblock between the audience and the ultimate purpose of the show. We know where it’s going (a match), and yet we’re forced to watch this obligatory promo-interruption loop, the wrestlers seemingly incapable of injecting any personality into the scene for fear of being reprimanded if they go off-script.
It’s like listening to a song that doesn’t have a melody - it’s just a series of notes in isolation.
Then, later in the night, other scenes, like Bray Wyatt’s Firefly Funhouse, operate according to an entirely different set of conceptual rules.
All of these competing ideas and forms manifest as a disjointed experience, with a wildly fluctuating level of taste, quality, and focus throughout.
There is no single, unifying understanding of what RAW or SmackDown actually...are.
Is it a sports broadcast?
A variety show?
A scripted drama?
An improvisational comedy?
I know the WWE's answer to that question is an enthusiastic, "All of the above!"
”All of the above”, in terms of an audience’s lived experience, equates to none of the above.
By being so many different things simultaneously, without any easily comprehended narrative foundation holding it all together, WWE often fails to execute even one of its genres effectively.
And why would it be otherwise?
A movie can't be a song, a song can't be a play, and a play can't be a video game. They’re just fundamentally different mediums. They interact with and inform each other. One can adapt the other, but that requires a radical reinterpretation of the source material, which is different than simply shoving two different mediums together. If film, music, theatre, and video games were Frankensteined into a single medium, it would be overwhelming and unintelligible.
And that’s exactly what the WWE often is today; overwhelming and unintelligible.
- WRESTLING, LIKE LIFE, FINDS A WAY -
The company's reach so far exceeds its grasp that it places undue burden on itself and its talent.
In attempting to consolidate disparate forms into this new medium dubbed "Sports Entertainment", not only does WWE struggle to define itself, it allows itself to reside in the limbo of mediocrity, incapable of doing a single thing well on a consistent basis. The company's creative equity is stretched thin, across contradictory concepts and misinterpretations of pro-wrestling's value, hence why the vast majority of its programming is unenjoyable for the majority of the year.
Yes, WWE makes gobs of money.
Yes, WWE produces great, memorable moments.
But those truths are not evidence to the contrary of this critique.
Those truths do not prove Vince McMahon is a genius.
Those truths are evidence of how good professional wrestling is as a medium.
Even when bad acting and bad writing and bad taste are tacked onto the pro-wrestling medium like rotting appendages, it still finds a way to succeed.
It’s a testament to the medium’s inherent goodness that it’s managed to succeed despite the low expectations that have historically informed its mass production.
The typical school of thought is that pro-wrestling isn't worthy of deep consideration, that it's okay for it to be scattershot, conceptually inconsistent, and kind of stupid. That thinking, which informs the way RAW & SDLive are booked, has its source in human insecurity, not within the soul of pro-wrestling as a form.
Pro-wrestling is good and worthy. It will find its way to success despite whoever disrespects it (even if the person disrespecting it runs the show). It can overcome the dullness of an opening segment, but it shouldn’t have to endure that hurdle in the first place.
Having identified some of the problems with opening segments, let's now think through a solution.
- THE McMAHON PROBLEM -
Let's start by asking, is there any value left in attempting to make RAW & SDLive appear as though they are booked on the spot?
Does that story still resonate with an audience in 2019?
An argument could be made that if WWE simply had a few genuinely popular superstars (as in superstars who are also significant outside the wrestling community bubble) this familiar format would succeed despite its logical inconsistencies. Also, familiarity tends to be a good thing on weekly television produced for a mass audience. And, keep in mind, the talent roster has been trained to think and perform in this way, and making an adjustment, at this point, might be a learning curve too steep and costly.
The most convincing argument in favor of the formula is the simplest: it's not like wrestlers are actually trying to defeat each other - it's all not real, so what's the big deal with Vince McMahon pretending he's booking the show as it's happening? Isn't he just participating in the same theatrics as everyone else?
These arguments ultimately amount to, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".
Whether or not it's broken is a matter of opinion, but all-time low ratings (especially on the verge of SDLive's transition to FOX), constant fan frustration, and muted audience responses do not lend themselves to positive interpretations.
Fans are too hip to the repetitive construct, and the dialogue is too bad and too difficult for wrestlers to remember for these opening segments to ever be effective.
Like so many aspects of WWE television, opening segments are a relic of a bygone era that thrived pre-social media, pre-internet, during a time when improvisation and experimentation were encouraged. It worked for a simpler audience in a simpler time, where the boundary between wrestling and reality was more convincingly upheld.
These scenes only serve to shine a massive spotlight on all of the company's creative weaknesses, and increase the boredom and cynicism of the community.
And that's why the best solution is to remove them altogether.
Much like backstage segments (which are also conceptual paradoxes) opening segments just don't help the WWE tell its stories.
They no longer inspire the excitement they're meant to, they no longer effectively lay an episode's narrative foundation (as evidenced most recently by Mr. McMahon’s confounding, quickly broken “Wild Card” rule), and they no longer spotlight the uniqueness of a superstar's personality (since everyone is saying and doing the same thing in the same way thanks to their script).
But the ineffectiveness of opening segments is a relatively small part of the problem.
The larger problem is the perspective that informs them.
That perspective maintains a distinction between a real-world WWE and a fictional WWE.
The real-world WWE is represented by the real-world McMahon Family (father Vince, son Shane, daughter Stephanie, son-in-law Triple H), and the fictional WWE is represented by exaggerated versions of that same family.
That basic concept, which has always been inherently odd, just doesn't work in today's world, especially when fans have so often seen these people as their real-world selves in kayfabe-breaking interviews. The distinction between the real people and their characters has become entirely arbitrary, an obligatory acknowledgment of "the way we've always done things".
Does it really makes sense, in 2019, for Vince McMahon to continue having fake, on-screen bookers (GMs, Commissioners, etc) who serve as his proxy? From a philanthropic perspective, why would any of these people ever want to play an evil version of themselves, even if it's transparent they're playing a character?
And before you remind me that Vince McMahon is doing his own on-screen booking these days, I’m including the Mr. McMahon character as one of Vince McMahon's needless proxies.
Fans don't need to see a fake version of the show getting made…on the show, as they're watching it.
It's literally a waste of time.
That process just delays any possible gratification.
Why isn’t the show just ready-made the moment we tune-in?
While RAW and SmackDown officially start at 8:00, they don’t actually start until around 8:30. That thirty minute prologue, a cartoonish simulation of match-booking, serves only to eat up time (and maybe that’s the only practical purpose such segments serve anymore).
- ANOTHER WAY a.k.a. THE NEW KAYFABE -
A show that gets to the goods right away doesn’t rely on wrestlers to do a job they're incapable of doing.
Commentary is WWE's pre-installed mechanism for conveying information about the evening's match card.
Kicking the show off like any other sports broadcast with a straightforward, "Here's what you can expect tonight, folks!", assisted by graphics, stats, and "Superstar Strengths & Weaknesses", would go a long way in making television viewers feel comfortable and intrigued.
Such an introduction also alleviates wrestlers of the burden of condensing their value into catchphrases and ill-fitting dialogue in overlong, bad theatre. The mythology of a wrestler would be built by what they did in the ring, what they occasionally said (naturally) on the mic, and what commentary told us about them.
Beginning a show with a match, a brawl, or a shocking revelation would go a long way in engaging the live crowd immediately. And engaging the live crowd is paramount in making the show appear exciting and important for television viewers. You cannot have one without the other.
To add variety, and avoid the broadcast becoming nothing but a series of matches, interviewers could track down superstars before and after their matches at various locations throughout the arena, including ring-side and the entrance ramp.
The questions asked could be simple and direct, and the answers could be simple and direct.
The dreaded third hour of RAW could be broken into a half-hour pre-show and a half-hour post-show.
This would drastically cut down on the need to script dialogue, thus saving time and resources. These pre and post shows could broadcast live, in-studio, out of Stamford, CT, (adding a sense of scope and greater variety to the experience) and feature beloved veteran wrestlers as pundits. These sports-like pre/post-shows could spotlight the most interesting match-ups and rivalries, and provide deeper context for stories without needing to rely on television writers who don’t have a background in sports or pro-wrestling.
Never, at any point, would McMahon even need to step out onstage in the world I've described. But, whenever he did, it would be special.
The world I’ve described is one that speaks for itself, and offers its own natural, reliable, familiar structure, promising never-ending stories. It’s straightforward, realistic, bealivable, PG without lacking depth, and relevant to a wider audience. What I’ve described represents the logical next step pro-wrestling wants to take; in fact, it wanted to take that step a decade ago.
Playing pretend just isn't working anymore.
What will work is the the removal of the last vestige of The Old Kayfabe in favor of creating The New Kayfabe, a form of fiction that’s convincing because it eliminates as many perceptible contrivances as possible (that includes the McMahon family as "bad guys on TV").
The world I’ve described isn’t devoid of fun or entertainment simply because it’s authentic and takes itself seriously; it’s a concrete sports-perspective built around the inherent craziness of wrestlers.
Pro-wrestling, done this way, is able to explore the kind of chaos and enthusiasm that’s frowned upon in legitimate sport. That’s how it sets itself apart. It can do what other sports can’t. Imagine watching a press conference or interview that is indistinguishable from anything you’ve seen on ESPN, but (because it’s wrestling) it explodes into an over-the-top brawl.
Rather than mine the pits of sitcom and sketch, WWE should examine the myriad ways legitimate sports create drama and engage modern audiences.
What is wrestling’s version of “bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth” or a “relief pitcher” or a “bench-clearing brawl” or a “bad call” that results in an argument between a manager and an umpire?
These scenarios are all incredibly dramatic, and they come from one sport (please do not read the above metaphor, take it literally, and turn it into a baseball gimmick). Consider all the other dramatic scenarios inherent in every other sport, informed by that sport’s unique conceit, rule-set, and athletic demands.
Pro-wrestling already captures some of the drama in amateur wrestling, boxing, and gymnastics. It does this rather easily because, like those sports, it’s a physical activity that operates under comperable conditions. This is why a good wrestling match is the best pro-wrestling can do; it's within reach by nature of what it is.
If the medium is interested in incorporating more genres into its DNA, it would have more success reinterpreting the drama of other sports than reimagining pro-wrestling as a variety show. Straining to be a scripted-drama-sketch-comedy-improvisation-athletic-movie-extravaganza has run its course, and it's time to get back to basics, back to what pro-wrestling really is.
The drama, structure, and seriousness of legitimate sport can serve as WWE's guide into the future.
Pro-wrestling is closer to Baseball, Football, Soccer et.al. than it is to Saturday Night Live.
Vince McMahon, it would seem, strongly disagrees with that notion.
He’s safe in disagreeing because there is abundant evidence that his perspective is successful.
Thing is...it’s easier to be successful when yours is the only perspective.
If anything needs to change, that's where pro-wrestling should start.